But the tomato has also been a victim of its own success, as commercialization has hybridized it for durability and disease resistance, ultimately straining the flavor right out of it.
Consumers have noticed the tough and tasteless results. Hence the growing popularity of heirloom varieties, those beauties that may come in odd shapes and sizes and bruise easily, but that taste like real tomatoes. Unlike standard tomatoes picked green and "gased" in warehouses until they turn red, heirloom tomatoes are ripened on the vine.
"Customers know the difference. Heirloom tomatoes are all about flavor and they look great on the plate," said Jordan Shapiro, chef/partner at Jack's Firehouse and Down Home Diner.
"Even fresh New Jersey [standard] tomatoes don't have as much flavor as heirloom varieties," said Shapiro, who teamed up with owner Jack McDavid in 2003. Their shopping list currently includes Green Zebra, Brandywine, Purple Price, Orange Canyon and Striped Green varieties.
Heirlooms are nurtured from "pedigreed" seeds often culled and passed on over generations. Many set that mark at 100 years, some settle for 50 or simply pre-1950 (seeds bred prior to the onset of industrialized farming). Tomatoes grown from these "true to type" seeds sell at premium prices (currently around $3.50 a pound locally).
Yet loyal fans willingly pay to savor the fruit in its purest form.
There are heirloom varieties of the tomato in all of its sizes, shapes and colors, from the sugary sweet "grape" berries to super-size monsters weighing up to four pounds.
Mr. Stripey, a gnarly yellow tomato, is among four heirloom varieties grown at the Rineer Family Farm in Marticville, Lancaster County. It offers a striking surprise when sliced - little pockets of green seeds and streaks of red run through the predominantly yellow flesh, giving the sections a color effect reminiscent of millefiori glass.
Don't pass up such oddly shaped, "cat-faced" or "ugly" tomatoes. When sliced, those lumps and bumps form flower-like petals, making each glistening slice a blossom in a potential bouquet for the plate.
"The old-fashioned, ugly tomatoes may have cracked and split shapes, but they have the best flavor," said grower Daryl Rineer, who shares his harvests at three farm markets in Philadelphia - Rittenhouse Square and Chestnut Hill on Saturdays, and South Street & Passyunk on Tuesdays.
Farm markets are the logical outlet for fragile, field-ripened and hand-picked heirloom tomatoes. There they are sold directly to consumers within hours of leaving the field.
Spiral Path Farm in Loysville, Perry County, Pa., increased direct marketing of its heirloom offerings - Brandywine, Aunt Ruby's Green, and Striped German - and other produce this year to five sites, including Rittenhouse Square, Clark Park, Swarthmore and Silver Spring, Md., on Saturdays, and Mount Airy on Thursdays.
Small family farms such as Rineer's and Spiral Path are helping ensure the survival of heirloom produce.
"For us, it's a shift in how we market everything at the farm," said Rob Amsterdam, sales manager at Spiral Path, which sold almost all its harvest through middlemen at wholesale prices three years ago. Now Spiral Path not only supplies directly to five farm markets, but also offers CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) crop shares to consumers and provides seasonal produce directly to area Wegmans stores and Swarthmore Coop.
Brandywine, a large, flavorful fruit developed by Amish farmers near Brandywine Creek in Chester County in the 1800s, is the most popular and readily available heirloom variety grown locally, likely because of its familiar (smooth, round and red) appearance that comes with a bonus of true tomato flavor.
Cherokee Purple, a sweet strain credited to American Indians, is red-purple in color, inside and out, while Aunt Ruby's German Green is a large, sweet, beefsteak-style tomato that ripens to pale green with a hint of yellow. Old German has Mennonite roots and a rich yellow color with marbled flesh. Striped German is yellow with red streaks. All are heirlooms you are apt to find at area markets.
And home gardeners have hundreds of other heirloom options, from sweet white Shahs to exotic Brown Berry "grapes."
Among local rarities are the Old Moyamensing (or Fairmount Gaol), a product of prison labor here in the 1830s, and the Hopkins, bred at Edgar Allan Poe's Pennsylvania estate.
Heirloom plum or paste tomatoes (with less juice and fewer seeds) are also available, along with their supermarket counterparts (Roma and San Marzano) which are favored for making cooked sauces.
If you can't find heirlooms at your local market (or don't want to pay the price), the most popular hybrids - which are best when homegrown - are the beefsteak varieties, including Big Boy, Better Boy and Beefmaster. Early Girl is also popular.
