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How to Buy a Greenmarket Tomato

By Heidi Patalano | July 22, 2013 6:52am
 Gorgeous tomatoes of every color are coming to a market near you.
Tomatoes Hit The Greenmarket
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UNION SQUARE — Greenmarket shoppers have been waiting all year for tomatoes to arrive.

Now that they’re here, sticker shock might make those heirloom tomatoes taste a little less sweet.

But many factors go into the pricing of those gorgeous red fruits. DNAinfo New York made a visit to Union Square’s greenmarket to guide you through purchasing the best tomato. 

Phyllis Underwood is the co-owner of Shushan Valley Hydro Farm in Shushan Valley, New York. She recommends speaking with the farmer to learn how the tomato is grown.

For example, her farm uses what she calls "beneficials" to keep the produce healthy. These are “good bugs” introduced to the crop in order to eat the “bad bugs” that can destroy the plants. While this is a safe, organic method of pest control, it does drive up the price at the stand.

“If they’re just growing them outdoors, picking their tomatoes and doing whatever to them, that costs nowhere near as much,” she said.

There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes. Experts we spoke to broke them down into three broad categories.

Slicing tomatoes
Beefsteak, Jersey and Heirloom tomatoes fall into this category. The wide circumference makes them ideal for sandwiches and caprese salads, but they’re less ideal for salads given that the gooey seeds can saturate greens.

James Briscione, chef and cooking instructor at the Institute for Culinary Education, is a fan of the heirloom tomato but notes that their texture doesn’t always stand up when prepared.

“There are many times I might prefer a regular round red tomato to some of those,” he said. “Some of them tend to be very, very soft. They don’t really hold up well. They’re tough to pick up with a fork and when you take a bite, they don’t have any type of texture that make them interesting or exciting.”

While the rich flavor of the heirloom tomato is much-vaunted, they are expensive. These days they cost about $5 a pound. The thin skin of heirlooms make them prone to bursting while in transit and the high amount of waste that creates means a loss for the bottom line. Heirlooms are also particularly susceptible to disease.

“The farmers are up against disease; they’re up against transportability," said Linda Ameroso of Cornell University’s Extension School of Human Ecology in Crown Heights. "That’s why the tomatoes are so expensive.”

Cherry tomatoes
The small bulbs of sweetness are a universal favorite among farmers and customers. Briscione recommends roasting or grilling them.

“Put them on really high heat until the skin blisters and peels away a little bit and the tomato inside that skin gets tender and creamy and really really sweet,” he said.

Underwood brings her tomatoes and cucumbers to the Union Square Greenmarket on Wednesdays and Saturdays (though they are currently in a replanting hiatus). She says the cherry tomatoes are a consistent best seller.

Vine or Plum Tomatoes
These medium-sized tomatoes often sold still on the vine are a favorite for sauces and roasting since they are dense, pulp-heavy and have a thicker skin than their larger counterparts.

Underwood noted that with these and the larger varieties of tomatoes, yellow speckles at the top indicate that they are sweeter than those that are solid red.

How to deal with a lame tomato
If you missed your chance to stop by the greenmarket and are forced to buy one of those large, tasteless grocery store tomatoes, fear not. There is a way to make them taste better.

“Basically you’ve got to intervene where nature wasn’t allowed to, to develop the acidity and sweetness that a really good tomato should have on its own,” Briscione said. “It becomes this kind of funny balancing act. Of course you can drizzle it with a little olive oil, salt and pepper but then also add in sugar and vinegar at the same time to develop that tomato acidity and that natural sweetness that a good tomato would have.”