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Peak Pick: Cherry Tomatoes

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In July, the domestic tomato season really starts to take off. While the southern states have been producing for some time, local growers throughout the country start to see the first blush of color on the vine. This is an exciting time for tomato enthusiasts everywhere — the long winter and spring of flat-flavored, off-season fruit is over and the brief but sweet domestic season has begun. The beefsteaks of August are still a few weeks away and cherry tomatoes dominate the start of the season.

A few years ago I noticed a change in the commercial cherry tomato business – it was as if a form of variety Darwinism had taken place brought on by the introduction of a variety called the grape tomato. The grape is actually a very good cherry tomato in its own right; it’s a red, slightly oblong, firm variety that has a very good balance of acid and sugar. It’s also a sturdy, prolific producer and herein lies the problem: like many modern varieties of produce, the productivity of the grape tomato has made it a favorite of farmers and a champion in the fight for farm acreage.

As a retail grocer I like the grape tomato too — it travels well, doesn’t easily bruise or split, and is consistently available. What I don’t like is the success of the grape tomato has come, to a degree, at the expense of other less sturdy varieties. The local season is a great equalizer for them – short travel distances enable growers to harvest and transport some of the more delicate varieties at the very peak of ripeness and flavor. Varieties like the sun gold, red and yellow pear, sweet 100, snow white, and black cherry are among my favorites, but there are dozens of other’s grown throughout the country.

Cherry tomatoes are a tabletop staple at my house in the late summer months — their size and sweetness are perfect for snacking out of hand. Additionally, cherry tomatoes play a prominent role in two of my favorite summertime dishes. The first is a simple salad with cucumbers (hot house), olives and whatever blue cheese strikes my fancy (my current favorite is a Maytag Blue). I slice the cherry tomatoes and olives in half and the cucumber to about the same size. I then toss both in a mixture of olive oil, a dash of balsamic vinegar and crumbled blue cheese. The second dish is a simple and light summertime pasta dish with sliced cherry tomatoes, basil and cubed mozzarella. A drizzling of Meyer lemon-infused olive oil completes the dish.

Soon, I will be distracted by my annual obsession with larger heirloom tomato varieties and before long the short local season will end and I will brace for another long winter of tomato discontent. But for now, I have my cherry tomatoes — those neat little concentrated vessels of flavor. While available nearly all the time, there are a few short weeks in summer when the flavor of this fruit really stands out. Be sure not to miss it.

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