Tomato Talk: When and How to Enjoy This Fruit (Veggie?)

Celebrate the tomato harvest with a fresh, delicious sauce recipe from Twin Cities chef Jason Ross, plus tips and more recipes

Photography Terry Brennan, Food Styling Lara Miklasevics

Every year I have watched a sad tomato plant produce a few fruits in its pot on the deck and hoped they would ripen before the cold weather hit or the squirrels got to them. But this year, my green-thumbed sister gave me a couple tomato plants and I put them in the actual ground and erected a little fence around them. I have excitedly watched numerous tomatoes grow and enjoyed my first BLT of the season made with a juicy, vine-ripened “T” last week—yum. In addition to the new fence situation, it has also been a good growing season weather-wise. So far, I have had just a few almost-ripe tomatoes I rescued from the vine before any curious squirrels could hop in from the top and take a bite, leaving them for dead on the ground, but I see more than a dozen green tomatoes waiting to ripen.

This year, as more people have tried their hand at growing food in their own gardens, a welcome “problem” may have arisen: What do you do with it all? If you grew tomatoes—or have seen some delicious-looking options at the store or farmers’ markets—here are some fun facts about the different varieties, tips for ripening and storage, and recipes to make the most of the harvest.

Fruit or Veggie?

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are a fruit, which is the edible part of a plant that contains the seeds. But it was classified—after some debate—as a vegetable by the U.S. government in 1893. Whether you want to call it a fruit or veggie, there’s no doubt it’s packed full of nutrients. Tomatoes are a good source of fiber, are rich in vitamin C, and contain vitamins A and B, and potassium. They are also a very good source of lycopene, an antioxidant that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer.

Tomato Categories

There are numerous tomato varieties, but they fall into these general categories:

  1. Beefsteak is the largest tomato and can easily weigh 2 pounds or more. Round and slightly pumpkin-shaped, its flavor balances sweetness and acidity. Beefsteaks can be eaten raw or cooked.
  2. Globe tomatoes are medium-sized, firm, and juicy. Many of the large-scale commercial tomatoes are in this category. They’re good both raw and cooked.
  3. Plum tomatoes, also called Roma or Italian plum, are egg shaped and either yellow or red. They’re not as sweet and acidic as beefsteak or globe. With lower water content and fewer seeds plum tomatoes are a good choice for cooking and canning. The tiny grape tomato is a hybrid Roma tomato.
  4. Cherry tomatoes, which are about an inch in diameter, may be red, orange, green, or yellow, and are generally a bit sweeter than beefsteak or globe tomatoes. They are good fresh out of hand, in salads, or quickly sautéed. The yellow pear tomatoes are slightly smaller than cherry and shaped similar to a pear or teardrop. They are best eaten raw but can be cooked briefly.

Living Legacies

In recent years, tomato varieties from perhaps as far back as that debated veggie versus fruit classification have been creating a buzz. Known as heirloom, the seeds for these plants have been handed down for generations or were grown commercially before modern hybrids. Some schools of thought say seeds for these plants must be more than 100 years old, others say 50 years, and yet others say they must be from before 1945, which is around the time widespread hybrid use by growers and seed companies began. But whatever the timeframe, it is generally agreed that heirloom plants must be open pollinated, meaning they can reproduce themselves from seeds.

With names like Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine, and Cherokee Purple, heirloom tomato varieties vary widely in color, shape, and size. They sport a colorful rainbow of skins—from bright yellow, dusky pink, or striped orange and green to a deep, almost bruised color—over equally colorful flesh that ranges from light red to deep red or brownish purple.

Many heirlooms also come complete with their own backstory. The legendary Mortgage Lifter was developed in the 1930s and reportedly credited to M.C. “Radiator Charlie” Byles, a radiator repairman from West Virginia, who crossed six generations of tomatoes to create these large fruits that can weigh up to four pounds. He began selling his plants for one dollar each in the 1940s, and they were so popular it is said he earned enough money over the next six years to pay off the mortgage on his farm.

Brandywine, a popular purple variety often said to have the perfect balance between acidity and sweetness, most likely gets its name from Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania, and was first documented in a seed catalog as early as 1889. And Cherokee Purple, a beefsteak variety that has shiny dark purple/brownish skin with green overtones, is said to have originated with the Cherokee Indians.

Tomato Tips

Don’t refrigerate tomatoes (unless they’ve been cut open). Store them at room temperature away from sunlight and use within a few days. Cold temperatures stop the ripening process, dull the flavor, and can make the flesh pulpy. Once fully ripe, tomatoes can be refrigerated for a few days, but any longer will cause their flavor to deteriorate.

Want to speed up ripening? Place tomatoes in a paper bag, fold over the top and keep at room temperature or in a warmish spot. For added “ripening power” place a ripening banana or apple in the bag with the green tomatoes can help them ripen since the fruits release ethylene, which is a gas produced by plants known as the “fruit-ripening hormone.” Then don’t forget to peek in the bag periodically to check ripening progress!

Swap fresh for canned: If you want to use fresh tomatoes in a recipe that calls for canned, the ratio is:
• One 28-ounce can of tomatoes equals about 10 to 12 whole tomatoes, peeled (or about 2 pounds).
• One 14½-ounce can of tomatoes equals 5 to 6 whole tomatoes, peeled (or about 1 pound).

Enjoying the Harvest

Tomatoes are delicious on their own, of course, sliced and sprinkled with a little salt and pepper, or in salads and sandwiches. Cooked, they make great pasta sauce or salsas. Stuff and bake them, or grill them on skewers with other vegetables. If you don’t have tomatoes in your garden, the peak season for domestic fresh tomatoes runs through September so it’s the perfect time to get your hands on some of these delicious fruits/veggies—and it may take two hands to hold some of the beefy tomatoes that can easily weigh up to 2 pounds or more.

