Benvenuti in Toscana! The Good Tastes of Tuscany monthly newsletter features historical tidbits, culinary tips and recipes of the region. This month we spotlight the superstar of summer produce: tomatoes.
You’ll find our recipe for Bruschetta (bru-SKET-ta) at the end of this newsletter. On a hot summer day this salsa made with fresh tomatoes from the garden served over toasted Italian bread is a light, refreshing snack.
At the Market
As summer approaches, Tuscans prepare for the abundance of delicious tomatoes found in local gardens and markets during the hot and humid months.
This famous fruit is one of the most important ingredients in the Italian kitchen, rivaling even the universal onion. They are a fundamental ingredient in Mediterranean cooking. They form the basis of so many Italian recipes side by side with their counterparts, garlic and olive oil.
Tomatoes are native to South America. By the time of the Spanish invasions in the sixteenth century, they were widely cultivated throughout the whole area of South America and Mexico. This succulent fruit did not become popular until the18th century. While it is documented that the Spanish were the first Europeans to use them for cooking, Italians are a close second. The English were rumored to have used tomatoes as ornamental plants to decorate their garden long before they made them an integral part of the traditional English breakfast.
It is believed that the first red tomatoes were brought to Italy by two Jesuit priests. Over time they were slowly integrated into northern Europe, where by the mid-nineteenth century they were grown extensively. By this time, pomodori were a part of the daily diet and were used in a variety of different recipes and with varying methods: cooked, raw, sun-dried, stewed and pickled.
Countless varieties of tomatoes are available at the market. The variety of tomatoes in Italy alone can be overwhelming, and matching the best tomatoes with the correct recipe is an acquired skill.
Ideally, tomatoes should be allowed to ripen slowly on the vine so that their flavor can develop. This is why homegrown tomatoes are usually best because you can pick them at their ideal time and use for cooking immediately. In Italy, most vegetables are picked ripe so that they are full of flavor if used within the next day. This is why most Italians shop at the market every few days; the vegetables do not last long, but their flavor is superior when used immediately.
When purchasing tomatoes from the supermarket or the grocer, look to the leafy green tops for guidance: the fresher they look, the better they’ll taste. Paler or greener tomatoes can be placed in a brown paper bag at room temperature for a few days to ripen. Overripe tomatoes which appear to be bursting with juice are perfect for soups – look for their splitting skins. Avoid tomatoes with any sign of mold or decay.
Bruschetta al pomodoro
Make 6-8 servings.
4 ripe tomatoes
¼ cup basil leaves
salt to taste
6-8 slices of Italian or French bread, ½ inch thick
1-2 cloves garlic
superior quality olive oil
Chop the tomatoes, remove the seeds, place in a colander with a pinch of salt and drain juice. After tomatoes have drained place in a bowl with basil and salt to taste then coat with olive oil to moisten. Toss and blend well. Set aside.
Toast sliced bread on a grill or toaster oven. Rub the warm bread with peeled garlic cloves. Drizzle bread with olive oil and add topping, or add topping then add more olive oil. Serve immediately and enjoy!