Tomato Envy

Mr. McGregor's Garden

GUEST: Mr. McGregor

MR. MCGREGOR: [to his tomatoes] Hiya boys and girls. How ya doin' this morning? Ooo. Just a few more days till the big competition. Aaah. Ooh. This may be the year. Yes, I think so. [bird sounds] Aaah?!? That sounded like a soft-bellied tomato pecker. [bird sounds] Nah. They only live in the Andes. [bird sounds] Ooo, I better go check my bird caller CD. Don't worry, boys and girls, I'll be right back.

    The average American eats 17 pounds of tomatoes each year. That means that after the potato, these fruits are America's favorite vegetables. That's right, fruits. They are, in fact, berries. And like all berries, they are amazingly wonderful when they're in season and miserably mediocre when they're not. The problem with tomatoes is the season is really, really short and tomatoes don't like to travel. That is why most Americans will go to their graves having never munched a truly magnificent tomato. But not me. Oh, no. When the big red orbs rise, I am all about carpe lycopersicum. That's right. Why the 'mater mania? Well, I don't know. Maybe it's because they're packed with nutrition, antioxidants, lycopene, vitamin A and C. Maybe it's because they work and play so well with other ingredients. Or maybe it's because they're just plain old ...

MM: [with a gun] You better keep your beak off my 'maters, you soft-bellied freak.

... good eats.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Government Agents #1, #2 and #3

    Whew. Another motivation for my 'mater madness is variety. Because they are so easy to hybridize, cross-pollinate, there're hundreds if not thousands of tomato models to choose from. In just the last few years growers like McGregor have been rediscovering old heirloom varieties like this little zebra tomato and this ... uh ... well ... this, well, whatever that is.

    Commercially speaking, there are six major types of tomato: globe, plum, cherry, pear, grape and little bitty currant tomatoes.


    Other terms that are good to knoW: beefsteak—refers to any extra large red globe tomato—and green tomato. Although there are varieties of tomato which remain green completely ripe, green tomato actually refers to a red globe tomato rich has reached full size but has not turned red yet.


Green Tomato

    Now each one of these unique styles has unique characteristics. And when you understand those and learn how to take advantage of them, ah, that's when you can find true tomato happiness. Of course it helps to have a non-stop supply of fresh garden-grown tomatoes at your finger tips.
    Now why is it that garden grown are so much better than grocery store variety? Well, maybe it would help to understand the government's point of view.

GOVERNMENT AGENT #1: The United States Department of Agriculture grades standards for fresh tomatoes recognizes six official color designations:


Green: by which we do mean green


Breaker: meaning some red, tan, or pink visible


Turning: 10 to 30 percent tan, pink or red


Pink: 30 to 60 percent pink or red


Light Red: 60 to 90 percent pink or red and


Red: which must be more than 90 percent red.

    Most commercial tomatoes are picked at the breaker stage when they have reached full size and weight.

Not real federal agents.


AB: So how is it that they're all candy apple red by the time they all get to the market?
GA1: [to fellow agent, referring to the toy viewer he's looking at, laughing] Hey, this is cute ... [serious] After washing, sorting, sizing and packing, tomatoes are moved to an airtight room where they are exposed to a "ripening" agent.

    By "exposing to a ripening agent," he means ethylene gas. Now ethylene gas is a hydrocarbon which also occurs naturally as a growth hormone in many fruits and vegetables. And I do say it's a "ripening agent" because a lot of connoisseurs claim that the process only reddens the tomatoes. It doesn't really ripen them.
    To put an end to the debate, we're going to gas this breaker tomato and then taste it alongside a garden-ripe variety later on. Now since they produce a lot of ethylene, we're going to place a banana in the bag to speed up the process. Now we wait.

Later that week...

    Well, it's time to compare our gassed breaker to a fresh picked tomato.

AB: What do you think, kids?
GAs: [takes a bite]
GA1: Fresh picked, clearly superior.

    So, reddening a tomato changes its color but does not advance the cellular maturation of the fruit. Thus, it is distinguished from a vine ripe tomato.

GA1: [clears throat]
AB: What?
GA1: The term "vine ripened" is commonly applied to any tomato that shows red coloration prior to harvest. Currently there are no federal regulations regarding its use.

    So why even to go to all of this trouble? Why not just pick them while they're ripe? Because tomatoes would never make the trip to the market. After all its job is to deliver seeds. They're born to rot, not to roll over America's highways and byways. So how does a tomato lover obtain a righteous supply if there's no nearby neighbor to pilfer?

