The south of Italy and the American south are kissing cousins when it comes to their love of tomatoes.
But, as chef and author Miriam Rubin relates in her new cookbook Tomatoes (University of North Carolina Press), the fruit once feared as inedible is native to neither the mezzorgiorno nor the American southland.
“[Tomatoes] come from South America. They were adopted by the Mayans and Aztecs, and then by the Spanish conquerors, who took them to Spain. From there, they spread to Italy and the Mediterranean. Then, through explorers, settlers, and in the pockets of immigrants, they came to the southern United States,” says Rubin, whose food and gardening column “Miriam’s Garden” appears in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“The South is where they were first grown, prepared, and accepted, before their spread northward. And after it was decided that they were not poisonous.”
With her charming and informative prose, plus fifty vibrant recipes, Rubin paints a passionate portrait of the tomato. She offers a bushel basketful of tips and techniques for storing, preserving, and just plain savoring many varieties, including heirlooms such as Brandywine and Cherokee Purple. She even offers exciting options for canned and supermarket hot-house tomatoes.
That said, it’s clear that her hope is to inspire home cooks to cultivate their own tomatoes to enjoy these summer fruits in all their glorious variety. “Nothing tastes better than a sun-warmed tomato plucked right off the vine,” she says. “If you grow your own tomatoes, you’re in control. Well, sort of. You also have to deal with the weather.”
She points out that tomatoes are not all alike. “I like to indicate to readers which tomato I think would work best, and let them know my concept behind the recipe,” Rubin says. “Basically the rules—meant to be broken—are that when you need body and thickness, as for tomato sauce, use mostly or all paste-type tomatoes, which have pulpier walls and less juice. Choose Romas (aka plum tomatoes), Amish Paste, Black Plum, and San Marzano tomatoes.”