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Scarlet Bonanza

July 25, 1985|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

It's easy to tell when backyard vegetable plots begin to bulge with an overflow of tomatoes. Panic sets in as many home gardeners suddenly realize they really don't know how to deal with the excess of success they are having. The end result is that our mail basket overflows too, with pleas for help in using these highly perishable garden favorites.

Tomatoes are truly a product of the Western world. Oddly enough, although they have been around for centuries, they only have been popular as a food in this country for the last 100 years or so. In fact, they had to travel to Europe and back before making the grade here. There even was a time when they were called "love apples" and were considered poisonous.

Somehow tomatoes still seem to suffer from an identity crisis. My trusty desk dictionary says that a tomato is "a red or yellowish fruit with a juicy pulp, used as a vegetable: botanically it is a berry." And since that covers just about everything a tomato might possibly be, I, for one, have no intention of delving one whit further into the pedigree of this popular produce staple. I'll accept its confusing status with equanimity so long as it continues to be available to enhance my menus the year round.

The No. 1 question asked by tomato lovers today is, of course, "Why don't today's tomatoes taste like they used to?" As any home gardener can tell you, it's quite possible to grow good tasting tomatoes. There are excellent varietal choices available to both commercial growers and home growers.

The commercial grower, understandably, however, is as interested in producing a tomato that will be sturdy enough to survive all the handling it takes to get it to market as in its flavor. At the same time don't think a commercial grower isn't interested in flavor. I've never met one yet that wasn't. If a supermarket tomato doesn't have reasonably good flavor, the consumer doesn't buy tomatoes the second time around. And that can hit a grower where it hurts, in the pocketbook. So most of the commercial tomatoes today, while maybe not as great in flavor as a good home-grown product, start out with the possibility of tasting pretty good. It's often what happens between the time they are picked and the moment you pop them into a plastic bag at the supermarket that makes the difference.

As anyone who has ever grown tomatoes at home knows, there is absolutely nothing as marvelous as the flavor of a beautiful red-ripe tomato still warm from the summer sun. It has a distinctive aroma that only enhances the taste. But a tomato picked at that stage in a commercial growing field would undoubtedly be paste by the time the truck got to the packing house. So the grower is going to pick the tomato you find at the market when it is mature, but still green or pinkish green in color. At this stage the tomato has some ripening to do, but if properly handled between the field and the market, it should develop the deep red color that is equated with a ripe tomato and an equally ripe, rich flavor.

The problem is that too often the consumer will discover that although the tomato he or she has chosen has a good color tone, the flavor is missing. And a good percentage of the time what has happened is that somewhere between the field and the supermarket produce bin, the missing flavor has been chilled into oblivion.

Once a picked tomato has been subjected to temperatures less than 55 degrees for any length of time, the ripening process is stopped and flavor loss begins. Ideally, picked tomatoes should be kept at temperatures between 55 degrees and 70 degrees until they are fully ready to eat. Unfortunately the consumer has no way of knowing whether a shipper or unwary warehouse clerk has, in order to keep tomatoes fresh, stored them in a commercial refrigerator that is too cold for them to survive.

So if you are growing tomatoes in your own garden, take a tip from some of the experts and keep the home-grown bounty out of the refrigerator until it's totally ripe. And if you really want a tomato to taste its best, eat it at room temperature rather than chilled.

As with most familiar foods, cooks are always looking for new ways to use tomatoes. The introduction to the American market of the Italian sun-dried tomatoes during the past few years has piqued the interest of many readers. The process of drying tomatoes is in no way a difficult one, but there are some things to consider before embarking on the process of preparing your own.

For one thing, if you are going to dry tomatoes the natural way by letting them sit in the sun for hours, you'll need to cover them with some sort of screening that will keep the bugs out but allow the sun to penetrate. Take the tomatoes in at night and put them out in the sun once again the next day until the drying process is completed.

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