FOOD WISE: Simple ingredients accent the flavor of fresh tomatoes

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Tomato salad with avocado and bacon.

Every summer it happens. I have the best of intentions, but when I see them at the nursery they are so beautiful and there are so many varieties to choose from.

I know my eyes are bigger than my vegetable patch. In the not too distant future, I will have a completely overwhelming crop of ripe, juicy, gorgeous tomatoes. I’ll be up to my elbows for weeks in sauce making, canning, salads and all manner of tomato cookery. The thought of this may be enough to make a weaker woman run shrieking from the room, but I simply use it as an excuse to come up with more recipes to highlight their delectable flavor. It’s like biting into sunshine.

One could argue that all a truly perfect vine-ripened tomato needs is a sharp knife and a sprinkle of course salt. Some of us have even been known to snack on sweet, tiny Sun Gold tomatoes as if they were candy. (My current favorite is a variety of cherry tomatoes called champagne tomatoes.) But where’s the inspiration in that? The challenge is to find a way to combine straight-off-the-vine tomatoes with ingredients that highlight but don’t smother their unforgettable flavor. I think the secret is to keep things simple and let the tomatoes shine rather than lose them in a mess of ingredients.

When it comes to choosing a tomato for your recipe, it’s important to keep in mind the acidity level. Acid level is much more important than the variety of the fruit. While a highly acidic tomato would nicely compliment the fat in bacon and avocado, it would be too much in a salad with a buttermilk dressing. Yellow and orange tomatoes tend to be the least acidic, while green varieties are generally the most acidic. Red tomatoes usually fall somewhere in between.

Some of the most common varieties include the common supermarket red. Not really a variety at all, the supermarket tomato is valued for its firmness, color and ability to ship without bruising.

Cherry tomatoes are normally very sweet and have lots of water content. They are deeply colored but have tough little skins. They are best used in the winter but can be passed over in the summer for more flavorful varieties.

A rediscovered variety that is really in favor currently is the heirloom. One popular Amish heirloom is called the brandywine and its seeds have been passed down since the 1800’s. It is prized for its strong tomato flavor. It is intensely sweet, has lots of juice, barely any seeds and a good balance of acidity. Truly a find!

And of course, the grocery store aisles are littered with grape tomato varieties. They tend to be mild and tough skinned, with deep color and low moisture. They are small, like cherry tomatoes, and are sweet year-round, but without the characteristic tang of a good ripe tomato.

A lot of people are not quite sure how to deal with tomato ripening. A good general guideline is ripe tomatoes are deep in color, smell sweet, and yield gently to pressure. Do not refrigerate tomatoes; the cold destroys flavor and retards ripening. Tomatoes will continue to ripen at room temperature. To speed up the process, place the tomatoes in a paper bag. Tomatoes release ethylene as they ripen, which speeds up the ripening process when contained in a bag. However, a paper bag can only do so much. For example, hard green tomatoes will not develop full tomato flavor no matter how long they sit on your counter. Skip the paper bag and just fry them up instead.

Chef Reneé is an award-winning, classically trained chef. She earned her culinary degree at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor of music degree from Hardin-Simmons University. She has an extensive background in events planning and management. Reneé lives in Liberty Hill, with her husband, John, their dogs, cats, chickens and one ornery rooster.

Bring Home the Bacon Tomato Salad

Serves 4

1 tablespoon plain yogurt

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1 tablespoon milk

1 small garlic clove, minced

1 pound tomatoes, cored and cut into 1 inch chunks

1 ripe but still firm avocado, diced

8 sliced bacon, cooked until crisp, drained on paper towels and crumbled

1 head Bibb lettuce, leaves separated but left whole

1. Whisk yogurt, mayonnaise, milk and garlic in a small bowl. Place tomatoes, avocado and bacon in a large bowl. Add dressing to tomato mixture and toss until evenly coated. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

2. Line serving bowl with lettuce leaves and fill with salad. Serve.

Rhapsody in Blue Cheese Tomato Salad

Serves 4

2 ears corn, kernels removed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 pound tomatoes, cored and cut into 1 inch chunks

1 cup arugula, torn into 1 1/2 inch pieces

4 scallions, sliced thin

2/3 cup crumbled blue cheese

salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring 2 quarts of water to boil in a large saucepan. Add corn and simmer 2 minutes. Drain and let cool.

2. Whisk oil and vinegar together in small bowl.

3. Place tomato, arugula, scallion and corn in a large bowl. Add vinaigrette to tomato mixture and toss until evenly coated. Gently toss in crumbled blue cheese and season with salt and pepper to taste.