Tomato: fruit or vegetable? Everyone has an opinion, and this question even made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1893.
The federal government had imposed a 10% tariff on imported vegetables and included tomatoes. A tomato importer challenged the tariff, claiming, correctly, that tomatoes were a fruit. (They are, in essence, an oversized berry.) The court rejected the botanical truth about tomatoes in favor of the “common language” and culinary usage of the American people, who perceived it as a vegetable.
Another general misconception about tomatoes is that they are native to Italy, but in fact, no one there had even seen a tomato until the 1500’s. Tomatoes are originally South American, and it was Spanish explorers who brought the tomato from the New World to back the Old.
Mid-July usually marks the start of the locally-grown tomato season, and the first Jersey Beefsteaks have reached our stands right on schedule, despite the arid conditions left by this year’s temperate, snow-free winter and the early summer heat waves.
One of the great advantages local growers have is that their tomatoes can be picked when ripe. Often, regional growers who have to ship long distances will pick tomatoes too young. This protects them while in transit, and they do ripen off the vine, but nothing compares to a tomato that has been vine-ripened and just picked!
Here are some of the classic varieties we’ll be featuring:
As the name implies, beefsteaks tomatoes are a meaty “eating” tomato, the most popular for sandwiches, burgers, and as steakhouse accompaniments. They contain many small seed compartments and there is very little core, making it ideal for slicing as it hold its shape very well. Generally the largest of the cultivated tomatoes, beefsteaks can grow as big as 2 pounds each!
Plum Tomatoes are more egg-shaped than round and are cultivated almost exclusively for cooking and canning. They are proportionally much meatier, with less seed pockets and liquid than larger varieties. The most common variety of plum tomato is the Roma, but the most famous might be the San Marzano, native to Italy’s Amalfi coast. The one plum tomato breed that is best eaten raw is the tiny Grape Tomato, which is generally very sweet and juicy.
Named for their size similarity to the ubiquitous stone fruit, cherry tomatoes are probably the most consistently sweet tomato year-round. Wherever they’re grown, they’re almost always picked at or near peak ripeness. Their size makes them ideal as a salad component, but their juicy sweetness also makes them an excellent ingredient in pasta dishes, frittatas or omelets, or gently sautéed and served as a warm side dish.
The tomato in the middle. Not as small as a cherry, not as big as standard, and about the size of a golf ball, Campari’s are sometimes referred to as Cocktail Tomatoes. They have the distinction of being firm but decidedly, consistently sweet, and generally a little thicker skinned. An ideal tomato quartered for salads, chopped for fresh salsa or sliced with fresh mozzarella or antipasti.
A couple of different tomato varieties come to market still on the vine. They include stand sized fruit, like Fourth of July’s, as well as Campari and Cherry Tomatoes. The effect is a little like a bottle of wine before it’s opened. Tomatoes continue to ripen in a slower more natural way, and will have a somewhat longer shelf life once purchased.