Tomatoes are in season, and so it is time once again to ponder the age-old question: Is the tomato a fruit or vegetable?
As long as it tastes good, who cares, right? Well, in 1893, the question went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, because at the time, imported vegetables were taxed, but fruits were not. In the case of case of Nix v. Hedden, the court noted that botanically speaking, tomatoes were fruits - but they were commonly served at dinner and not for dessert, as fruits were. So, the court ruled, tomatoes were vegetables.
At least people were eating them. Although tomatoes originated in the Americas, they were not commonly eaten here until long after they had become a familiar part of European cuisines. In fact, they were generally thought to be poisonous until the mid to late 19th century. The few tomatoes that made it into American cookbooks almost always came with instructions to cook them for at least three hours, or else they wouldn't lose their raw taste. (Three hours of cooking presumably made them lose all their taste.)
Americans eat more tomatoes, however classified, than any other single fruit or vegetable. But with all of the fantastic tomatoes available at the farmers' markets now, a ripe one bursting with flavor, fresh from the vine, could indeed be the perfect dessert - Supreme Court be damned. Forget about those bland supermarket tomatoes. Here in Wisconsin, we are blessed with an abundance of heirloom varieties of varying shapes, sizes and colors.
Heirloom tomatoes are a history lesson of their own. Grown from seeds passed down through generations, they taste of the past. They are what people remember when they say tomatoes don't taste like they used to. They have wonderfully evocative names that hint at their heritage, like Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Washington Red Cherry and Wonder Light.
In Brooklyn, Wis., 16 miles south of Madison, Chris Covelli and Christa Barfknecht grow between 30 and 40 varieties of tomatoes on their farm, the aptly named Tomato Mountain. They do grow other vegetables, berries and herbs, but tomatoes are what they first grew 14 years ago, and tomatoes are still their specialty.
Covelli is hard-pressed to pick a favorite variety. "I like all of them," he says. "You really need to have an open mind and try them all, because what's best varies from year to year." He does allow that Juliet, a small plum type, is one consistently good tomato.
To make good use of all those tomatoes, Covelli and Barfknecht recently opened a certified-organic processing kitchen, right on the farm. The two of them do everything themselves, from planting the seeds to sealing the caps on the jars. So now, when they set up their stand at the Dane County Farmers' Market and the Westside Community Market (and, sometimes, the Northside Farmers' Market), they are not just selling their produce: You also can buy their salsa, pasta sauce and Bloody Mary mix.
Summer tomatoes don't need to be cooked! Make a sauce of raw tomatoes instead, and toss it with hot pasta.
Fresh Tomato Sauce
1 clove of garlic, split in half
2 1/2 pounds of fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons tightly packed fresh basil leaves, torn
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Vigorously rub a serving bowl with the garlic. Add the tomatoes, basil, oil, salt and pepper. Let stand at room temperature while you cook the pasta. Toss with hot pasta.