In the first part of "The Early Show" 's "Summer Harvest 101" series, Tim Stark, author of "Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer," and proprietor of Eckerton Hill Farm,s filled viewers in the basics -- from market to the kitchen -- for putting the best tomatoes on your table.
First and foremost, Stark said, tomatoes are better when they don't travel long distances. Tomatoes from Mexico and Canada, he explained, have probably taken some time to get to your grocery store. So if you're going to buy at a grocery store, he recommended asking them which of their tomatoes are locally grown -- or shopping at your local green market.
Stark said you'll know fresh tomatoes by their often healthy sheen. The skins, he said, will have a nice shine to them, and they will be delicate to the touch. The freshest tomatoes, Stark said, will leak juices when pierced.
"Really good tomatoes are too delicate to travel long distances," he said. "You want there to be some firmness, but really you want it to be a very fragile to handle."
But what kind of tomato should you buy?
There are hundreds of types of tomatoes out there, Stark said. The first distinction, he explained, are heirloom versus hybrid tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes mean that the seed has been passed down from generation to generation for pure lineage in the plant. Hybrid tomatoes mean that one or two seeds have been cross pollinated. Heirlooms, he said, come in a vast variety of colors from green striped, to deep red, to a dark purple.
However, familiar to most shoppers are cherry tomatoes, a small tomato packed with flavor. Also common are beef steak tomatoes, which come in a variety of colors that are common in sandwiches and salads.
Heirlooms, Stark explained, are often misshaped and colorful. Often, he said, heirlooms are some of the best-tasting and freshest.
But once you've selected your tomatoes, how do you store them?
The first and most important rule of tomato storage, according to Stark, is to not refrigerate them unless absolutely necessary. Refrigerating tomatoes, he said, will make them mealy and dry. When buying fresh tomatoes, he said, you should really be enjoying them in three to four days. Good tomatoes, he explained, will keep fresh for a week if kept on the counter, in a bowl, out of direct sunlight.
Another way to have fresh August tomato flavor all year long, he said, is to boil down tomatoes with garlic, water and some basil and some other herbs, low and slow. You should keep them on a low simmer for around seven hours. Then, simply can them with a basic canning set. Stark said you don't have to worry about botulism or any viruses because tomatoes are so acidic.
Additionally, Stark said, you can keep that fresh tomato flavor by making your own marinara sauce with your fresh tomatoes and freezing them for the winter in pint plastic containers.
Stark also shared these simple recipes for enjoying tomatoes the fresh way:
Loaf of bread with a nice rustic crust, cut into 3/4 inch slices, sour dough or wheat
Various large slicing tomatoes, different colored heirlooms if possible, sliced 1/2 inch
1 lb. of bacon, cooked, drained well on paper towel
Boston (aka, butterhead, bibb) lettuce and/or or a spicy green like arugula
Salt and pepper
Toast two pieces of bread and slather one side of each with mayonnaise. Place enough tomato slices on one piece of the bread so as to cover the bread with an excess 1/4-1/2-inch margin of tomato all around.
Add salt and pepper and a little olive oil if desired. Place a layer of bacon on top of the tomatoes. Then pile on some lettuce, preferably a tasty, silky lettuce like Boston. Maybe add some arugula for spice. Put the last slice of bread on top.
Slice in half. A pound of bacon should be enough for five or six sandwiches.
A variety of different colored and/or sized tomatoes, including slicers, medium and small salad tomatoes like green zebra and cherry tomatoes like sun gold cherry tomatoes
Fresh, mild cheese (I prefer the feta my neighbor makes from the goats in her yard, but Chevre works well, as does fresh mozzarella)
Basil (I'm a big fan of the spicy, bush or Greek basil, but purple adds incredible color and any kind of basil will do)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
Start out slicing the larger tomatoes, either in round thick sandwich slices or wedges. Arrange these slices on a large attractive plate so as to make a colorful splash if you have a good variety of tomatoes. Then start slicing the medium sized tomatoes, like green zebra, purple calabash, tiger tom, etc, and stack them on top of the larger tomatoes.
When slicing the medium tomatoes, take advantage of their odd shapes, such as ruffles and dimples and points, so that you can showcase those irregularities along with the colors. Also, cut the medium-sized tomatoes into bite sized pieces. Finally, add the cherry tomatoes, cutting the larger cherry tomatoes in half but leaving the tiniest currant type tomatoes intact. Cut the cheese into bite sized cubes and add them randomly to the pile of tomatoes. Slice some basil leaves, both purple and green if possible, and sprinkle over the top. Sprinkle olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the top, add salt and pepper if desired.