Interview: Miriam Rubin on Tomatoes

Tomatoes: a SAVOR THE SOUTH ® cookbook, by Miriam RubinIn Tomatoes: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook, Miriam Rubin gives this staple of southern gardens the passionate portrait it deserves, exploring the tomato’s rich history in southern culture and inspiring home cooks to fully enjoy these summer fruits in all their glorious variety. Rubin, a prominent food writer and tomato connoisseur, provides fifty vibrant recipes as well as wisdom about how to choose tomatoes and which tomato is right for which dish.

In the following interview, Rubin talks about her delicious recipes and the fruit that was her inspiration.


Q:  You graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and were the first woman to have worked in the famed Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. What did you learn about tomato cookery at those institutions?

A:  In my culinary training, we learned how to “break down” tomatoes. We cut them in half and squeezed out the seeds (where there is so much flavor). We never just sliced tomatoes and presented them on a plate. We peeled tomatoes and cut the outer walls into supremes and then into cubes or julienne. The innards were chucked into the stockpot.

We were taught to carve tomato skin into roses, something I could never master. It seemed not about the tomato or the way it tasted. A tomato is gorgeous all by itself, without manipulating it into a flower.

Things today are different and I’m happy that we celebrate food in a different way. We champion the farmer and the sources of our food. Chefs partner with growers, stroll though open-air markets picking out produce. In the late 1970s and early 80s when I was working in restaurants, it was pretty rare to see a farmer walk through the kitchen. Though we did use some locally-sourced ingredients at the Four Seasons and later when I worked at Le Pavillion in Washington, D.C.

Q:  Tomatoes are associated with high summer when they’re at their flavor-packed peak. But Tomatoes offers lots of year-round options. Tell us about some of the recipes that are good uses for canned or supermarket tomatoes.

Miriam Rubin, author of Tomatoes: a SAVOR THE SOUTH cookbook, photo by Jeanine M. HenryA:  A perfect example is my Crispy-Crumbed Baked Tomatoes with Pecans and Parmesan. I often make them with large Roma tomatoes from the supermarket. Baking brings out the tomatoes’ flavor and they are topped with a fresh breadcrumb mixture. Pretty and pretty delicious.

Another favorite is Ginger Tomatoes, which can be made with Campari tomatoes or the gorgeous, colorful large cherry or plum tomatoes sold most of the year in the supermarket. Quickly sautéed with earthy surprise of ginger, the dish gets a kiss of honey at the end. It’s saucy and great on freshly steamed rice.

Soups are a perfect use for canned tomatoes. Sometimes all a canned tomato needs is a little love—a dash of spice and pinch of sugar. My recipe for Tomato Dumpling Soup calls only for canned tomatoes. I’ve never made it with fresh. I think you need the more concentrated goodness you get from canned in this soup. Almost all the other soup recipes I’ve included may be prepared with fresh or canned tomatoes.

Q:  You offer great suggestions for using particular kinds of tomatoes in many of your recipes. Do you have a right tomato/right recipe philosophy?

A:  I like to indicate to readers which tomato I think would work best, and let them know my concept behind the recipe.

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.

For a sandwich or a salad, choose the juiciest, most flavor-packed big beefsteak-type tomatoes–the sloppy slicers. My favorites are Brandywine and Cherokee Purple, which grow well in the heat of the South. Other choices include German Johnson, which has a very faithful Southern following; Eva Purple Ball; Mule Team, and the hybrid Celebrity: plus plenty of others. These big, juicy tomatoes are not always the best choice for cooking because of their higher water content.

I often mix tomatoes for a combination of flavors and textures. I make jam from Brandywines, but I add a couple of paste tomatoes so it will thicken. I make salads from Cherokee Purple tomatoes, but I might add some slices of Juliet tomatoes or Sungold cherry tomatoes for a different texture and flavor.

For a super, uncooked pasta sauce–where all you do is chop tomatoes, basil and a little garlic, mixing in some olive oil–the big slicing tomatoes. You want the juices to make the sauce. Feel free to mix in some halved cherry tomatoes. They’ll add sweetness.

