Peak Pick: Cherry Tomatoes

July is like Christmas for seasonal produce geeks (like me) here in the US. Though we live in a time when worldwide distribution is possible and seasonal produce from one hemisphere can cross into another, there is nothing more exciting than the start of the local season.For residents of the California central coast, July brings a marked increase in area produce, from berries and leafy crops on the coast to a dizzying array of summer fruits and vegetables from northern central valley farms.  But the mid-summer items I look forward to the most in my part of the world are tomatoes fresh from the field; and the first in a long line of these mid- and late-summer treats are the many varieties of cherry tomato.

Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against off-season or greenhouse tomatoes.In fact, many of the commercial varieties of cherry tomatoes from Florida and Mexico that we see in throughout the year are quite good. Among them is the grape tomato, an oblong, grape-shaped tomato that is a consistently sweet, nicely textured and prolific producer.

But the grape tomato and standard round red cherry tomato varieties of the fall, winter and spring are lonely and sparse representations of the explosion of color and flavor we witness in the months of July, August and September. Dozens of varieties grown all over the US will be competing for space in produce departments and farmers’ markets everywhere and a celebration of tiny tomato diversity will be underway.

Cherry tomatoes are a labor intensive crop to get to market. Since they are so fragile and ripen on the vine at different rates, cherry tomatoes, like berries, must be picked by hand.

The high harvest cost is offset in part by production – cherry tomato plants put out new blooms over a long life cycle (varying by variety and growing area), so a well-maintained field will produce income for many weeks on a single planting.  Like melons, what generally makes cherry tomatoes good (ripeness and sugar content) also makes them more perishable – which makes the harvesting, packing, shipping and sale of cherry tomatoes very exacting.

Because of their size and fragile nature, most cherry tomatoes are sold in containers. When selecting them it is important to examine the container from all sides to make sure the fruit has uniform coloring and that none are split or squashed. Once I get them home I like to remove them from the container and place them in a shallow bowl. From there the fun begins.Cherry tomatoes are a great complement to any summery dish, but some of my favorite uses are also the simplest. Cherry tomatoes cut in half and tossed with cubed European cucumber, some blue cheese, roasted pecans and a splash of oil and vinegar is a summer salad staple at my house. Another is a simple pasta dish that is among my family’s favorite:

  • 8 ounces Capellini pasta – cooked al dente, rinsed and allowed to cool (I like to break it into 4-5 inch lengths so it is easier to mix.)

  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes (any variety but I like mixed for color) halved

  • 6 ounces mozzarella – cut into roughly the same size as the halved cherry tomatoes

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

  • Grated parmesan cheese, to taste

  • Olive oil and your favorite vinegar, to taste (I put about as much as I would in a salad)

  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Carefully combine the first four ingredients in a mixing bowl. Transfer to shallow serving bowls and add the last three ingredients to taste. I serve this cold as a refreshing summer meal or you can serve it warm as well (just don’t allow the pasta to cool) I have many more uses for these little tomato darlings but one of my personal favorites is right out of hand.
Cherry tomatoes on the kitchen counter are an invitation to snacking. They also seem to hitchhike into picnic baskets, where they make an excellent accompaniment to cold chicken, crusty bread, maybe a few of the “other” cherries and some soft cheese. They are like a little version of a sweet summer season – a reminder that their larger heirloom cousins are still growing but are not far from harvest.

Favorite cherry tomato recipes are welcome – if you have one you love, share it in the comments!

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