A tomato grown in New Jersey just tastes like a Jersey tomato. ~ tomato grower David Shepherd
What’s so special about a Jersey tomato? I’m not sure. I’m now on my second season of Jersey tomatoes, and I have to admit when I first tasted one late last summer, a memory revived with a tiny shock.
It reminded me of another lifetime ago; maybe the time I tasted my first garden tomato from my friend Jeanne’s grandfather’s backyard, or when I lived in the very southern part of Florida where tomatoes were abundant and at their prime in December, when I’d last cut into a heavy, ripe tomato that was still warm from the sun, deeply red all the way through. There was that taste of TOMATO that I can’t find the exact words to describe – somehow sweetly meaty and delicately tart, fruity and savory all at once. That flavor has nothing to do with the greenhouse-grown tomatoes I buy – we all do – all year round, that look red and perfect and lovely but taste like … not much.
Could be it’s marketing and hype at work – yes, the term “The Jersey Tomato” has been trademarked – and also the fact that my attempts at growing tomatoes tend to end badly.
The cute and beautifully colored cherry tomatoes I cultivated by the back deck became snacks for hungry squirrels, and the fancy heirlooms I planted in a raised bed produced more sprawling foliage than fruit. It’s been a while since I’ve had a super-fresh, home grown tomato that actually made me pause.
I just learned that the Campbell Soup factory has been based in Camden, New Jersey since 1869. A Jersey tomato hybrid called Ramapo started flavoring Campbell’s iconic cans of tomato soup sometime after 1934. Hmmm. That could explain the taste memory, in some remote way.
I’ve been reading through Flavors of Tuscany by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (in case you missed it, I have Tuscany on my mind these days), where she makes the case for using “red, utterly ripe” tomatoes for this Tuscan recipe for pappa al pomodoro; another example that fresh, simply prepared food can be the most satisfying and memorable.
If you'd rather not haul out your blender or don't have one, instead combine bread cubes, water, olive oil, garlic and salt in a large bowl and let sit for 30 minutes to absorb the liquid. Mash with a wooden spoon - it doesn't need to be absolutely smooth.
- 3 pounds ripe plum tomatoes
- 2 scant cups cubed day-old crusty bread
- 2/3 cup water
- 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with blade of a knife
- Kosher salt
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Handful fresh basil leaves, torn or roughly chopped
- Fill a 3 or 4 quart saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil; drop in tomatoes and cook one minute. Drain and rinse with cold water. Use a small sharp knife to slit the skin into an "X" on the bottom of tomatoes; slip off the skins. Trim off the stem end and roughly chop tomatoes; transfer to a bowl along with any juice the tomatoes exude.
- Put the bread cubes in a blender along with the water, 1/3 cup olive oil, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blend to form a smooth paste.
- Pour remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the saucepan and place over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook slowly, until onion is very soft, but not browned.
- Add tomatoes to the pan with the sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste. Bring to a slow simmer. Continue cooking tomatoes until they become very soft. Using a wooden spoon, mash the tomatoes into a coarse puree.
- Add the bread mixture to the tomatoes and stir. If the soup seems very thick, add a little bit more water to thin it out. The texture should be dense and creamy, but still spoonable.
- Taste the soup and season with additional salt and pepper. Stir in the basil leaves. Serve right away or at warm room temperature.