For a delicious taste of the season, make some seriously fresh tomato sauce. In the following recipe by Twin Cities chef and Saint Paul College Culinary Arts instructor Jason Ross, which appeared in Real Food, taste the difference between fresh tomato sauce and canned. Both are good and both have their place, but now is the time to take advantage of the best tomatoes of the year.

Fresh Tomato Sauce served with pasta

Photography Terry Brennan, Food Styling Lara Miklasevics

Fresh Tomato Sauce

Makes 1 quart, 6 to 8 servings

This recipe uses a simple method for making fresh tomato sauce, and then includes two options to either add deep grilled charred flavor or some zest and spice. Which tomatoes make the best fresh tomato sauce? Roma tomatoes or San Marzano (if you can get them) are most commonly used for sauce since they have a low moisture content and make rich flavors. However, feel free to use whatever tomato variety is best at the time. A flavorful tomato will make a flavorful sauce. Also, do not be afraid to mix varieties for your sauce. Try using Roma, beefsteak, and even some heirloom varieties. Cherry and pear tomatoes work particularly well in the charred sauce. This sauce goes great with simple thin noodles such as angel hair, spaghetti, or bucatini.

¼ cup olive oil
½ onion, diced
1 rib celery, diced
½ tablespoon salt
1 clove garlic, sliced thinly
1 anchovy, finely minced (optional, See Cook’s Note)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2½ pounds tomatoes, cores removed and roughly chopped
½ teaspoon dry thyme
½ teaspoon dry oregano
1 bay leaf

  1. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Add onion, celery and salt. Sweat for about 10 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon until soft, but not brown.
  2. Add garlic and optional anchovy, stirring for about 2 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant and the anchovy melts into the fat.
  3. Turn the heat up to medium high and add tomato paste. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring, until the paste has changed from a bright red color to more of a clay brick red.
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes with their juices, plus the thyme, oregano and bay leaf. Cook, stirring, until tomatoes start to break down and give up more liquid. Bring liquid up to a boil and reduce heat to low, holding a gentle simmer with no lid. The sauce, at this point, will be watery and thin.
  5. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes on a gentle simmer, stirring a few times to prevent scorching, until the sauce is thickened and all tomatoes fully softened. To check the consistency, ladle a little sauce on a clean plate and observe how it looks. Is it watery? Does it run on the plate? If so, cook the sauce a little longer.
  6. Turn off the stove and allow sauce to cool for 5 to 10 minutes, until cool enough to safely puree. Run sauce through a food mill or process in food processor.
  7. Transfer sauce to containers and store in the refrigerator for up to 7 days, or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Cook’s Note: Anchovies might seem like an odd addition to tomato sauce, and you could skip them, but you might be surprised at what they do for your sauce. One anchovy in a quart of tomato sauce will not turn it into anchovy-flavored sauce, but will instead add subtle flavor to the background. Think of an anchovy as a supplement to salt rather than a central ingredient.

Variation: To make a Charred Chunky Tomato Sauce, prepare a hot grill. Put the tomatoes directly on the grill and cook at high heat until the skins are blackened and blistered on all sides, about 10 minutes. Place charred tomatoes on a tray or in a bowl and wait until they are cool enough to handle. Remove the cores and roughly chop. Make sure to save all the juices. Add the tomatoes to the pot of sweated onion, celery, tomato paste and optional anchovies, as in step 4 listed above. Add tomato paste and finish cooking the sauce with the herbs. When the sauce is done, skip the food mill or processor, and serve the sauce chunky with all the char on the blackened skins. If you like a little spice, add some chili flakes or minced Fresno chilis to the spices. This sauce does well with penne or orecchiette, or other shapes that hold stew-like sauces.

Nutrition Info Fresh Tomato Sauce (Per Serving): Calories 105 (71 From Fat); Fat 8g (Sat. 1g); Chol 0mg; Sodium 519mg; Carb 8g; Fiber 2g; Protein 2g

Hungry for More Tomato Recipes?

Make the most of the harvest with these ideas I have highlighted here over the years (you may notice an ongoing struggle with backyard critters vs. veg):

Slow-Roasted Summer Tomatoes: Enjoy the flavor of summer all year long with your own slow-roasted tomatoes you can grab from the freezer.

Stuffed Tomatoes with Brown Rice, Oregano, and Pine Nuts: This useful recipe celebrating tomato season is good for vegetarians or for serving with fish, meat, or chicken.

Rosemary Chicken Salad Stuffed Tomatoes: A fresh take on chicken salad packs easily for a picnic or potluck and offers a lighter option at backyard barbecues.

Tomato Tartlets with Mozzarella and Basil: Quick and easy bites mingle popular Caprese salad flavors in crispy little tartlets.

Watermelon Salad with Mint: Watermelon, cucumber, tomatoes and mint make a refreshingly juicy and zingy salad.

Pasta with Sautéed Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, and Fresh Mozzarella: This zesty and cheerful dish comes together in about the time it takes to boil water for the pasta.

Spaghetti Pomodoro with Italian Sausages: Master this easy Spaghetti Pomodoro with Italian Sausages recipe and have a great go-to dinner option in your back pocket.

Kimchi and Gruyère Pizza: Step up your pizza game with outside-the-box homemade pie.

Summer Penne Primavera with Grilled Vegetables: Grilling adds depth and texture to fresh veggies in this quick-and-easy pasta that can be served warm or cold.

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Mary Subialka
Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her school-age son, who used to eat beets and Indian food, will one day again think of real food as more than a means to a treat—and later share this with his younger brother.