Summer is time for tomatoes. This umami-packed fruit can also be savory, sweet, acidic, sloppy, crunchy, spicy and nuanced all at the same time. In all pizzerias, tomatoes are in top three all-time ingredients of usage as they are paired with cheese and wheat. But, as you browse most corporate pizzeria menus, not much else is done with this flexible fruit. In fact, it has always amazed me that in the heated days of a tomato summer, most corporate pizzerias and fast food joints will STILL top your pizza or sandwich with a tasteless, crappy tomato. This laziness can be used to your advantage. You are local. Why not buy and use the best local ingredients from local people? It works for flavor, marketing, word-of-mouth, good will and bottom-line sales.
Buying tomatoes from your local growers is all about the strategy of supply and demand. During the early part of the summer, tomatoes go for an elevated price, then during the “glut” of summer when every farmer has more tomatoes than they can sell, the price goes very low and you can benefit with little effort. Please note that your relationship with local farmers extends to their family and friends who will, in turn, become your best customers. Here are some tips for getting the best value with tomatoes:
- Your farmers. This market is just like the pizza market. If you show some loyalty to a tomato farmer, you’ll get the best tomatoes cheaper and earlier in the summer. Many farmers now have high tunnels. These are unheated and sometimes temporary greenhouses used in the springtime to get a jump on the tomato growing season.
- Farmers markets. Just by telling a tomato vender that you could come back every week to purchase tomatoes offers a window into getting a steady stream of value along with tomatoes. You can also just tell the farmer to drop off a case or two at your store if they cannot sell them that day. You will be surprised to have a new perfect tomato purveyor who will possibly offer you some discounted peppers, onion and zucchini, etc. because they don’t want to go home with produce.
- “Got any seconds”. This magic phrase refers to the ugly tomatoes that every farmer finds hard to sell to farmers market customers. They may have pits, bug bites, mushed parts or just be plain ugly. The best thing about these lowly orphans is that they taste the same or even better as the tomato runway models.
- Bush-trimmed tomatoes. To get a better yield, many tomato growers pull some fruit early to increase the energy to other, larger fruit on the plant. These tomatoes are sometimes pulled when green or partly ripe. These are particularly cheap and will ripen in a box at your restaurant temperature and are still remarkably tasty when they ripen.
Biggie Smalls: Cherry Tomato Do’s and Don’ts
Don’t buy hundreds of heirloom cherry tomatoes with “Spiders.” Spiders are the small stem leaves that stick onto some varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Farmers sometimes rip tomatoes off the bush which does not dislodge this spider-looking leaf on the tomato. Believe me, it is a real pain to get these off especially when they dry out.
Do save a few plastic ricotta or sauce tub lids that are five to six inches in diameter to cut cherry tomatoes. These lids act as a great capture basin cherry tomatoes and you will be able to halve boatloads of cherry tomatoes of all different sizes in no time. 1. Place the bottom lid on a table and put as many cherries into it. 2. Place the top lid on the tomatoes leaving a small slit in between the lids. 3. Using a very sharp knife, slice through the tomatoes and place into a bowl.
Don’t be afraid to jazz up your cherry tomatoes for garnishing pizzas. Try shocking your tomatoes by slitting an “X” in the bottom of the cherry and placing in boiling water for 12 seconds, then plunge into iced water. The skin will come off easily — or just pull the skin up to make a dramatic bomb-shape. Once you get the “hang” of this, it becomes easy and fast.
Do not be afraid to par-saute’ acidic cherry tomatoes in a sugar/olive oil combination before placing on a pizza. This a very secret, secret in the pizza competition world and makes the cherry tomatoes very sweet, perfect with sharp cheeses. (Shhhhhh…don’t tell anyone.)
Fried Green Tomatoes with Sopressata
Every late-summer, I use this recipe from a Chef at the Biltmore Forest Country Club in North Carolina in 1987. He grew up in Georgia and was very proud of it. Once made, these slices are perfect for an appetizer as well as atop a pizza (recipe at PizzaToday.com). Each fried green tomato slice has the perfect southern-style crunch around a heart of sweet/sour/spice and is accented by the sopressata, fresh mozzarella and marinara.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.