But now that heirloom tomatoes are becoming available year round - both locally and from California fields "off season" - we can expect to see them on more menus.
"Even if someone has never had an heirloom tomato before, they can tell the difference. It's like a totally different taste," said chef Terry Owens at Sam's Grill in Wynnewood, who uses heirloom tomatoes whenever he can.
"For flavor, you can't beat the local Brandywines. But for presentation, I like the Green Zebra, that's the coolest looking tomato."
Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ode to Tomatoes
As we near the tomato's peak season, we can savor its lush flavors.
The fruit is immortalized in an ode penned by renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, shared in this translated excerpt by Margaret Sayers Peden:
... at the midpoint of summer,
star of earth,
recurrent and fertile star,
displays its convolutions,
its remarkable amplitude and abundance,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers its gift of fiery color and cool completeness.
Tomatoes Stacked With Mozzarella and Romesco Sauce
Makes 4 servings
For the Romesco Sauce:
1 piece (1-inch thick) hearty country baguette, brushed with olive oil and toasted
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 to 2 ancho chilies, to taste, soaked 1/2 hour in hot water, drained and seeded
1/2 serrano chili, stemmed, seeded and minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup toasted almonds
1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts
1 large firm ripe tomato, cored and grated
1 tablespoon minced fresh Italian parsley
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Sea salt, to taste
For the Tomato Stacks:
4 medium-size ripe yellow or orange tomatoes, with stems, sliced widthwise into four pieces
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 4 slices
2 tablespoons basil-flavored olive oil, store-bought
1. For the sauce: Saute the bread in 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium-hot skillet until golden. Remove and drain on paper towels. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in the pan. Saute the ancho and serrano chilies for 3 minutes. Let cool slightly.
2. In a food processor, puree the chilies with the garlic until smooth. Add the almonds, hazelnuts, tomato, parsley, vinegar and bread, and process just to mix. Season with salt to taste.
3. For the stacks: Reassemble each tomato on a separate serving plate. Start by spreading 1 tablespoon Romesco Sauce over each bottom slice of tomato. Cover that with the second tomato slice and top each stack with a slice of the mozzarella.
4. Add the third tomato slices and spread another tablespoon of Romesco Sauce over each. Top each stack with its final slice of tomato and drizzle 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over each stack.
5. Sprinkle more sea salt on each stack. Serve at once.
- Recipe from Tomatoes & Mozzarella by Hallie Harron and Shelley Sikora (Harvard Common Press, 2006, $19.95)
Per serving: 179 calories, 4 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, no cholesterol, 81 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Caramelized Onion Pizza With Ciliegine Mozzarella and Sweet 100s
Makes 2 (12-inch) pizzas, 2 to 4 servings
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons semolina flour
Dough for 2 (12-inch) pizzas, prepared or homemade
6 ounces Sweet 100s or grape tomatoes
12 ounces ciliegine mozzarella balls (about 36), halved
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat the butter and oil in a large saucepan medium-hot. Add the onions; stir to cook. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover the skillet, and cook until onions soften, about 10 minutes.
2. Remove the cover, add the sugar, and season lightly with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until onions are a rich golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the vinegar and let the mixture cool. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
3. Oil two parchment-lined baking sheets or pizza pans. Dust 1 tablespoon semolina flour in each pan. Divide the dough in half. Roll each piece into a 12-inch circle, place on the baking sheets, and spread the onion mixture over the dough. Arrange the tomatoes and mozzarella in an alternating pattern over the onions.
4. Bake the pizza golden brown and bubbly, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove and sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese over each pizza. Cut and serve at once.
Per serving (based on 4): 589 calories, 22 grams protein, 69 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams sugar, 27 grams fat, 58 milligrams cholesterol, 832 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.
Tomatoes a la Provencal (France)
Makes 6 servings
6 firm, ripe tomatoes (about 2 pounds)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
1 clove garlic, mashed
3 tablespoons minced shallots
Pinch of thyme
1/4 cup olive oil
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the stems from the tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes in half. Squeeze out the seeds and juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
2. In a bowl, combine the crumbs, basil, parsley, garlic, shallots and thyme. Divide the mixture evenly into the tops of the tomatoes, about 1 tablespoon on each. Drizzle the olive oil evenly over top, about 1 teaspoon on each tomato half.
3. Arrange the tomatoes, not too closely, in a baking or gratin dish. Bake at 400 degrees until the topping is browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve as a starter or side dish.
Per serving: 147 calories, 3 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, no cholesterol, 75 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.