Rick's Farmers Market: Marietta, GA - 4:17 pm

    The key is to shop as seasonally and as locally as you can. And for me, that means farmer's markets and roadside stands. Now you want to choose firm, fragrant tomatoes. That's right. Yeah, they should be heavy for their size and yield to gentle pressure without ever being mushy. Oh, listen, as long as they don't have any big open splits or, you know, bugs crawling in and out, don't get too carried away with aesthetics, okay? I mean, some of the tastiest tomatoes you will ever eat will also be the ugliest you'll ever look at. And those heirlooms? You'll never find those at the mega-mart.

AB: [to the hand] That's a nice choice.

    Now when you get them home, don't keep them in direct sunlight, okay, no matter how pretty they look. Oh, and never put them in the refrigerator, okay? If they drop below 50 degrees a flavor compound called (Z)-3-dexenal is just going to flip itself off like a chemical switch ... permanently.

In 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the tomato
a vegetable, subject to vegetable import tariffs.

The Kitchen

    Despite the fact that the tomato is our only stuff-able berry, most home cooks pass on this application be ... no, that's turkey ... they pass on the application because the tomato in question usually emerges from the oven with the texture of a rain soaked piñata. The secret to success lies in proper preparation.


    Now, due to their shape and the stability of their wall meat, the globe tomato is ideal for stuffing. Step one, cut off the lid and have a look inside. [tries to cut tomato with a straight edge knife] The problem is tomatoes have thin, smooth rubbery skins that can bedevil even a very sharp knife. They're kind of like human beings wearing wetsuits. And we know how you can cut through one of those. [talks through the bones of a shark's jaw] Hmmm. Maybe what would be good for sawing through a scuba diver would be good for sawing through tomatoes.

Linens 'N Things: Atlanta, GA - 11:17 am

GUEST: "W", Equipment Specialist

AB: [walks up behind W, his reflection shines in a pot lid]
W: Ugh. I can't get that ugly scum off this lid.
AB: Ha, ha, ha. W, I'm looking for something even more cutting than your wit, a serrated knife.
W: Stamped or forged bade?
AB: Hmm. That's a very good question. 

The Kitchen

    A forged blade has been pounded out of a hot block of steel. Now you can always recognize such a sword by this wide spot, the bolster, which provides heft, balance and a safe harbor for your fingers. Such knives are especially well suited to chopping, dicing and mincing. But since it takes about 50 operations to make one, they can be pretty expensive.

Forged Blade


   Now a pressed or stamped blade is cut, usually by a laser from a rolled sheet of metal. The handle's attached and away you go. No heft, no balance, no bolster but no hefty price tag, either, just a thin sharp blade. These knives are well suited to applications requiring little contact with the cutting board such as carving, boning and slicing tomatoes.

Pressed Or Stamped Blade

Linens 'N Things

AB: W, a stamped or pressed blade will be just fine.
W: Fine. Now just pick a style. We have a tomato knife, an offset bread knife and a traditional bread knife.
AB: Okay. Well, this [tomato knife] certainly does look like it would do the job. But you know what, I think I'd hit my knuckles on the cutting board long before I'd made it though the tomato. So, I'll pass. Now, this guy [offset bread knife] takes care of the knuckle problem. But you know what? This kind of angle here creates a pivot and that could result in a loss of control. That scares me. And this [traditional bread knife] looks promising. We've got a little upsweep in the blade. That'll buy my knuckles some space and this stout blade is just long enough to make it through a tomato in a single swipe. I'll take it.
W: Today we're offering a free gift. [hands AB a large bandage]
AB: Ahh. A free gift. A bandage. You know, why don't you just keep that in case you rub up against your own personality.

The Kitchen

    All tomatoes have inner chambers containing seeds and a rather acidic gel which has got to go for stuffing. Now if the target tomato has large chambers running top to bottom, you can leave them intact. They'll help to hold the stuffing in during dinner. Just scoop out the goo with your finger. There. But if the chambers are tight and squiggly, you're going to have to break out another serrated tool, a grapefruit spoon. One of my favorite multi-taskers. You can use this thing to gut this thing [tomato] like a trout.

Believing it to be an aphrodisiac, the French called
the tomato pomme d'amour or "love apple."

    Once you've lidded and seeded 6 large globe tomatoes, salt them liberally and then turn them over and allow them to drain for about 15 minutes. This is going to purge the excess liquid in the meat thus avoiding the piñata scenario we saw early on. There.

6 Large Globe Tomatoes, Lidded & Seeded

Salt & Invert For 15 mins.

    Meanwhile, rehydrate three cups of dried mushrooms. I like to start with a cup of chanterelles, a cup of morels and a cup of shiitakes in two cups of white wine, a nice Sauvignon blanc will do just fine. And a cup of hot water. Good.

