Is it possible not to be seduced by the gorgeous displays of tomatoes dominating farmers’ markets during the summer? Their bright colors and unique shapes just make you want to reach out and give one or two a squeeze.
Summer is the time to enjoy juicy, sweetly acidic, full-flavored tomatoes. Before you know it, colder weather strikes and the sexy tomatoes of summer are replaced by bland “tomatoes” with no personality whatsoever.
Although it’s tempting to be seduced by looks alone, it’s best to to keep your wits about you when buying tomatoes and focus on what really matters. A brightly or deeply colored tomato always seems to promise amazing flavor, but color isn’t always a real indicator of what the tomato will taste like. The word “heirloom” can also be misleading. Heirloom tomatoes are often delicious, but the word “heirloom” doesn’t guarantee much these days except that you’ll be paying top dollar. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, which mean the birds, bees and wind are responsible for propagation, not human technology. When nature is in charge, anything can happen. A wide variety of flavors, colors, sizes and shapes emerge, which is a good thing. But if tomatoes from heirloom seeds are grown and sold without proper care and attention, you’re going to wind up with something that tastes no better than a rock-hard, flavorless, mealy, mass-produced generic tomato.
So when it comes to tomatoes, local is usually the first thing to look for (and the best example of local is a vine in your own backyard). Organic is always good. And dry-farmed is too, which means water is withheld while the tomatoes grow so the plant produces fewer tomatoes with more flavor instead of tons of tomatoes with not much flavor at all.
Give tomatoes a little squeeze before you buy them to see if they are soft. More importantly, though, is inhaling the tomatoes’ perfume – if a tomato has absolutely no aroma, it probably has no flavor either.
During the summer, the best way to eat tomatoes is raw. There’s no need to cook them down to draw out flavor. Enjoy the classic combination of tomato, basil, olive oil and sea salt or try something new, like this Heirloom Tomato Salad with Peppercorns and Purple Basil. The sesame dressing drizzled on the tomatoes has a delicate flavor but also a spicy kick on the finish that makes the salad memorable. The kick comes from peppercorns, which lend their smoky, sweet, spicy flavor. You can use a blend of any type of peppercorns you like. The basic blend of pink, green, white and black peppercorns that is found in grocery stores is plenty flavorful for this recipe.
You’ll find purple basil in this dish, chosen because it has that great basil flavor we all love, but in a less aggressive way. It gives the dish flavor without screaming “basil!” so loud that it totally overpowers the tomatoes. The tomatoes, after all, are meant to be the star.
As much as we love them, however, tomatoes alone do not make a meal. Throw a steak on the plate with them, and then you’re really talking. This pepper-crusted steak pairs perfectly with this amazing summer salad. The combination is spicy and cool all at the same time.
So next time you’re at the market, don’t just ogle the tomatoes from afar. Step up and say hello. Try as many varieties as you can while the summer crop lasts, enjoying the unique color, flavor and aroma of them all.
- Approx 2-4 servings
- 1 tablespoon mixed peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 pounds of tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon tamari
- a handful of purple basil, roughly chopped
- 1 1/2 – 2 pounds of steak
Grind/mash the peppercorns and salt together using a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, rolling pin or knife. Set aside.
Whisk together 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil with the olive oil, rice vinegar, tamari and 1/2 teaspoon of the peppercorn and salt mixture.
Rub steaks with the remaining tablespoon of the sesame oil and the remaining peppercorn and salt mixture.
Cook the steaks using your preferred method.
Cover the tomatoes with the dressing and purple basil.
Serve alongside cooked steaks.