The tomato originated in the Andes Mountains and was cultivated by the Incas and Aztecs as early as 700 A.D. Google the history of the tomato and you’ll see that it is purely an American phenomenon. Good old Cortez supposedly found them in Montezuma’s garden and took the seeds back to Europe where it was grown as an ornamental.
For years, it was thought to be a poisonous member of the deadly nightshade family! In fact, it was called “the poison apple” and according to Smithsonian history, people got sick from the chemical reaction between the acidic tomato and the pewter plates they were served on. Voila — lead poisoning! When it was discovered that you could eat them and not keel over, Europeans began to experiment with them in cooking and found that they could be used to create a variety of dishes. The Italians latched onto them quickly to create sauces and special dishes that became national favorites.
The tomato made its serious entrance into American life during the Civil War with farms raising and canning them for the soldiers. It was probably old man Campbell, around 1897, who clinched the popularity of this fruit turned veggie with his tomato soup in a can. His catchy slogans, such “Mmm Mmm Good!” and “It’s Amazing What Soup Can Do!” have kept it as a kitchen cabinet item for more than a century.
To me, there is nothing more reminiscent of summer than the tomato. When I was growing up, I rarely saw a summer dinner plate without a slice or two of tomato neatly arranged on the side. My mother used to talk about finding “the perfect slicing tomato” or the “perfect sandwich tomato.” At an early age, my friend, Katie Brown, introduced me to the tomato and mayonnaise sandwich which was her go-to food in the summer. The best thing about going to play at her house was having a big plate of these diagonally cut, crustless sandwiches piled high and waiting for us after a hard day of playing outside.
As I began to have my own gardens, I had to plant them all — pink, red and yellow stripes, big yellow and little cherries. I have cooked, canned, frozen and supplied my friends with tomatoes through the years, but I never forgot to set aside the perfect slicing tomatoes for those tomato and mayo sandwiches. In fact, tonight I think I will honor my late friend, Katie B., by picking my first “perfect sandwich tomato,” spreading some homemade bread with Duke’s Mayo and pulling up some important childhood summer memories. If I had a sprinkler to run through, I would probably do it! Cheers, Katie B!
Sheridan Nice recently taught a cooking class that centered around Julia Child’s cooking style. Her tomato pie received rave reviews from everyone in the class. It is not your usual quiche — using tomato as the main ingredient and no milk or cream. Great summer lunch or dinner when those summer tomatoes are perfect!
Provencal Tomato Quiche
1 9-inch pie shell
½ cup Kalamata olives, processed to a coarse paste
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 medium onions, sliced thinly
2 cups fresh tomato puree
1 whole egg, plus 3 egg yolks
Cayenne, oregano, thyme, salt and black pepper to taste
1-2 fresh tomatoes sliced
1. Parbake a pie shell. Using a 9-inch shell, prick all over with a fork and bake it at 450 F for 15 minutes.
2. Base: Blend ½ cup Kalamata olives to a coarse paste.
3. Filling: Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan, then sauté until the onions are cooked, but not browned.
Add 2 cups tomato puree and cook the mixture until it is very thick and the water has almost evaporated. Season the mixture with cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper, oregano and thyme.
Let the filling cool almost to room temperature, then stir in 1 whole egg, 3 egg yolks and ½ cup minced fresh parsley.
4. Grate some Parmesan cheese and slice 1-2 fresh tomatoes.
5. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Assemble the quiche — layer the olive paste at the bottom of the prebaked pie shell, then pour in the filling, scatter the cheese and arrange the tomato slices (”tastefully,” Julia instructs. I tried). Drizzle the top with olive oil and sprinkle with some salt and pepper.
6. Bake the quiche for 30-40 minutes until the cheese is golden and bubbly.
7. Let sit until set and easy to cut.
Abingdon’s Chef Susie Buckner created a Mexican Fiesta Party Day for our teens during summer camp. Her salsa was the hit of the day! What a perfect way to use an abundance of garden tomatoes at the height of the season!
Susie’s Spicy Summer Salsa
Makes 5 cups
4 cups diced fresh summer tomatoes
1 15 oz. can of Rotel diced tomatoes with chilies
1 medium onion, diced
1-3 (depending on how hot you like it) Chipotle peppers in Adobo sauce (from a can)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch cilantro, stems removed
¼ cup fresh lime juice
In a food processor or blender, combine fresh diced tomatoes, Rotel tomatoes, onion, chilies in Adobo sauce, cumin, salt, pepper and sugar. Pulse a few times to combine.
Add cilantro and lime juice. Blend until desired thickness. Make several hours ahead of time for best flavor.
Keeps covered in refrigerator for two weeks.
This is one of my favorite ways to use fresh pesto in the summer. It is perfect warm as a side dish or excellent at room temperature or slightly chilled as a summer salad. If you feel you need some protein, add some diced grilled chicken.
Pesto Rice with Tomatoes and Feta
1½ cups long-grain white or brown rice
1 pint cherry tomatoes, red and yellow, halved
½ cup chopped green onion
8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
Homemade pesto dressing:
½ cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 tablespoons walnuts or almonds
½ cup high-grade olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ tsp salt
Pepper to taste
Optional: diced chicken
Cook rice according to package directions. Transfer to a bowl and let cool slightly.
Stir in tomatoes, feta, green onion and pesto dressing and let stand about 15 minutes.
To serve as chilled salad, refrigerate all ingredients except dressing and add dressing just before serving.
Jennifer King Ferreira grew up in Kingsport, where she received her first cooking experiences from her grandmother, Genevieve Shivell. She is the past owner of the Abingdon General Store and Plum Alley Eatery, a gourmet store and restaurant in Abingdon, Va., and serves as marketing and public relations specialist for the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center and the Cooking Along the Crooked Road Culinary Program.