1 Cup Dried Chanterelles
1 Cup Dried Morels
1 Cup Dried Shiitakes
2 Cups White Wine
1 Cup Hot H2O

    Meanwhile ... [pumps oil into sauté pan and then adds garlic, shallots and onion] 2 Tbs. Olive Oil
1 Tbs. Minced Garlic
2 Tbs. Minced Shallots
1 Cup Finely Diced Onion
[squeezes mushrooms and places them on a cutting board] Squeeze Mushrooms & Reserve Liquid
[roughly chops the mushrooms] Roughly Chop Mushrooms & Add To Onion Mixture
[stirs in the mushrooms with the garlic mixture] Cook 5 mins. Over Medium Heat
[adds liquid to pan and sautés] Add 1/2 Cup Of Reserved Liquid
Simmer 5 More mins.
[stirs in pepper and tomato] 1/4 tsp. Freshly Ground Pepper
1 Roughly Chopped Tomato
[stirs in Panko] 1 1/4 Cups Panko (Japanese Bread Crumbs)
[holds a gutted tomato in one hand and an equally sized measuring cup filled with the mushroom mixture in the other, places tomato top-side down over the cup and inverts both so that the mixture falls into the tomato]  
[has placed 6 filled mushrooms on a sheet pan, evenly spaced. places cheese and parsley on top of tomatoes.] Top with mixture of 3 1/2 oz. goat cheese & 1 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley
    Park these on the middle rack under your broiler and leave them there for 5 to 7 minutes or until the top is bubbly and brown. Oh, and leave the door cracked just a little so that the broiler won't turn off.

5-7 mins.

Asian cultures use tomatoes to treat ailments from asthma to cancer.

The Kitchen

    Ah. Now that is a great looking stuffed tomato. [knock on the back door] Who dares interrupt tomato time?

AB: McGregor?
MM: Got a few tomatoes for ya, Mr. Brown. But just a few. I've got bird trouble.
AB: Well, it certainly doesn't look like your plum tomatoes have been victimized by the Tomato Pecker.
MM: I never said it was a Tomato Pecker. How did you know that?
AB: I heard him. [closes door]

    Aside from stuffing, when it comes to cooking tomatoes I really like plum or romas for the job. [turns around and his stuffed tomato is missing] Maybe he's right about that Tomato Pecker. Anyway, I like them because they've got a lot of meat but not a lot of that acidic gel that we were trying to avoid. My favorite application: a baked tomato sauce. That's right, baked.

    There. We have 20 small roma tomatoes split lengthwise and seeded. Now you could use your fingers for this if you want, but I find a teaspoon does a cleaner job. Now we're going to move these to two 13 by 9 baking pans, cut side up. Since this bakes for quite a while, I go with glass rather than my usual aluminum which could discolor from the acid in the tomatoes.

20 Roma Or Plum Tomatoes, Halved & Seeded

    Now spritz with olive oil. Then add a tablespoon each of finely chopped oregano and thyme. You can use dry if you have to but cut the amounts back to two teaspoons each. And don't worry about perfect distribution, okay? It all ends up in the same sauce. Now sprinkle with kosher salt—I'd say about half a teaspoon total—a few grinds of black pepper, two teaspoons of finely minced garlic—and yes, the order here really does matter. Last but not least, a cup of finely diced onion. Red, yellow or white, the choice is yours. There. Now into a 325 degree oven.

Olive Oil


Freshly Ground Pepper

Minced Garlic

Finely Diced Onion


    Why not do this in a pot like normal people? Because by surrounding the ingredients with dry heat we can drive off excess moisture thus concentrating the flavors. If that weren't enough, you have to remember that tomatoes contain a lot of sugar and without frequent stirring they will stick to the bottom of even the best pan ... and burn. This way we can forget about them for two whole hours.

2 Hours Later

AB: [on the phone] Yes, Mr. McGregor. Yes, I agree. The presence of a Soft Bellied Tomato Pecker is a huge threat but I really don't ... [notices the tomatoes are ready] ... I gotta go.

    Two hours later and we have indeed reduced the moisture level. Now it's time to create new flavors via caramelization. Just turn the heat to 400 and cook another half hour.

400° For 1/2 hr.

1/2 Hour Later

AB: No, McGregor. You can not mount an infrared sensor on my fence. No. I don't care ... I ... [notices tomatoes are ready again] ... I gotta go.

    Ah, that's what I call caramelization. Time to grind.
    This rather medieval looking device is called a food mill. And it is the perfect tool for separating foods from their skins while grinding them to a pulp at the same time. Just place it on top of a compatibly sized vessel and pour in the tomatoes. There. Now turn the handle. Now, the little holes will plug up every now and then so about every 4 turns you'll want to back up the other way and start again. Now you could do this, I don't know, by pushing the tomatoes through a colander but it would take a lot longer. Of course if you don't care about the skins, just throw the tomatoes in a food processor and take them for a spin. There.

