They're here, they're here! Juicy, ripe, delicious. Everywhere you look, tomatoes are showing off their gloriously red - or yellow, or orange, or purple, or green, or striped, or just funky-looking - plump goodness to our flip-flop-clad summer selves.
There's nothing like a perfectly ripe, perfectly in-season tomato, a plump little package of summer sunshine. And when we find them at the farmers' market or CSA (more about CSAs here), or our own backyard gardens, they are likely to be deliciously ripe and juicy. But when you're shopping at the grocery store, how do you know whether that tomato you're eyeing is going to be magnificent or mealy?
You should also be aware that, every once in awhile, farmers might include some produce from other farms in their offerings at the market. They may be members of farm networks, so that they have access to produce from other farms that perhaps didn't grow well on their own farm this season. Occasionally, farmers may sell produce that traveled a great distance to get to your local farmers' market. In my experience, farmers are generally honest about this. You might ask them if everything they offer was grown on their own farm, or where different things come from. If it's important to you to only buy local, you'll know.
First of all, shopping in-season helps. In most places, we have a much better chance of picking a winner in August than we will in January. Proximity to the farm also helps. Even in August, any given tomato might have travelled a thousand miles or more to get to our local produce aisle. Some stores now label produce with country or state of origin, so we have a better idea how far it traveled to make it into our cart.
But does it really matter how far it traveled? Well, yes, actually. To survive that long trip without spoiling, tomatoes are picked while still hard and green. Once picked, tomatoes don't continue to ripen. They may redden as they sit, but their flavor, water content (ie, juiciness), and nutrients won't develop any further. In In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan explains how absolute ripeness generally coincides with the greatest concentration of nutrients in a fruit (like a tomato), and whatever nutrients are present at the time of picking diminish as they age. So, the fresher your tomato, the juicier and tastier it will be - and also the more nutritious.
Finally, once you have that tomato in hand, pay attention to how it feels. It should feel heavy for its size, and the skin should feel like it's been pulled tight across juicy, vibrant plumpness.
Once you've got your hands on some juicy, ripe tomatoes, do something special. You might celebrate their seasonal tomatoey goodness on a simple sandwich, with just a sprinkle of sea salt, a drizzle of olive oil and maybe a schmear of fresh ricotta on a slice of baguette. Or, just eat one straight out of hand, juice dribbling down your arm. Or, make one of the recipes below, each a classic combination from an Italian or Mexican perspective.
Whatever you do, relish the taste of summer in your tomatoes.
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