Most people have heard about the La Tomatina festival held every August in Bunol, in Valencia, Spain. Some fortunate people have actually been to this unusual, but very exhilarating, festival and survived the experience! If you haven’t found your way there yet but you love the idea of Spanish cuisine, why not just pretend you’re in Spain and enjoy some of the delicious, traditional dishes that one might experience when visiting this amazing region of Spain? And when we’re talking about Spanish cuisine, you know we’re talking about the tomato.
The History of Tomatoes in Spain
Tomatoes are the ingredient when it comes to Spanish cooking. Spanish people love fresh tomatoes and enjoy them prepared in many different ways: cut and eaten like an apple (with just a pinch of salt), in salads, sliced on French bread – they even prepare a delicious cold soup from fresh tomatoes. And when it comes to cooked tomatoes, they’re used in most sauces, casseroles, or stuffed with fish or meat.
However, this wasn’t always the case because the tomato hasn’t always been used in Spanish cooking, or any other European cuisine. So, let’s go back to our school days. You may recall learning in school that tomatoes are a native of the New World and the Spaniards brought them back to Europe in the early 16th century. They’re actually a member of the poisonous nightshade family of plants, so it was believed for a long time that tomatoes were poisonous as well. For many years they were cultivated as a decorative plant and they weren’t used as a food for a long time.
It’s the Perfect Climate
Because tomatoes love well-watered soil and full sun, Spain has the ideal climate for growing tomatoes; it produces about 3 million tons each year. Canning vegetables and fruit used to be a common task for women in the United States for many years, and for Spanish country women their common task is putting up bottles of sofrito, a mixture of stewed tomatoes, garlic, and onions. Sofrito is that wonderful sauce that’s used as a base for stews, sauces and rice dishes.
Selecting Fresh Tomatoes
There are a number of tomato varieties and it’s not difficult to visually distinguish between the Roma or Plum tomatoes (which are oblong), the small Cherry tomatoes, and the larger round tomato (like the Beefsteak).
Tomatoes are harvested while they’re still green and firm, enabling them to survive transportation to the market. This means that many of the supermarket tomatoes have been gassed with ethylene which makes them turn red, a practice that’s been used for several decades. When selecting fresh tomatoes in your supermarket you should choose tomatoes that are firm, but with a slight ‘give’ when the flesh is pressed with your finger. To soften them, simply take them out of the plastic bag and leave them to rest on the windowsill or kitchen counter for a day or so.
Love vine-ripened tomatoes? Then you have a choice. Some supermarkets are now carrying vine-ripened tomatoes, and they’re still on the vine! Have you tried growing tomatoes yourself, either in a container or a small garden patch? If this is out of the question, then go to your local farmer’s market and buy your ripe tomatoes there. These tomatoes will have much more flavour than what you’ll find in the produce section of your supermarket.
Cooking with Crushed Tomatoes or Tomato Sauce
It’s perfectly fine to use any brand of crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce. Through trial and error you’ll soon discover the flavour and brand you prefer, and you’ll discover the ones that are more or less acidic than the others. It’s important to know the acidity of a tomato sauce because it will affect the final results of your dish. If your dish requires fresh tomatoes and you don’t have any at hand, substituting canned crushed tomatoes will normally suffice for sauces and casseroles which require the sauce to be cooked or simmered.