    Now you could eat that sauce as is on anything from pasta to eggs to your breakfast cereal. But you'd be missing an important dimension of flavor and I just hate that. So add a cup of white wine—I like a nice cheap chardonnay—and bring to a boil over medium heat.

1 Cup White Wine

    Why bother? Because tomatoes contain alcohol-soluble flavors that can only be delivered to your tasting mechanisms in the presence of alcohol. Now you could use vodka for this but wine also brings a nice fruitiness to the party. So let that come to a boil, then drop the heat to a simmer, stirring often. Let it go for about 5 minutes, just long enough for most of the alcohol to cook out. But remember, alcohol never ever cooks out all the way. So if you've got an aversion, skip this step. The sauce will still be great.

In the 1830's tomato ketchup became
known as America's national condiment.

The Kitchen

    As far as I'm concerned, the culinary sum of all summers is the TBL sandwich. Oh, I know. BLT is the usual moniker, but let's face it. If we were talking about the Supremes here, this [tomato] would be Diana Ross. Of course to play on this team, we need a tomato that can stand up to the smoky saltiness of bacon, the watery crunch of lettuce, the creamy smoothness of mayonnaise and the heavy porousness of country bread.

    As far as I'm concerned, that means we need a tomato with a lot of sweetness. And, as is true so often, sweet things come in little packages. In fact, little things come in little packages. This is called a jewel box and it's packed up with cherry, pear and grape tomatoes. Ah, it's cute.

Jewel Box

[spreads mayo on bread, places bacon on top, then lettuce, slices of the small tomatoes. He cuts, folds over, raises to his mouth and all of the little tomatoes fall out]  

    Luckily, there's more than one way to build a sandwich.

    Start by cutting a quart of one-inch bread cubes. Let these dry uncovered overnight. Then cook six thick slices of bacon. Drain them and cut them into one-inch pieces. Then add the hot drippings to the bread. Yum. Now while that soaks in, sear two cups of halved grape tomatoes in a hot baking pan face down. It'll take 5 minutes or until caramelized. Then toss in two cups of halved pear tomatoes but leave them raw so you get more of a range of flavor and contrast. Then add two cups of romaine leaves, chopped. Very good.

1 quart of 1-inch French Bread Cubes

6 Thick Slices Bacon, Cut Into 1-inch Pieces

Add Bacon Drippings To Bread

2 Cups Halved, Seared Grape Tomatoes
2 Cups Halved Pear Tomatoes

2 Cups Chopped Romaine Lettuce

    Hold the mayo and instead shake together three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil along with a quarter cup of red wine vinegar, a quarter teaspoon of salt, and a quarter teaspoon of black pepper.

AB: [to off camera person] Hold that [dressing].

3 Tbs. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4 Cup Red Wine Vinegar
1/4 tsp. Salt
1/4 tsp. Black Pepper

    Now toss this bowl into this bowl until the bread has soaked up any of the liquid from the tomatoes. Then drizzle on the dressing to taste.

    If you'd like a little bit more flavor, chiffonade a few leaves of mint and basil. Now basically a chiffonade is both a thing you do and a thing you get when you do it. Stack up about 10 leaves and then roll them tight, place on your cutting board seam down. Use your chef's knife or any other wide blade and just cut into very thin slices. Remember, guide with your knuckles.


    Toss into the sandwich-come-salad and serve. In Italy they call this panzanella. Around here we just call it ... ah, you know.

The tomato was first brought to Europe from
the New World by Christopher Columbus

Mr. McGregor's Garden

MM: I tell ya, Mr. Brown. If I catch that feathered rascal that lifted my 'maters, I'm going to get medieval on him.
AB: Oh, relax McG. There's plenty more where these came from, okay? Just put down the shot gun and pick up that stuffed tomato over there. Give that a try.

    So, what have we learned? Mmm. Well, we learned that one should always acquire home grown tomatoes whenever possible. Unless, of course, they're bound for competition. In that case just frequent your local roadside stand or farmers market. We also learned that one should never store tomatoes under 50 degrees Fahrenheit and ...

MM: I think I just caught my Soft Bellied Tomato Pecker.
AB: Well, good for you.

    See you next time ... [really fast and darts off] ... on Good Eats.

The Kitchen: Outtake

GUEST: Crewmember

AB: Um, hm. [is looking through the viewfinder]
GA#2: [drops the tomato she's throwing up and down in her hand]
AB: Oh for the love of ...

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Proofreading by Sue Libretti

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010