Wait for a ripe tomato, then savor the flavor of summer

Aug. 22, 2019
summer tomatoes - Photo of Pan con Tomate
Use your fresh summer tomatoes for this simple Pan con tomate. Photo by Rachel Adams courtesy of Ultreia Restaurant.

Well, the food police have at least one thing right: Do not buy tomatoes outside of summer. Winter’s puck-like pink cardboard orbs are tomatoes in name alone. They are abominable.

Someone once wrote “It is the duty of a wine to be red.” It is the duty of a tomato to be juicy. One of the only foods worth losing is half a tomato’s juice running down your chin, because that means the other half is running down your throat.

Your favorite tomato ought to be the last one that you ate; wait until they’re ready for you, not you for it. That means summertime, no other time.

The tomato is native to the Andes, although it was most widely cultivated in Mesoamerica (present day Mexico and Central America). Its name derives from the Nahuatl language, as xitomatl.

While the Italians certainly have done a number with the tomato, it didn’t reach Europe until well after Columbus. Although we now eat the tomato only second to the potato, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that it was widespread in kitchens and dining rooms in both Europe and the United States.

Although botanically a fruit (technically a berry), we consider the tomato a vegetable, and it was determined to be so in an 1893 case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court based its decision on linguistic convention, not science, because most Americans treated tomatoes as vegetables, serving them “at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

Suggestions in order to enjoy your tomatoes, fruits of the vine, to their fullest:

  • Never, ever, put a tomato in the refrigerator. If it’s vine-ripened, it has a ripe aroma, even if uncut. The refrigerator inactivates those aromas which is a big mistake because aroma makes up an enormous quotient of taste. (Can’t taste much at all when you’re ill with a “code in your node,” right?)
  • Ripen or store tomatoes outside the refrigerator and out of direct sunlight. Wash them just before using, not after bringing them home from the market.
  • You may ripen them, if they’re not fully ripe and soft, in a brown paper bag, in order both to trap ripening gases and prevent dehydration.
  • To peel the skin: With the point of a paring knife, make a small X at the base end. Drop into softly boiling water for 30 seconds; remove to a bowl of cold or iced water for another 30 seconds. The peel will slip off from the X, using your fingers or the paring knife’s edge.
  • When vine-ripened, a tomato will slice using a sharp chef’s or slicing knife, although a serrated knife may help.
  • The seeds are said to be bitter and will be if firmly masticated or processed, although in most preparations of vine-ripened tomatoes today, seeds do not end up so. Also, the highest concentration of vitamin C (and the tomato’s crispening acidity) is in the jelly, often needlessly tossed away.

A note on wine with tomatoes, in whatever form or however cooked or eaten: Tomatoes are one of the globe’s more acidic foods; you’ll find that out if you have a small cut on your finger and you peel a fresh one with your hands. Dishes high in acidity are helped along in their deliciousness by wines also high in acidity. Strange but true; one actually cancels out the other.

The worst wines to serve with tomatoes are those low in acidity or high in alcohol, often a double bill in many wines from warmer climates or from overripe grapes. Fleshy, tannic red wines made from grenache or carignan don’t seem to work, although those from high-acid grapes such as sangiovese, barbera, or xinomavro can star. (Would the Italians choose any other grape than the sangiovese for their uber-pomodoro cuisine?)

The recipe here comes from Ultreia Restaurant, in the Great Hall at Denver’s Union Station downtown. Ultreia showcases foods and preparations from Portugal and Spain. Pan con tomate is famed in Barcelona and the surrounding district of Catalan. The restaurant serves it by itself (as the recipe here) or with accompaniments such as jamón or as the beginnings for a grilled cheese sandwich.

Pan con Tomate

From Ultreia Restaurant Executive Chef Adam Branz


2 tablespoons olive oil for frying

2 slices ciabatta

1 clove garlic halved

2 teaspoons Nuñez de Prado extra virgin olive oil (or other high quality Spanish extra virgin olive oil)

1/2 teaspoon Maldon salt

1/4 cup tomato puree (see preparation below)


Fry or sauté the ciabatta slices in olive oil until evenly brown. Rub the slices with raw garlic. Evenly divide and top with the tomato purée. Drizzle the Spanish olive oil onto the purée and scatter with the Maldon salt.

Tomato Purée

Remove the core from heirloom or vine-ripened tomatoes (skins and seeds to remain). Pulse in a food processor until smooth. A pound of raw tomatoes yields approximately 1 cup of purée.

Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and KCNC-TV Channel 4, nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. The Denver native lives in his hometown. 

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.