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Savor Florida tomatoes and tomato recipes

If you want to buy local produce, do it now before Florida agriculture enters the Southern equivalent of a Northern deep freeze.

Call it deep humidity, when not much thrives in our state's summer swelter other than tropical fruits and vegetables in South Florida.

Local blueberries, corn and big, lush tomatoes, some of them Ugly, are in the stores now. By the end of June, they'll give way to produce from other states and countries. Florida blueberries in cereal and smoothies, big ears of corn on the grill and garden salads bursting with ripe tomatoes are the most obvious ways to use the bounty.

It's especially nice to see Florida tomatoes in stores because the unusually cold winter did a number on the winter crop. Many of the country's consumers depend on Florida's winter tomatoes for salads and sandwiches, but this year they had to look elsewhere. Florida accounts for about 50 percent of all fresh tomatoes produced domestically, according to the Florida Tomato Committee.

Talk of tomatoes always rouses fierce regional loyalty, and you can't mention the seedy red fruit (yes, it is!) without someone professing love for Jersey tomatoes, or those from Mom's back yard in (insert state here). It's true, we often find tasteless hothouse tomatoes in the grocery stores, picked way before they are ripe and shipped here from far away. That's why it's good to sample the local crop now. Florida leads the nation in field-grown tomato production, and when truly ripe, the state's tomatoes rival many contenders.

Over the weekend, we cut into several funny-shaped Ugly tomatoes and had the best results in ages. (That's them on the cover.) Fire-engine red and juicy, they tasted as tomatoes should, sweet-tart and earthy. Of course, they ought to at $4.99 a pound.

Grocery store tomatoes have been criticized in recent years for lack of taste. Some come to their full flavor after sitting on the counter for a few days; others never satisfy. We have more consistent luck with cherry and grape tomatoes than the beefsteaks we so prize.

Harry Klee, a plant biologist at the University of Florida, is working on a molecular genetic experiment that will pump up the flavor of tomatoes. We could start tasting his efforts in a matter of months, he says. We welcome that revolution.

Americans eat about 22 million pounds of tomatoes a year, but half of that is in the form of ketchup and tomato sauce.

In addition to the recipes that accompany this story, here are other easy ways to use tomatoes:

Broiled tomatoes: Good for breakfast or a dinner side dish. Cut tomatoes in half and sprinkle with Italian-flavored fine bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese. Broil for 5 minutes.

Grilled tomatoes: If you're grilling chicken or steak, why not toss on some tomato halves to serve alongside? Brush with olive oil and grill cut side down for about 5 minutes over medium heat on one side, a few more minutes on the other. To serve, sprinkle with coarse salt and spread on goat cheese. The residual heat will melt the tangy cheese a bit.

Roasted tomatoes: Use as a base for soups, chili or salsa. Halve tomatoes, brush with olive oil and season with coarse salt. Roast at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. You can also slow-roast them at 300 degrees for 90 minutes. The heat concentrates the flavor.

Stuffed tomatoes: Halve tomatoes, scoop out flesh and fill with tuna or chicken salad. Serve them hot by stuffing with cooked flavored rice, such as Rice-A-Roni, couscous or even cheesy grits mixed with sauteed mushrooms. Bake at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes.

On macaroni and cheese: Arrange slices on macaroni and cheese before baking.

Tomato bread: Rub cut surface of French, Cuban or Italian bread with split garlic clove, followed by a good rubbing with a cut tomato. Both will flavor the bread before you toast in the oven or on the grill.

Fresh salsa: Mix diced, seeded tomatoes with minced garlic and jalapenos, plus diced red onion. Dress with lemon juice or red wine vinegar and a handful of chopped fresh cilantro.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com. Information from Times files was used in this report.

Buying and storing tomatoes

Look for the reddest, ripest tomatoes you can find. Stay away from those with bruises or blemishes. Smell is the best indicator of ripeness and flavor; they should smell like tomatoes. A ripe tomato is slightly soft. Tomatoes will ripen after being picked. Leave them on the counter or hasten the process by storing in a paper bag with a banana. The bag traps gases that the produce emits to facilitate natural ripening.

Store tomatoes at room temperature and do not buy tomatoes from refrigerator cases. Temperatures below 55 degrees destroy the fruit's flavor and makes them mealy. But what to do with a cut tomato? Some people wrap in plastic and store in the refrigerator, which does compromise its flavor; use within 24 hours. Another solution is to store the tomato cut side down on a small plate on the counter and also use quickly. If you're finding that a regular tomato is too big for your purposes, consider buying grape or cherry.



>>moderate

Mexican Veggie Stacks

2 teaspoons hot Mexican-style chili powder, or 1 tablespoon regular chili powder

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

½ teaspoon salt plus ¼ teaspoon

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 large (6-ounce) poblano chili

2 ears corn, husks and silks removed

1 large (14-ounce) red onion, cut crosswise into slices

1 medium (10-ounce) zucchini, cut diagonally into ½-inch-thick slices

2 large (12 ounces each) tomatoes, each cut horizontally in half

4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeno chilies, shredded

Prepare outdoor grill for direct grilling over medium-high heat.

