If you planted tomatoes this year, chances are you got a late start, and ripe fruit might seem a long time away. But we are beginning to see sure signs of summer with ripe and interesting tomatoes at the farmers market.
Lynne Rosetto Kasper, host of The Splendid Table and one of All Things Considered's regular flock of foodies on Appetites, talks about what makes a great tomato. An edited transcript follows.
TOM CRANN: We're starting to see different varieties, especially at the farmers market. Give us some guidelines about how to pick a good one, especially if we're not familiar with some of the heirlooms.
LYNNE ROSETTO KASPER: These are tomatoes that may not be what you've had every day. Look for Vorlon. This is a Bulgarian tomato and it's a big, rich, beefy kind of flavor. Similar to Vorlon and a real winner, is from Russia -- it's Cosmonaut Volkov.
They are really fabulous, and they're darker in color.
There's also this tomato from Greece, Thessaloniki. These are not huge red tomatoes, but they're robust and they're delicious; wonderful for slicing.
Then there's Amish Paste and Federle. These are the tomatoes you want to use instead of the Roma. These are the "sauce," you know, they're drier tomatoes. They don't have a lot of moisture and they tend to be very intensely flavored.
Limmony: Most yellow and orange tomatoes are very sugary, don't have a lot of acid. Limmony is snappy and aggressive and it's beautiful. It's a gorgeous color. They're either orange or bright yellow.
Then you have -- this is another wonderful slicer and a great name -- Bloody Butcher. This is your beautiful, lovely, big, sweet, tart flavor. Absolutely fabulous.
CRANN: Just a slice, put a little salt on it. Can't go wrong.
ROSETTO KASPER: Or eat it out of hand. Whatever.
CRANN: It sounds like you favor the darker, richer color. Is that always good?
ROSETTO KASPER: That's true because it turns out I love the big, beefy quality. Darker tomatoes -- not all, every one of these are different -- but most of them, like Black Krim and Chris's Ukraine, they'll have this rich, beefy flavor, whereas red tomatoes tend to be at their best high sweet, high acid. They're a little bit more like Mozart as opposed to Beethoven's Fifth. Then when you get into the orange and the yellow, generally they're very sweet.
But the fun thing is when you're making a raw sauce or you're doing a salsa, orchestrate them, you know?
For instance, Juliets and Early Cascades, they're acidic tomatoes. They're really aggressive and really good. Pair those with the yellow tomatoes that are really sweet.
CRANN: A little sweet, a little acid and you get the right balance.
ROSETTO KASPER: You got it. Right.
CRANN: What about the size of the tomato? We tend to go for the big summer tomato. What about the little ones, the grapes and the cherries?
ROSETTO KASPER: There's a new book out on phytonutrients by Jo Robinson. It's very interesting. She's talking about some new food science and the thing that she talks about is first of all, generally darker vegetables, especially redder ones or purple ones, tend to have more nutrients. Smaller tomatoes have more nutrition than bigger tomatoes. And if you notice, in many cases, they're much more intense in flavor.
CRANN: And why is that?
ROSETTO KASPER: I think because there's a greater concentration. The other thing she talks about is, the harder a plant has to fight to survive, the more nutrition it has. So if a tomato has been fertilized and pesticided into complacency, it's not going to necessarily have the same robustness that a tomato that's had to fight.
So maybe this is one of the reasons that an organic tomato may have an edge on flavor if you were to grow the same tomato, you know, in a conventional matter and an organic matter. But there are organic fertilizers as well and pesticides, too. But it's very interesting.
CRANN: But you want a tomato that's had a little stress, that's had to fight a bit?
ROSETTO KASPER: You want it to have fought for life a little bit. Just a bit. It's like it's what gives us character. It's what gives a tomato character.
CRANN: We would be remiss if we did not mention that you, yourself have a tomato variety that's been named after you, the Lynne Rossetto Kasper variety. And you're growing it this year. How's it doing?
ROSETTO KASPER: It's doing extremely well. It's a small cherry-style tomato.
It was developed by a plant breeder in Michigan, named Joseph Tychonievich and he's a fan of the show. He was breeding this tomato for quite a long time, trying to get what he wanted. Three years ago, he heard me lamenting that Michael Pollan had a tomato named after him but I didn't and I'm crazy about tomatoes.
(Tychonievich) sent 22 samples of the 22 plants he had at that time for me to pick the one I liked best, and from that plant he stabilized. And so eight plants are being grown among the Splendid Table crew. It's a tad of a competition. I am the only one growing in containers and although my plants are behind everybody else's, I think they are going to be absolutely spectacular.
RECIPES FROM THE SPLENDID TABLE:
• Uncooked Tomato Sauce for Fusilli
• Tomato-Mozzarella Salad with Spiked Pine Nuts and Basil
• Last of the Tomatoes Commemorative Sandwich