Ode to tomatoes

A plate with a variety of red tomatoes

Tomatoes have had a long and poignant history. They began life as small, tart, wild green balls in the New World between Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia in the Andes Mountains. Eventually, cultivated tomatoes traveled down the Andean slopes north into Central America and Mexico. In the 15th century, Christopher Columbus carried tomatoes off to Spain and they slowly traveled throughout the Old World and finally returned to the Colonial New World.

At first American colonists shunned tomatoes and grew them only for decoration. Some believed them poisonous (they are in the deadly nightshade family) and that a tomato’s poison could turn blood into acid; others believed them an aphrodisiac and termed them love apples. As late as 1845 the editor of the Boston Courier compared tomatoes to rotten potato balls!

It took lots of tinkering by European gardeners and American botanists before tomatoes achieved what we know and love today: the wildly diverse, rich-flavored, juicy red/orange, fruits…or are they vegetables? Since the tomato first came to America arguments ensued about its classification, and whether it was even edible. Botanists, and importers hoping to avoid vegetable taxation, called the tomato a fruit. The tax collectors argued that they are vegetable and the Supreme Cook agreed. Government tax collectors won.

Tomatoes have changed their look, size and shape many times. You can scarcely find a soul on the planet that doesn’t know and love them. Heirloom tomatoes come in dizzying names with colors that defy tomato logic: white, yellow, green, purple/black and orange with speckles, stripes and shades of color. They can be grape or cherry sized, globe or deep globe-shaped, ruffled, oblate (flatter) or deep oblate-shaped. Tomatoes can range from juicy to downright meaty. Some of their names can make your heart flutter: Brandywine (considered the best in flavor), Green Zebra (green when ripe), Pink Zebra, Lemon Boy, Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Kentucky Beefsteak, San Marzano, Yellow Pear, Tumblin’ Tom, Costoluto Genovese and Roma.

Top view of a plate of tomatoes with different shapes and sizesAuthor Raymond Sokolov calls tomatoes culinary catalysts. Tomatoes have the ability to enhance other foods in a dish without stealing the stage. Perhaps that’s why they are so universally beloved. Cookbook author Lynne Rosseto Kasper divides tomatoes into three categories according to taste: The mellow tomato, rich, balanced and big-flavored like the ubiquitous Beefsteak. The brash tomato with lots of sugar and an acid kick that gives contrast and complexity to varieties like Red Currant and Early Cascade. The sweet tomato, like the white, orange, and yellow varieties, has the same level of acidity as other tomatoes, but harbors more sweetness to balance.

Tomatoes are clearly a New World food, but it was the Old World Italian cooks who recognized their versatility. Italians were growing tomatoes around 1550, and likely were the first Europeans to eat them. Italian cooks cultivated and elevated tomatoes to their current culinary status as a flavor enhancer and versatile mainstay.

Although it may be argued that the best way to eat a tomato is directly off the vine with great bread, salt and a little extra virgin olive oil, some cooks might disagree. During this season of abundant tomatoes, tomato sauce always comes to mind. Who does tomato sauce better than Italians?

Italy offers a huge variety of tomato sauces. From the simplest sugo pomodoro with olive oil, a little onion and garlic and glorious fresh tomatoes through marinara to Tuscan pommarola and Neapolitan pummarola, Italians know exactly how to bring out the best in a tomato. In northern Puglia cooks infuse tomato sauce with olive oil and garlic, but in southern Puglia cooks prefer onion. Sardinians add mint or saffron. Go north to rich Emilia-Romagna, and cooks there use butter and wine (red or white). Calabrians add spicy red chilies. Sicilian cooks with their Arab heritage are the only Italians to add sugar.

To make a great tomato sauce, you need great tomatoes. Mt. Vesuvius, with its southern climate and volcanic ash, is said to grow the world’s best sauce tomato, the San Marzano. Rich soil, heat, little rain and a long growing season produce a tomato with big flavor and a balance of deep sweetness and attractive acidity.

Taste and experiment with American grown heirloom tomatoes. You might find that they can hold their own next to an Italian tomato.


For photos and more varieties and descriptions go to rareseeds.com


Keys to Great Tomato Sauce

  1. Start with fresh ingredients that are in season.

Good sauce tomatoes are plum shaped, ripe, thick-walled with scant gel around the seeds. They are meaty, contain little liquid and few seeds. Seeding tomatoes is not strictly necessary; sauces cooked with the seeds may be sweeter because of the gel around the seed. If you do seed, strain the seeds and add the liquid back to the tomatoes. Many Italian cooks simply chop tomatoes, cook them and pass them through a food mill to remove seed and skin. That way all the flavor elements of the tomato can cook into the sauce.

  1. Make it a habit to taste your tomatoes, and all of your ingredients.

Co-ops, farmers markets, specialty stores, roadside stands and backyards are the best place to find flavorful and heirloom varieties. Don’t store them in the refrigerator. Cold kills flavor. A small addition of tomato paste adds body, and can help to control consistency as well as round out flavor. Flavorful extra virgin olive oil is a tomato’s best ally. Finish your simple sauces with a drizzle of oil at the end as the Italians do for a rich top flavor.

