Perfection in a red dress: Ode to the tomato

Too often food TV offers a schizophrenic view of cuisine, in which the nastiest of ingredients and quixotic challenges puzzle contestants who make a concoction that “wins,” for lack of a better word, by not making the guest judge sick. But you wouldn’t want to actually eat it. And then there are the programs in which someone is making their own cheese from the goat on their private ranch before you can get to the authentic recipe for Mediterranean pizza. And here I am without livestock.

Which leaves aspiring foodies and goat-free cooks like myself in search of a simpler glory – the kind that you can find at a farmer’s market – where fresh vegetables and simple produce make a meal fit for a king. But nothing compares to that most glorious of summer vegetables – the tomato.


It is as magnificent alone as in any dish: Perfection in a red dress. And even the most haphazard of gardeners can usually win a battle with weather and rabbits to enjoy the taste of sunshine and summer.

No other vegetable sounds like it stars in its own rap band -- Big boy, Beefmaster, Great White, Roma, Tiny Tim or Big Daddy -- or strikes fear in young hearts through more than 25 years of cinematic glory in "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

You throw them at bad public speakers, avoid a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes rating or cook them down into the pride of Italian mothers (gravy NOT sauce).

And we haven’t even talked vitamins. I am convinced that tomatoes will be discovered to have miracle powers, in addition turning lifeless lettuce into “salad.”

Whole Foods notes that tomatoes are low in Sodium, and very low in Saturated Fat and Cholesterol, a good source of Vitamin E, Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Potassium and Manganese.

And then there is lycopene, a phytochemical, which is a long way of saying “can kick cancer in the derriere,” helping prevent disease and keep your body working properly … if you like that kind of thing.

Which brings me to the French, who sometimes referred to the tomato as pomme d’amour – le "Love Apple" – that surely says something great about the produce (available without prescription).

I have the fondest memories of my mother cooking down bushels of tomatoes into the freshest and most amazing stewed tomatoes and canning them to capture the taste of summer.

We enjoyed them in many dishes through long winter months in Northern Iowa where it can snow in April. Generations of transplanted elders (Germans, Swedes and Italians in my neck of the woods) knew how to recreate the taste of the Good Earth into a meal – while my brothers and I got stuck with weeding the garden. But it was worth it.

Recently, I’ve been channeling my inner prairie woman, following my mother’s footsteps, even going so far as to purchase a “How to Can” guide that makes me wonder what you did in the wilderness without the internet and a pressure cooker (which I’m still afraid to use. Appliances that hiss seem most unnatural.)

Thankfully, tomatoes endure even amateur attempts to prepare them, through the shear genius of taste.

In my neck of the proverbial woods, “TomatoFest” comes to town soon, and I will want to be there, with fellow junkies, to argue the merits of the heirlooms versus the hybrids, because if you think there are certain global concerns that get heated, ask a gardener about “the best” varietal and time to plant. Lucky for me, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through a network of county extension offices, provides a hotline of services for struggling gardeners nursing plants like a new mother studying “What to Expect” books.

But if you’re looking for a tasty summer recipe go no further – Buy beautiful tomato, wash, slice, eat, enjoy and repeat. It doesn’t get any simpler than that, and it doesn’t get any better.