However, in all cases, the best tomato to choose is the one that’s ready and ripe, either in the market or in your garden. That will make the best dish.

Q:  You write a column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called “Miriam’s Garden,” and your love of gardening shows in the section of your book devoted to “Growing Tomatoes.” What are the advantages of growing your own?

A:  Growing tomatoes is a great experience. Get your children involved so they understand where food comes from and learn to love tomatoes (I still meet people that hate them!). I started early: when I was 6, I grew carrots and radishes in our alley.

Nothing tastes better than a sun-warmed tomato plucked right off the vine. But if you’re picking large, heavy tomatoes, please use scissors to snip the stem. Don’t pull the tomato off the vine; you could damage the plant.

When you grow your own tomatoes, you get to baby them, watch the progress, and enjoy them in all states of ripeness–firm and green for frying, pickles and soup; green on the outside and pink inside (also terrific fried); and dead-ripe, when the juice drips down your arm.

I start most of my tomatoes by seed, which offers me a greater range of varieties. Also, many times, tomato plants come in four-or six-packs, which locks you in, unless you can give the other plants away. I do advise that all new growers begin with a pre-grown plant and not start them from seed.

If you grow your own tomatoes, you’re in control. Well, sort of. You also have to deal with the weather.

Q:  Why are Southern tomato sandwiches overwhelmingly made with untoasted bread, as opposed to tomato sandwiches up North?

A:  I grew up in Detroit. I loved cooking and food at a very early age and I adored tomatoes and tomato sandwiches. It was the whole reason summer existed.

I made my sandwiches on challah or seeded Jewish rye bread, spread with mayo. Sometimes I added sliced pimiento-stuffed olives. Plenty of salt. Always toasted. The toasting kept the bread firmer, kept it from being soft and squishy.

It’s like there’s a toasting border between North and South. To most Northerners, soft and squishy bread just isn’t right. Southerners seem to adore the soft-bread aspect and strongly feel that’s what “makes the sandwich.” The bread and mayo are supposed to meld with the juices of the tomato. That’s why you stand over the sink when you eat it. I also note in my book a more genteel tomato sandwich, Vicksburg Tomato Sandwiches. The tomatoes are peeled and the bread is cut into rounds (no crusts). These don’t get squishy. They’re dainty.

In the end, it’s really up to the sandwich maker. And don’t get me started on the mayo. But because I like firmer bread, I offer a recipe for homemade Olive Oil Sandwich Loaf, which makes a terrific tomato sandwich. Toasted or not.

Q:  Your book Tomatoes is part of the SAVOR THE SOUTH® collection from UNC Press. Are you from the South?

A:  My husband and I live in a 200-year-old log cabin in the foothills of Appalachia, 5 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line. No, it’s not the South. We’re very close to West Virginia but most of that state (if not all) is not the South. I grew up in northern, urban settings and until now, lived mostly in big cities—New York, Detroit, Washington, D.C.

But I’ve always had a love of and a curiosity about southern food. I’ve been a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance for more than 10 years. Some of my best friends are Southern!

I developed and tested the recipes for Marcie Cohen Ferris’s Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. Because of that project, and because I write about food and gardens and grow lots of tomatoes, the editor of UNC Press offered me this subject. I grew almost every tomato I used in my recipes. I did a ton of research, reading and talking to many different cooks. I’m not French, but I can cook French food because that was my training.

When I felt a dish needed more “roots” or a different point of view, I asked my Southern friends for advice. Margaret Shakespeare helped me perfect Savannah Red Rice and Tomato Aspic. Our collaboration only made them better. Margaret’s a native of Savannah. She told me that the proper way to serve tomato aspic was on your best silver platter. That went into the instructions. Conversely, my friend Carroll Leggett from Bertie County, N.C. said his mother never made aspic. When he was born, there was no electricity in his house. “No one wanted to be running around in the heat with tomato aspic,” he told me.

As an aside, Margaret, who now lives in New York City, prepared the aspic for a memorial service. She unmolded it onto her best silver platter and walked several blocks to where the service was being held. During a scorching summer in Manhattan. The aspic nearly melted.

