Califonia Bountiful

Tomatoes provide a world of flavor

Thousands flock to the region's farms and bake shops to experience the tastes and smells of harvest season and to eat anything and everything associated with apples.

The French call them the "Apples of Love," the Germans refer to them as the "Apples of Paradise" but our produce expert, Andy Powning from GreenLeaf Produce in San Francisco, says that no matter what you call them, eat them, because if it's fall it must mean it's prime time for tomatoes. There's no better time than now to take advantage of the plethora of tomatoes out there.

Originating in the Andes, and cultivated for thousands of years, the tomato has a rich history. Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit and a member of the nightshade family and was originally thought to be poisonous in the United States. That was until Thomas Jefferson, an avid gardener, stepped in to save the day and set the record straight by growing and eating tomatoes himself. By 1850, the tomato had become an important produce item in every American city and has remained a favorite ever since. Today California is the No. 2 producer of fresh market tomatoes behind Florida. Last year alone, the Golden State produced nearly 937 million pounds of tomatoes.

In addition to being revered for their great taste, tomatoes are being hailed for their health benefits. Lycopene, which is found primarily in tomatoes and tomato products, is being studied for its health benefits. In addition to giving tomatoes their vibrant color, lycopene may help protect against diseases such as cancer and heart disease--just another reason to throw some fresh tomatoes into your next dish.

If you do decide to take advantage of the variety of tomatoes out on the market today, Andy offers a couple of tips to keep in mind when selecting them. He says to look for tomatoes with maximum red coloring that are plump with smooth skins and heavy for their size. They should be free of bruises, blemishes, deep cracks or leathery dark patches. If tomatoes are soft and yielding to the touch, they are fully ripe, so only buy them if you can use them immediately.

Tomato and Mozzarella Salad

Serves 4 to 6
1 pound firm, ripe tomatoes, sliced
1/2 pound mozzarella cheese (the "in the water" and salted variety works best in this recipe), sliced approx. 1/4 inch per slice
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons each fresh parsley and fresh basil (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
Black olives (optional)
Sugar (pinch)
Salt and pepper to taste

Arrange the tomato slices in an overlapping circular pattern around a flat serving dish. Sprinkle the herbs and sugar and season with salt and pepper. Cover the dish loosely with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1/2 hour (but no longer than 2 hours, because the tomatoes will get "runny"). Slice the cheese. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Just before serving, remove the plastic wrap, arrange the cheese slices in the center of the tomatoes and scatter the olives over the top. Dress the salad with the olive oil, using a fork if necessary to life the tomato slices, assuring that the oil drains through them. (The salad can be refrigerated, dressed, for 15 to 30 minutes at this stage without losing color or becoming limp.)


Serves 6 to 8
1 pound Italian country style bread, 2 days old, in slices inches thick
3/4 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons good quality red wine vinegar or more to taste
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1.5 pounds fresh, firm, ripe tomatoes, cubed, about 5 cups
1 small Spanish onion, thinly sliced
10 to 15 fresh basil leaves, washed, drained on paper towels and shredded (save a few for garnish)
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Soak the bread in cold water to cover for about 10 minutes. Remove, squeezing out as much moisture as you can. Meanwhile, prepare the dressing of oil, 2 vinegars, salt and pepper; whip with a fork to combine thoroughly. Coarsely crumble the bread into a large serving bowl. Add the tomatoes, the onion and the basil. Add a little dressing at a time until all ingredients are well coated. Garnish with a few basil leaves and serve.

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