There were no tomatoes in Italian food until the late 17th or early 18th century. Indigenous to the New World, it was well after Columbus set sail that tomatoes made their way to the tables of Europe.
There were no tomatoes on my own table until about 15 years ago. I grew up a bit of a fussy eater, and didn't like raw tomatoes. One day at a farmers market I was offered a taste of a just-picked tomato.
It was sweet and juicy and melted in my mouth. I flew home from that San Francisco market with a bag of tomatoes resting gently on my lap. It turns out that I actually like tomatoes; it's just that I'd never tasted a good one. Standard grocery store tomatoes are often substandard. They're picked and shipped before they're ripe and they've been bred for maximum shelf life, not for flavor. Luckily, times have changed (or they're beginning to change). Vine ripened tomatoes are relatively easy to find and heirloom tomatoes have gone from trend to a near-staple status. Give me a good tomato and I'll give you all sorts of good ways to add it to your next meal.
There's more than one way to cook a tomato, and I'll get to those next week. Below are my favorite raw tomato options.
Mixed Heirloom Tomato Salad is as colorful as confetti and as simple a recipe as you'll ever find. Slice or dice your tomatoes and toss with a little olive oil and a splash or two of vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Tomato and Bread Salad was originally a way of using day old bread. Now I use a fresh crusty loaf of bread to make huge Texas-ish croutons and toss them with tomatoes and Fresh Tomato Vinaigrette - which adds a whole extra dimension of tomato to the salad. Let the salad sit for 10 - 15 minutes before serving so the croutons are partly crunchy partly chewy. The vinaigrette is also a nice way of getting some tomato splashed onto every piece of lettuce in a green salad.
If you want to add cheese to your tomato salad use a vegetable peeler to get beautifully shaved Manchego or Asiago.
Last - a fun way to use tomatoes as a side dish and a garnish is to get tomatoes that are different colors but the same size. Slice them horizontally and then re-assemble using alternating colors. Cut a paper-thin slice off the bottom so it'll wobble but it won't fall down.
Fresh ripe tomatoes are one of the western hemisphere's greatest contributions to the culinary word. They're worthy of a little culinary exploration.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.