Heirloom_Tomatoes.jpgHere at What’s Fresh the goal is to throw the spotlight onto ingredients that are at peak ripeness right now in the short window that is their local New York metro area existence. Sure, you can get yourself plums during most times of the year from somewhere in the world, or asparagus year-round as the sourcing moves from California to Mexico and finally to Peru just before it comes up fresh for us again in springtime, but it just seems to taste better when you know it is fresh, from a person you feel good supporting and without contributing to the petrol burn of air lifted food. More reading about the last topic can be found here.

That brings it round to this week's ingredient – tomatoes. Available 7/24/365 at every grocery, bodega and fruit stand, no fruit/vegetable is a sorrier example of itself than an out of season tomato. If it is not local farm fresh, you are often better off just going without if you cannot substitute canned in the recipe – we like the Muir Glen or any D.O.P San Marzano canned product. Sure there have been some improvements for the food chain such as the tomatoes sold on the vine from Holland and Israel, and the use of greenhouses to extend the season, but when August rolls around it is time for the tomato to shine. Tomatoes picked green and hard, gassed on their way across country to facilitate ripening, and ending with a product that tasteless and often has the texture of styrofoam is no way to go about enjoying a foodstuff.

At this point of the year it is exactly just the opposite, almost impossible to go wrong with a local, farm fresh tomato. If you choose a great one – firm, fragrant and ripe – you really only need sea salt and optionally some HQ olive oil to make ’em taste great. Fantastic examples from the Union Square Greenmarket can be found at Stokes Farm and Tim Stark’s Eckerton Farms, the latter being the folks widely credited with driving heirloom tomatoes back into the NYC market with gusto. In reality though, any farm stand one will do the trick.

Some tomato basics:

- Never refrigerate a tomato for storage, and avoid places that serve them cold as they were likely stored cold for a while. If feeding one person, as NY’er are wont to do, choose smaller varieties/examples that can be eaten in one sitting.

- Store them on their root end in a single layer to avoid bruising, especially important for heirlooms. Fragility is one reason many great tasting tomatoes fell out of favor with professional growers.

- Shop farmers markets at the end of the day if possible to pick up bargain bags of tomatoes, buy as many as you can carry. Reducing tomatoes at just simmering in a saucepan, or sliced and slow & low roasted with butter in a single layer (sometimes called confit by restaurants) really concentrates their flavors. Explore jarring for wintertime use if you are feeling adventurous.

- If possible, buy and use a variety of heirloom tomatoes in salads. Heirlooms have a huge variation in flavor, acidity and sweetness (as well as color inside and out); use it to your advantage.

As for a recipe, this time of the year less is more, so go with a salad – Caprese, Shepard, Greek Tomato & Onion. If you really want to "make" something, think raw and light like salsa for some grilled fish or meat. We were recently in southern Spain talking about local food with our new friend Cesca, and naturally Gazpacho came up - it would be an excellent choice so below is a recipe for you and Cesca to try.

Simple Gazpacho

- Crush 6 cloves of garlic, 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin and 2 tablespoons of sea salt in a mortar, or very finely chop together. Put into food processor and pulse till a smooth paste.

- Roast 1 bell pepper or 3 small piquillo peppers under a broiler or over an open flame, steam to lossen skin, peel and seed.

- Peel and seed 4 pounds very ripe (not soft and overipe) tomatoes, then chop and pass through a sieve or food mill to turn into a paste. Use some of the juice from the tomatoes to soak 3 (med to large) slices of good bread as if it were french toast prep.

- Once soaked, squeeze the bread dry and then add to the food processor, pulse approximately 5-10 times of combine with the garlic/salt paste.

- Add tomatoes in 2 batches and process for 10 seconds total, do not whip too much air in.

- Turn on processor and drizzle in 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, Spanish if possible - consider visiting Despana, a wonderful Spanish foodstuff store on the fringes of SoHo.

- While processor is running, add in 1 medium cucumber - peeled, seeded and chopped, 6 tablespoons sherry vinegar, the yolk of 1 jumbo hard boiled egg, and 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper.

- Dilute with approximately 1/2 to 1 cup of water depending on your taste, cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes just to let flavors combine - don´t let it chill too much. Alternatively you can add 10-15 ice cubes and leave in a shady spot.

To this basic recipe you can add the traditional Andalusian garnishes of chopped green bell pepper, onion, tomato, cucumber -- mimicking the gazpacho´s flavor -- or you can add in some new twists like minced parsley, toasted pine nuts or bits of crisped, cooled and minced serrano ham.