x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Long live the mighty tomato

A kitchen without tomatoes would be unthinkable. This wonderfully flavour-rich and versatile fruit is at the heart of a huge range of dishes, from simple salads to complex sauces.

You say beefsteak, I say heirloom - any variety will do. iStockphoto.com
You say beefsteak, I say heirloom - any variety will do. iStockphoto.com

Although they are now one of my greatest pleasures, I have not always felt this way about tomatoes. As a pizza-obsessed fourth grader, I fell hard after my uncle announced that he'd just opened a casual trattoria in the Massachusetts college town where we'd been visiting him that summer. "With pizza?" I shrieked into the phone. "Yes," he said, "but real pizza, Nouf, with chunks of tomato. No sauce." I crumpled against my mother, letting the phone slip from my hand. Tomatoes, with their grainy internal organs, raggedy, gag-inducing skin, and slippery, evil seeds encased in viscous tomato slime, repulsed me.

During adolescence, intolerance became the only thing I hated conceptually more, so I grew to tolerate the tomato and its ubiquitous, inflammatory redness. What eventually launched my never-ending honeymoon was the first home-grown tomato I'd ever tasted, grown by my father from a cache of prized Lebanese seeds and plucked from the vine minutes earlier, then washed, sliced into rounds and doused with Palestinian olive oil. I tried it only because I hated to disappoint my father with my neurotic pickiness - but that tomato transformed me into a believer. Snappy, sweet, and velvety, this was nothing like the tomatoes that had birthed my phobia. In no time, I had adopted the zeal of a convert who's experienced spiritual rebirth, downing fried green tomatoes and Caprese salads as starters in restaurants, and swaddling wintry, herb-spiked meatballs in thin crêpes, smothering them in chunky tomato sauce muted with cream, then blitzing them in a hot oven beneath a mantle of bubbling cheese.

My kitchen would be unimaginable without my beloved tomato. And I'm not alone. In the US, more tomatoes are consumed than any other fruit or vegetable. The tomato is so memorable that, as the former chief executive of the Chinese overseas community bank TomatoBank explained: "TomatoBank is an attractive brand name that brings to mind images of growth, multiculture and health, all characteristics that represent who we are and what we strive to achieve... Try to forget it. You can't."

As far as I'm concerned, there are two seasons each year: Tomato Season and the Off Season, which can last up to 10 months, depending on where you live. Since I can't afford to spend three-quarters of the year in a catatonic depression, I've found ways to have good tomatoes year-round, and when adjustments can't be made, I make do with alternatives. So, though I wouldn't dream of making panzanella or fattoush with woolly January supermarket tomatoes, I make tabouleh in December with chillies in place of tomatoes. And since my favourite side dish of all time, Catalonian pa amb tomàquet, otherwise known as pan con tomate or tomato bread, is too tomato-centric to be made with anything short of perfect tomatoes, I wait until they roll around before I roll up my sleeves.

When the first summer beefsteaks appear at farm stands, I pull out the box grater and frantically shred at the whole fruit, discarding the wet skins left behind in my hand. I stir olive oil into the fleshy juice I've reserved, then spoon it on to pieces of sturdy, toasted bread that I've maybe rubbed with a cut clove of plump summer garlic. Then, hands shaky with anticipation, I scatter sea salt on top, and dig in.

Processing and cooking change tomatoes to different degrees. Tomato juice, tomato ketchup and tomato paste have a concentrated, cooked flavour that bears little resemblance to the summer fruit I love so much. At this time of year, I buy boxes of surplus tomatoes for Dh6 a kilogramme, then "put it up" in mason jars or freeze it in myriad forms for the winter: rough, seeded chunks, tomato water, finely chopped, concassé, roasted, purée, tomato coulis left over from recipes. I'll even seal oven-dried tomatoes in resealable bags and stash them in a cool, dark place (where, hopefully, I can ignore them when I'm peckish).

Sliced and slathered with mayo, salt and cracked pepper on a slab of good squishy bread? Chopped and tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sea salt and a chiffonade of basil? Sliced into fat wedges that bleed their juice all over a milky mound of burrata cheese? Yes please, although, unfortunately for the ornery round red globe or beefsteak tomato, enthusiasm has waned in deference to the current obsession with heirloom cultivars, whose breeding is not controlled and, consequently, often have more robust flavour and intriguing variations.

Sunlight, rainfall and genetics matter, but they won't save the best of tomatoes from a cruel fate. Flavour, once as valued by farmers as it remains for home gardeners, has been demoted as a priority in commercial tomato farming after the fruit were bred for shipment, longevity, consistency, and tenacity in the face of pests and disease. Farmers benefited most by selecting varieties with thick skins that could stand up to the wear and tear of time and distance. Though production ceased in 1997, the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered for longer shelf life, was the very first genetically modified food granted a licence for human consumption.

Gary Ibsen, the author of The Great Tomato Book, is the founder and executive director of the Carmel TomatoFest, located in Carmel, California. Ibsen grows both heirlooms and hybrids developed for the sake of flavour, and is currently growing more than 600 varieties of certified organic heirloom tomato seeds, which can be ordered online through his website (www.tomatofest.com) and shipped to the UAE, and many of which were sourced from family farms around the world. Tomatofest's list of seeds is magical and dizzying, and trumps anything I've seen elsewhere: Mortgage Lifter (also known as Radiator Charlie's), Hawaiian Pineapple, Lemon Boy, Ed's Fat Plum, Banana Legs, Thai Pink Egg, Sophie's Choice, Stump O' the World, Trucker's Favorite, Peppermint, Plum Lemon, Green Grape, Green Sausage, Honey, Fantastic, Favorite, Cream Sausage, Cosmonaut Volkov Red, and the tiny, ambrosial Snow White and Isis Candy.

Tomatoes are berries in a botanical sense, and one of the most surprising tomato dishes was a tomato tarte tatin (www.bonappetit.com), which capitalised beautifully on their rich, natural sugars. The end product is a masterpiece of caramelised, vanilla-scented tomatoes, melting buttery pastry and cream that will leave you wondering why you've wasted so many tartes tatins on apples.

References to fruit are common in the tomato world: plum and grape tomatoes have a higher solid content; pear and cherry tomatoes are named for their shape, and the persimmon and pineapple heirloom varieties are named for their colours.

I have eaten jewel-like heirloom tomatoes that were amethyst, saffron, mahogany, emerald, ghostly white, black with garnet stripes and tangerine, and there are hundreds of kinds I've yet to try. The Tomatoberry, created by the Japanese seed company Tokita Seed, is a heart-shaped cherry tomato whose calibrated cuteness is a reminder of how beautiful I find the irregularity and unpredictability of heirloom cultivars.

Knowing how difficult they are to grow and how low the yields are, and having lost many of them myself, just makes me love tomatoes and idolise their growers all the more.