08.18.09

The Only Food That Matters

In the summer, tomatoes rule the kitchen, even if few know how to prepare them with any differentiation. For that, we’ve convened seven of the world’s best cooks.

Every August, the tomato has its 15 minutes of fame. But not like, "I think I've seen you somewhere" fame. Fame fame. Like, "I'm going to live forever, I'm going to learn how to fly..." fame. For about a month, we have a torrid affair with the tomato, like Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn in the movie Same Time Next Year.

I think it's virtually impossible to describe the flavor of a tomato, except to say "tomato-ey,” which wouldn't help a native of the Antarctic channel the flavor. So I Googled "tomato flavor" to see if others had good adjectives. Here's what I got:

If you're Ferran Adria, you might stick a bicycle pump in it, pump furiously until the whole thing explodes, and then lick the foam off one tiny piece.

From the USDA site: A world authority on tomato flavor, Ronald G. Buttery of the ARS Western Regional Research Center admits that he "completely missed" furaneol in his previous investigations into the secrets of tomato flavor, probably because furaneol is water-soluble. "That means it can dissolve in tomato's juices," he explains, "and so is very hard to find." The compound's chemical name is 2,5-dimethyl-4-hydroxy-3(2H)-furanone. Well, duh.

Then I tried Googling "what does a tomato taste like?" and got a bunch of stuff from Boston chef Andy Husbands, of Tremont 647 and Hell's Kitchen fame. I thought he gave it a valiant try, but it still left me yearning for an adjective that could best "tomato-ey." So I called Andy, because now I'm on mission. He's ready with his answers, having obviously thought about this a lot, and gives me the adjectives he had posted on his blog: "Sweet, tart, creamy, crunchy, herbaceous, earthy, strawberry." OK, good, but still not there yet, at least for me. He agrees it's not perfect, saying that in a way it's like asking what the color red looks like.

But, says Andy, if we can describe the flavor of wine, why not tomatoes? Fair enough. The chef also points out that, like different wine varietals, a Green Zebra tomato isn't going to have the same taste as a yellow pear tomato. I throw out that maybe a taste adjective isn't going to cut it; maybe we need to look outside that category. And then Andy offers up "happy."

Now we're getting somewhere. We definitely agree that the emotional aspect of the food in some cases is really as important as the taste component in describing it, and the word "happy" added to the list of flavor-oriented adjectives is pretty satisfying. Especially about a food that is only really great at a certain, limited time of year.

It is universally accepted foodie-purist knowledge that simply slicing and lightly salting a tomato is the way to go. Possibly a little olive oil and a frisson of chiffonaded basil (did anyone pick up that I just channeled Niles from Frasier?) But say you had a bunch of tomatoes, and were tired of slicing and sprinkling, and bowing low to the unadorned tomato. What else might you do?

Why, lovely of you to ask:

If you're Ferran Adria, you might stick a bicycle pump in it, pump furiously until the whole thing explodes, and then lick the foam off one tiny piece, and set about inventing tomato foam with a whipped cream canister and some gelatin (or so the story goes). If you're not Ferran Adria, perhaps one of the following recipes will suffice.

Marinated Tomatoes
by Jim Botsacos
So simple, it's not really even a recipe. Think of this as Greek bruschetta.

Tomato and Cilantro Soup
by Anya Von Bremzen
Not Mexican, as the title might lead you to believe, but Russian. We love a soup that can be served hot or cold.

Smoky Tomato Salsa
by Mollie Katzen
Chipotles are the trick here. Gorgeous.

Cherry Tomato Confit
by Tom Douglas
Traditional confit is duck cooked slowly in its own fat. This is the vegetarian version.

Tomato and Salted Duck Egg Salad
by Amy Besa
Classic Filipino dish. Salted duck egg is a little unusual, but offers a unique platform for tomatoes.

Yellow Tomato Gazpacho
by Suzanne Goin
One of those magical recipes in which you combine a few simple ingredients and end up with an unexpectedly dramatic result.

Bloody Mary
by Nigella Lawson
How could we not include a Bloody Mary? Sherry kicks this one up a notch.

If “umami” was recently accepted into the lexicon...maybe “tomato-ey” isn't that far behind.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Katie Workman is the editor in chief and chief Marketing officer of Cookstr.com, a Web site devoted to great, tested recipes from chefs and cookbook authors. She writes about food for various blogs and Web sites. Katie is on the board of City Harvest, and actively involved in Share Our Strength. She lives in New York City with her husband her two boys, ages 6 and 9.