Monday, July 4, 2011

The Tomato: Reigning Queen of the Market All Summer Long

It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato. ~Lewis Grizzard, American writer & humorist

My favorite Roman market is at Ponte Milvio. Tourist free, full of great produce but not so large that it's overwhelming. It used to be outdoors, running along the lungotevere, but like so many of Rome's larger markets it's been moved to an indoor space. Why? Many reasons probably, not the least of which was the traffic problem the market created. In the past this wouldn't have been an issue as people used to walk to and from the market to do their daily shopping. Anymore people head to the market in their car, leave it double or triple parked and quickly grab what they need from their banco di fiducia (preferred produce vendor), creating a parking and traffic nightmare.
In addition, what was left behind after market closing created a clean-up nightmare each day for the local Della Vittoria quartiere of Rome. To alleviate the clean-up problem, relieve traffic and offer parking to clients, indoor markets are popping up all over Rome to replace the larger outdoor markets. It's the end of an era, but I'm not at all unhappy to have a parking lot right under my favorite market.
More than a few days each week I'm at the market conducting market tours and picking up ingredients with clients for our cooking classes. Every week there's something a bit different available, but throughout the summer every banco has an abundance of wonderful tomatoes. It's true that the tomato's origin is in North America, but it was Italy that took this fruit and turned it into something marvelous.
One of my favorite tomatoes is the Cuore di Bue (Oxheart). This tomato is large (often weighing upwards of 200 grams) is very textured, with few seeds and almost pink. The skin is so tender there's never a need to peel them. They're great on their own or used to make dishes like Acqua Pazza.

The Casalino tomatoes on the left were grown in Sicily or are a Sicilian variety. Generally the Casalino tomato grows in the Southern Lazio region, from the hills of Itri to the seaside town of Gaeta. This tomato has a slightly acidic flavor and is at its best in early summer. In the past the Casalino was grown in between vigne (grape vines).

Frequently produce sold at the market will indicate its growing area, like the Sicilian Casalino tomato above.
These tomatoes were grown in Cerveteri, north of Rome.

The San Marzano tomato (a plum tomato) is one of the best known tomatoes, and the easiest to recognize, given its elongated oval shape and uniform size. Throughout Italy, and perhaps worldwide, San Marzano tomatoes are deemed to be the best tomatoes for sauce and canning. Originally the plant was grown in the San Marzano area of the Campania region, but is now grown worldwide.

These tomatoes look almost black due to the blend of their dark green and red pigmentation; in the case of the Sun Black variety, due to the presence of anthocyanin pigments in the skin (also found in eggplants, blackberries, violets, cherries, red cabbage).

The pomodoro di riso (rice tomato) is used to stuff with rice and bake. The best pomodori di riso come from Fondi in Southern Lazio. They're large and have only a few large seed pockets, lending themselves well to stuffing with rice.

The pomodori Colonna look suspiciously like the San Marzano...

Cherry tomatoes (ciliegini) are great for salads and eating on their own...

Datterino tomatoes are similar to a cherry tomato, but smaller and slightly elongated...

The Ikram tomato is usually sold a grappolo, on stems as a bunch of tomatoes, usually five or six per bunch. They're a great all around tomato: for sauce, insalate caprese, salads.

These are only the tomatoes I saw today at the Ponte Milvio market, but they're by no means all that's available. Each time I go to the market I see other varieties.
My garden is filled with many kinds of tomatoes; right now there are hundreds of datterini growing. They're so sweet and tasty that for every few I pick I pop one in my mouth. Today I made a tomato sauce with datterini for lunch and last night I made pasta caprese, the quintessential, super easy, summer pasta dish:

Penne Caprese (serves 5 to 6 people)

  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • Olive oil, 1/2 cup
  • Buffalo mozzarela, two large, cubed
  • Medium tomatoes, about six, seeded & cut in bite sized pieces, or 30 datterino tomatoes.
  • Basil leaves, about 20
  • Salt to taste, about 1 tsp.
  • Penne pasta, 500 grams
  • Marinate the garlic in the olive oil, in the serving bowl.
  • Add the other remaining ingredients.
  • Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente.
  • Drain pasta, add to serving dish, toss and serve.

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