August 1, 2015 |

Ripe for the Pickin’ (Fresh Tomatoes)

By Denise Greer

Choose the right fresh tomatoes in your seasonal offerings

fresh tomatoes, summer tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes

People are passionate about fresh tomatoes. Communities across the country — like Fulton, California and Columbia, South Carolina — even honor the yearly harvest with tomato festivals.

Pizza makers, too, show their affinity for the vegetable. (Yes, that’s right vegetable! Though scientifically designated a fruit, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the tomato to be a vegetable in the 19th century.)

Fresh cherry, Roma, beefsteak, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 25,000 varieties take center stage on summer menus, from appetizers and pizzas to pastas and entrées.

Fresh tomatoes are a must in bruschetta and Caprese. Another option is a tomato salad with various shapes in red, purple, yellow and green varieties tossed with fresh herbs and a splash of vinaigrette. Pair roasted tomatoes with caramelized red onion, roasted eggplant, basil and fresh mozz or chevre for a simple, yet sophisticated veggie pizza. Halve cherry and pear tomatoes and disperse onto a garlic and olive oil-based dough skin, add mozzarella and bake. Finish with fresh arugula and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar glaze. Toss penne pasta with roasted cherry tomatoes and garlic, grated Parmesan, EVOO and basil. Whatever you come up with, think about capturing the freshness of the tomato through your offerings.

Many operations note their purveyor on menus. Some go a step beyond. In the summer, patio diners at Back Road Pizza in Santa Fe, New Mexico, can sit amongst various heirloom tomato plants, basil and other herbs.

Why dedicate so much time, energy and space to growing tomatoes on premise? Back Road Pizza Owner Piper Kapin says: “Benefits range from clearly the most important, which is the best possible tasting tomatoes that were able to ripen on the vine, to providing lovely landscaping for our patio space, to excellent moments of education and engagement for our customers and staff.

“My whole staff know about the different varieties and can talk to the customers and kids about what they are seeing and eating. The prep crew goes out each morning to harvest fresh basil and ripe tomatoes for the day’s use. Customers love to see this happening.”

MORE on growing produce on premise:

The garden features large and small varieties specific to menu items. “I prefer large slicing tomatoes like beefsteaks in a variety of colors for our caprese salads visually, for the variety of flavors and sweetness levels and because there is more flesh for big bites,” Kapin says. “I prefer Roma size for our sliced tomato pizza toppings because it’s a good bite size for pizza eaters. It doesn’t slide off the pizza and burn your face while you’re taking a bite and doesn’t make the pizza soggy because there isn’t as much seed pocket juice. I prefer cherry size for my salads for their bursts of flavor, visual appeal next to other chopped ingredients and sweetness.”

Back Road’s garden ripe tomatoes are used in its unique spin on bruschetta, fresh gazpacho, Margherita pizza and even its Green Tomato Sauce, a tasty alternative to traditional marinara.

Get the recipe: Penny’s Bruschetta
Courtesy of Piper Kapin, Back Road Pizza, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Dedicated to sourcing local ingredients, EVO in Charleston, South Carolina, capitalizes on the abundance and diversity of fresh tomatoes grown in the area.

The Tomato pizza at EVO in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Tomato pizza at EVO in Charleston, South Carolina.

“We utilize different sized tomatoes for different dishes,” says Blake McCormick, executive chef at EVO. “Due to our Neapolitan style of our pizza, I hesitate to utilize the larger, juicer tomatoes, as they tend to over saturate the pizza. Instead, I like to use the cherry tomatoes, usually halved on the pizza. They blister in the hot oven, don’t release a lot of liquid, and end up being perfectly cooked by the time the pizza is done. Farmers here grow amazing heirloom varieties full of flavor and color. We save the larger tomatoes for composed salads, such as a Caprese.”

Let the quality and flavor of the tomato speak for itself. “The purity of a quality in-season tomato requires little manipulation,” McCormick says. “Proper seasoning and pairing with other equally quality fresh ingredients produces some of the most memorable dishes.”

Here are a few do’s and don’ts when using fresh tomatoes. Kapin and McCormick suggest:

  • Do select the right tomato for the dish. “Choose your varieties carefully for ones you plan to cook on pizzas,” Kapin says. “Some are more juicy than others and can make a pizza crust soggy very quickly.”
  • “Don’t keep them in a fridge that is too chilly for too long,” Kapin says. “This can make them white and grainy and degrade their volatile aromatics. If your kitchen is too hot, see if you can find a cooler place for them.”
  • Do season tomatoes. “A tomato begs for salt and pepper,” McCormick says. “It elevates the flavor, and I would always recommend seasoning every last one. Utilize sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.”
  • Don’t stack the tomatoes. “If they come to you stacked, find a way to lay them flat without the weight of other tomatoes on top of them,” Kapin says. “Tomatoes that are
    allowed to ripen on the vine are much more delicate and will crush and rot easier with weight. The ones we get from conventional sources tend to be picked under ripe, have thicker skins and are sprayed with CO2 to blush when they are not ripe yet so they are firmer and can handle being stacked.”

Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.