  1. Start by cooking a soffritto.

An Italian soffritto is a combination of aromatic seasonings cooked in fat at the beginning of a sauce (or dish). It’s a flavor builder. How you cut the soffritto vegetables matters. The larger cuts take longer cooking to break down their flavor so their sauce flavors stay more individual. Small cuts give off flavor quickly and integrate their flavors into a full, flavor-married sauce.

  1. Don’t add sugar or oregano to your sauce. If most Italians don’t add them to fresh tomato sauces why should we?
  1. Cook sauce gently and in an appropriate sized pan. Don’t overcook fresh tomatoes.

Slow, moderate heat cooking softens and marries flavors. It takes anywhere from five to 55 minutes, depending on the recipe (for a 3-cup yield). Wider pans cook tomatoes down in less time, resulting in brighter flavor; narrower pots lose less moisture (less surface area).

  1. What you do afterwards counts too. Keep them right.

Use raw sauces within two days. Keep cooked sauces 5 days. Freeze sauces no more than 6 months. After that they lose flavor. Thaw in the refrigerator and heat gently.


Neapolitan Pummarola

Naples is a sensational tomato-growing region with its volcanic soil. It’s said that the Spanish first brought tomatoes to Italy via Naples and that Neapolitan cooks bequeathed tomato sauce to Italy. The mother of all Neapolitan tomato sauces is pummarola (literally, “tomato”). Some versions begin simply with a sauté of olive oil, garlic, fresh tomatoes, and basil. The most aromatic sauce begins with a soffritto of onion, celery, carrot and parsley with fresh tomatoes (or good quality peeled plum tomatoes in juice). Use it straight as sauce for pasta or add other ingredients like seafood, or purée it and use as a foundation for soup, stew or other sauces. Pummarola may be used on many types of dried pasta, but spaghetti and linguine are especially well-matched with it.

Yields approximately 2 cups, enough for 1 pound of pasta


2 pounds ripe fresh plum tomatoes (28-ounce can)

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided, more as necessary

2 large cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 to 3/4 cup finely diced red or yellow onion

1/4 cup finely diced celery

1/4 cup finely diced carrot

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/4 cup torn fresh basil


  1. Bring a small pot of water to boil. Core tomatoes and drop into water for 30 seconds. Remove from water with slotted spoon and cool tomatoes. Peel. (If not using plum tomatoes, slice regular tomatoes in half and seed. Place seeds in strainer set over a bowl. Scrape seed liquid into bowl and reserve. Discard seeds.) Dice tomatoes; you should have at least 2-1/2 cups.
  2. In saucepan over medium-low heat, add 3 tablespoons oil. Stir in garlic, onion, celery, carrot and parsley, and sweat until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste and stir until changes color, about 3 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and their juice, cover partially, and simmer, stirring occasionally, gently until thickened, about 45 minutes.
  3. Stir in basil, and season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in remaining olive oil. For a smooth sauce, cool sauce before adding the last tablespoon olive oil. Use an immersion blender to purée sauce or pass sauce through food mill.


Pureed tomatoes in a measuring cup a bottle of olive oil and a square bowlNew Wave Mother Sauce: Tomato Emulsion

This full-flavored, smooth sauce can act as an addition to other sauces, as a base for other additions like herbs, meats (prosciutto!) or seafood, or to add sparkle to soups and stews.

Yields about 2-3/4 to 3 cups


3 pounds ripe, red tomatoes, preferably all or some plum tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil


  1. Rinse tomatoes, drain, core and cut them in half through their equators. Set up a fine strainer over a bowl. Squeeze seeds into strainer. Dice tomatoes roughly 1-inch square. You will have between 6 to 7 cups diced tomatoes. Press and scrape seeds through strainer. Pour juice (about 3/4 to 1 cup) into a deep, heavy 11- to 12-inch wide pot.
  2. Pour tomatoes into pot with juice. Add salt. Turn heat to high; when tomatoes start to bubble, lower heat to medium. Cook uncovered,stirring occasionally, until reduced by half, or by more than half if the tomatoes are juicy, about 30 minutes. You should have between 2 and 2-1/2 cups cooked tomatoes.
  3. Cool tomatoes to room temperature. Using a blender or food processor, blend tomatoes to a thick purée. With the machine running, pour olive oil in slowly, in a thin stream., until sauce is thick. Taste the emulsion, and adjust the salt if necessary. Refrigerate emulsion up to a week, or freeze in small quantities.


About the Author
Nancy Allen

Nancy Allen

Chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen has traveled extensively, and has worked in kitchens and classrooms for more than 30 years. She graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While living in New York City, Allen worked full-time teaching recreational and professional cooking for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, and in Viareggio, Italy, for Toscana Saporita.

During her time at ICE and the Natural Gourmet, Allen wrote curriculum for the professional and recreational programs. While living in New York, Allen was a member of the New York Association of Culinary Teachers, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she attained a Certified Culinary Professional rating.

International cuisines are Allen’s passion and she has traveled around the world to learn about food and cooking.  Allen owned a restaurant and cooking school, catering business, and has worked as a freelance writer for various publications. In Michigan Allen has taught for a decade at Chateau Chantal Winery Cooking School on Old Mission Peninsula and Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College, both in Traverse City, Michigan. She is the author of the culinary textbook Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques.

Allen currently works as a cook at an organic farm, and as a cooking teacher and freelance writer. She is working on a cookbook featuring seasonal farm food. Allen lives in Leelanau County in northern Michigan along the glacial moraines of Lake Michigan.