In cup, combine chili powder, 2 tablespoons oil and ½ teaspoon salt; set chili oil aside. In bowl, combine cilantro, lime juice, ¼ teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon oil; set aside.

Place poblano and corn on hot grill rack. Grill poblano and corn 10 to 15 minutes or until poblano is blistered on all sides and corn is charred in a few spots, turning occasionally.

Remove poblano from grill; wrap in foil and set aside 15 minutes. Transfer corn to cutting board.

Push skewer horizontally through each onion slice to hold slice together. Brush both sides of onion and zucchini slices and cut sides of tomatoes with chili oil; place on hot grill rack. Grill onion and zucchini 10 minutes or until tender, turning over once. Grill tomatoes 6 to 8 minutes or until slightly softened, turning over once. As vegetables are done, remove to platter and keep warm.

Unwrap poblano; cut off stem. Cut poblano lengthwise in half; peel off skin and discard seeds, then cut into ¼-inch-wide strips. Cut corn from cobs; add to cilantro mixture.

Assemble stacks: Remove skewers from onion slices. On each of 4 dinner plates, place a tomato half, cut side up; top with all of zucchini, then half of cheese. Arrange onion on top, separating into rings; sprinkle with remaining cheese, then poblano. Top with corn mixture.

Makes 4 main dish servings.

Nutritional information per serving: 340 calories, 13g protein, 31g carbohydrates, 21g fat (8g saturated), 6g fiber, 670mg sodium.

Source: Family Vegetarian Cooking from Good Housekeeping (Hearst Books, 2010)

>>moderate

Tomato, Portobello and Mozzarella Melts

2 cups (loosely packed) arugula or watercress

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 loaf (about 1 inch thick) focaccia or ciabatta bread

4 large (about 1 pound) portobello mushrooms, stems removed and each cut in half

2 medium (about 8 ounces each) tomatoes, cut into

¾-inch-thick slices

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

4 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced

Prepare outdoor grill for direct grilling over medium-high heat. In small bowl, toss arugula and vinegar until evenly coated. From loaf of focaccia, with serrated knife, cut two 8- by 2-inch pieces. Cut each piece horizontally in half to make a total of four pieces.

Brush mushrooms and tomatoes on both sides with oil; sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Place mushrooms, stem sides up, and tomatoes on hot grill rack and cook 6 to 8 minutes or until tender and charred, turning once. Transfer tomatoes to plate. Arrange mozzarella on mushrooms; cover and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer or until cheese melts.

Place bread, cut sides up, on work surface; top with arugula mixture, grilled tomatoes and cheese-topped mushrooms. Cut each sandwich in half and serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Nutritional information per serving: 355 calories, 14g protein, 43g carbohydrates 15g fat (5g saturated), 6g fiber, 595mg sodium.

Source: Family Vegetarian Cooking from Good Housekeeping (Hearst Books, 2010)

>>easy

Summer Garden Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

3 cups water

3 medium (8 ounces each) zucchini and/or yellow summer squashes, coarsely chopped

2 red and/or yellow peppers, coarsely chopped

3 large ripe tomatoes, chopped

3 cloves garlic, crushed with press

½ teaspoon fennel seeds

2 teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Sliced basil leaves, for garnish

In 5-quart sauce pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion; cook 10 minutes or until tender and lightly browned. Add water, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, fennel seeds, salt and black pepper; heat to boiling. Reduce heat to medium; cook, uncovered, 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Remove 4 cups soup from sauce pot. In blender, with center part of cover removed to allow steam to escape, carefully blend the 4 cups of soup, in small batches, until pureed. Return pureed soup to sauce pot. Reheat soup to serve hot, or refrigerate to serve cold later. Garnish with basil.

Makes 9 main dish servings.

Nutritional information per serving: 120 calories, 4g protein, 5g fat (1g saturated), 18g carbohydrates, 795mg sodium, 5g fiber.

Source: Family Vegetarian Cooking from Good Housekeeping (Hearst Books, 2010)

>>easy

Fresh Tomato, Sausage and Pecorino Pasta

8 ounces uncooked penne

8 ounces sweet Italian sausage

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 cup vertically sliced onion

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 ¼ pounds tomatoes, chopped

6 tablespoons grated fresh pecorino Romano cheese, divided use

¼ teaspoon salt

teaspoon black pepper

¼ cup torn fresh basil leaves

Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat; drain.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Remove casings from sausage. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add sausage and onion to pan; cook 4 minutes, stirring to crumble sausage. Add garlic; cook 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes; cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in pasta, 2 tablespoons cheese, salt and pepper. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and basil.

Makes 4 main dish servings.

Nutritional information per serving: 389 calories, 10.7g fat (4g saturated), 21.6g protein, 53.5g carbohydrates, 4.5g fiber, 27mg cholesterol, 595mg sodium, 159mg calcium.

Source: Cooking Light, September 2009

Savor Florida tomatoes and tomato recipes 06/01/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 2:42pm]
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