I love a good cat face. The bulbous, bumpy tomato (aka a "cat face" in farmers' market lingo) may not be the prettiest in the pile but I can guarantee you that it will be tasty. That lack of symmetry is a major clue that the fruit was raised to perform in the kitchen rather than merely look pretty on the supermarket shelf.
In the peak of the season, the farmers' market explodes with tomatoes of all shapes and sizes, colors and nuanced flavors. Heirloom fruits such as Cherokee Purple and Green Zebra bring variety and biodiversity to the table. Fat ones, skinny ones, round and oblong. Tomatoes still warm from the field, so ripe they feel like they are about to burst, hold the promise of one of summer's most prized flavors.
Yet visit the big box grocery and none of this is evident. Sure, there are tomatoes. Maybe even a number of varieties, some still on the vine, all of them stacked up and shining. But they taste nothing like the in-season tomato. Why is that?
The Curse of the Perfect Tomato
Commercially grown tomatoes, those grown on a scale that can keep large groceries in constant supply, are raised with a list of characteristics in mind; flavor, however, doesn't happen to be one of them. Industrialized crops are designed to have consistent size and shape to fit into the mechanical harvesters, processors and packers; sturdy constitutions that can handle the bumps and bounces of shipping and handling; and the obedience to turn from unripe and green to stop sign red when blasted with ethylene gas before being put on display. They are judged, every step of the way, to make sure that they fit neatly into industry parameters that suit this system.
Tomatoes that do not fit into this system are culled. The cosmetic standards for tomatoes and all produce are on one hand very strict, listing all manner of reasons that the fruit might be kicked to the curb. Any deviation - a tomato that is slightly too big or too small, one that has a slightly lopsided shape, has a slight discoloration, or a small amount of scarring from the natural elements such as too much sun - and the tomato is rejected. Our gorgeous, fully ripe, juicy, tender, if somewhat misshapen cat face? It would never make it through the system. But a perfectly round, rock hard and mostly green tomato? That tomato is just what the industry is looking for.
As finely drawn as they sound, however, the produce industry's cosmetic standards are also open to interpretation, leaving a lot of room for distributors to reject crops on little more than a whim. They are used as an easy out for buyers who find themselves with a surplus of product on hand, giving them an excuse to refuse shipments from growers on the grounds that the crop is cosmetically unacceptable. The farmer loses their payment for the crop and the food is often left to rot.
Flavor Over Form
It's a crazy system that needs to be changed. In a growing population where many go hungry, it's unconscionable to discard nutritious, wholesome food because it simply isn't cute enough. Fortunately, some pioneering action is already underway. National retailers such as Whole Foods are making commitments to carry less-than-perfect produce. Efforts such as the @UglyFruitAndVeg Campaign aim to raise awareness about the delicious possibilities of tasty, if not lovely produce. Subscription programs such as Imperfect Produce are delivering less-than-perfect food directly to eaters' doors, creating a retail stream for such products.
And we eaters can do our part to eat up cosmetically challenged produce:
- In the farmers' market, don't shy away from tomatoes that have had a life. If you have a bit of hail or sun damage, a little nibble from a passing bug or minimal bruising, just cut it off and get on with your recipe. (Of course, any significant infestation, rot or mold makes your tomatoes a better candidate for the compost than your dinner plate.)
- Try not to demand that every tomato looks like it was pressed out of the same mold. Go for variety - your taste buds will thank you.
- Ask your farmer if they have any "seconds:" produce that is fine to eat but perhaps not pretty enough to make it to the display table.
- Make your supermarket staff aware that you would be willing to buy "alternatively" attractive tomatoes.
- Supermarkets often have a small section of produce that is still good to eat, even if it's not the best to look at. Shop from that selection first before perusing the bins.
- Eat it. Although I would argue than any tomato that's good enough to eat is good enough to look at, there are some recipes that do a better job at disguising those that are stronger on personality than they are in appearance. Here are some ideas:
If you haven't heard of chakchouka (aka, shakshuka), well, you have now. It is the dish of the moment at many of the best brunch spots. And it's a great way to use up a surplus of not great-looking tomatoes.
I am using some simple Mediterranean flavors here but you could easily swap in curry powder and chickpeas for an Indian variation or cumin and coriander with some sliced chilies to add a Mexican vibe. You're going to want a nice sturdy bread to serve alongside so you can mop up every last bite.
4-6 pounds less-than-perfect tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano or 1 tablespoon fresh, minced
1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives, sliced
8 slices good quality bread
Cut away any scarred or bruised areas of the tomatoes and remove their stem ends. Roughly chop and puree in a blender or food processor. Set aside.
In a large sauté pan, season onion with a pinch of salt and sauté it in three tablespoons oil over medium heat until it is translucent, about three to five minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about one minute. Add tomato puree and herbs and simmer until juices are released and sauce thickens, about 20 minutes. Add herbs and stir to combine. Reduce heat to low. Press and egg into the sauce to make an indentation then crack the egg into the well created. Repeat with remaining eggs, spacing them equally across the sauce. Drizzle with remaining tablespoon of oil. Cover the pan with a lid and continue to simmer on low until eggs are cooked to your desired doneness, about five minutes for lava-like yolks.
Place a slice of bread on each of four plates. Spoon the eggs and sauce on top of the bread and serve, passing remaining bread alongside.
Big Personality Salsa
Only have a tomato or two to use up? This salsa can be scaled to put all of those less-than-lovelies to work. Don't worry about precision, like good tomatoes, the beauty lies in its imperfection. Add extra chilies if you really want to pack a punch.
Any quantity of tomatoes, blemishes and stem end cut away
1/4 cup onion for every cup of tomato
Chilies, such as jalapeno or Serrano
Lime juice to taste
Salt and pepper
Cilantro, minced (optional)
Roughly chop your tomatoes and measure. Add 1/4 cup of roughly chopped onion for every cup of tomatoes to a blender or processor. Cut the stem end off of your chili and touch the stem to your tongue to test for heat - chilies vary greatly in their intensity. Add as much chili as you dare - from a sliver to the whole pod - and process with the onions to a fine dice. Add the tomatoes and process for a few short bursts for chunky salsa or until smooth, if that's how you prefer it. Season salsa with lime juice, salt and pepper and cilantro if you like. Serve with your favorite chips, alongside grilled meat or fish or use to nap pretty much anything with melted cheese.