Q:  Did tomatoes originate in the South?

A:  They 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.

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. Many of our most beloved tomato dishes have Southern roots: Scalloped tomatoes, green tomato pickles, tomato “catsup,” “ochra and tomatoes.”

Q:  What should every tomato lover know about heirloom tomatoes?

A:  An heirloom is literally that: a treasure passed down from family to family, traded like Grandma’s china or her pie cabinet. Many heirloom seeds were brought over by immigrants, but some heirlooms were developed here. An astute grower would stabilize the variety, saving seeds from the best plants each year to replant. Heirlooms are generally varieties that predate 1940, before seed companies began creating hybrids. Most often, heirloom tomatoes have the most true, sought-after tomato flavor–flavor that been bred out of newer varieties in favor of disease prevention or crop production.

Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning that if you save seeds from the tomato and plant them the following year, they will produce the same plant and fruit. Seeds saved from hybrid tomatoes will not grow true the next year. Some heirloom tomatoes have evocative names and stories. From the Southern Exposure Seed Catalog here are a few of my favorite names and tales:

Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad: named after an unidentified enslaved black man who carried the seeds via the Underground Railroad to freedom. They were given to Aunt Lou; then passed to family members.

Paul Robeson: This purple-or black-skinned tomato comes from Russia, where singer and activist Paul Robeson (famous for singing Old Man River) was revered.

Granny Cantrell’s German Pink/Red: Granny Cantrell lived to the ripe old age of 96. This red Kentucky beefsteak was the only tomato she grew.

Q:  Tell me about some of your signature dishes from Tomatoes.

A:  I love the Heirloom Tomato Salad. It’s my go-to dish in tomato season, my way to celebrate summer. Another favorite is Open-Face Tomato Pie. Good hot, cold, today, yesterday. It’s a must for me in tomato season. Curried Tomato Soup can be served hot or cold and it’s a great spicy tomato starter. Baby Plum Tomato and Olive Tapenade is a dish I love to make later in the season, when tomatoes are sweetest. Intensely flavored, it’s great with soft goat cheese for a snack.

For the most comforting dish, I would choose Edna Lewis’s Baked Tomatoes with Crusty Bread. Warming and satisfying.

Q:  Could you share some tips for choosing and then storing tomatoes?

A:  Select tomatoes that are heavy for their size. They should have smooth, unbroken skins that are taut, not wrinkled and with no soft spots. I always try to buy tomatoes on the firm side, but not rock-hard, so they survive the trip home. Soft tomatoes will only become mushy.

Once you get them home, or after you’ve picked them, never refrigerate tomatoes. It blunts their flavor.

A row of tomatoes on a sunny windowsill looks pretty but it’s not the best place to keep them. They could get too warm and ripen unevenly and spoil. Instead, keep them in a cool spot out of direct light, if possible, and in a single layer on a tray or in a basket. Even when picking them in the garden, I arrange the big heirlooms in a single layer to keep from squashing them. Their skins are delicate; that’s why we love them so much.

There are several schools of thought to storing tomatoes stem side up or stem side down. I always do stem side up, without thinking about it, yet lately I’ve heard that delicate heirlooms are best kept stem side down so their bottoms don’t bruise.

Q:  How do you handle a bumper crop of tomatoes?

A:  To paraphrase, when life offers you too many tomatoes, you make sauce. Or jam. Or chutney, or juice. All in the book. Of course, the tomatoes are ripe and the sauce (or jam) always gets made on the steamiest day of the year.

When I get really inundated, I cut up the tomatoes and freeze them raw in ziptop bags. Or I pop them whole into freezer bags and deal with them later, when it’s a bit cooler or I have more time.

Miriam Rubin is author of Tomatoes: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Rubin was the first woman to work in the kitchen of the Four Seasons Restaurant. Author of Grains, she writes the food and gardening column “Miriam’s Garden” for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She lives in New Freeport, Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @MmmRubin. Keep up with recipes and events for Tomatoes and other volumes in the Savor the South® cookbook collection on Facebook.