When new gardeners start plotting out their garden, typically the first harvest they envision is the tomato. Yes, the good old tomato ranks first among all the vegetables we imagine in our dream gardens. Why is that? Because the garden tomato is not only easy to grow, but freshly picked, is the tastiest of all vegetables.

However, tomatoes have often been thought of as the ‘blue collar’ vegetable – good, but not gourmet. But even a good old fashioned tomato can produce culinary brilliance when treated with a little imagination.

A Little Background

The tomato wasn’t always so beloved or accepted. At one point, the tomato was considered suspect, even poison. However, as the tomato traveled from South America, to Central America, to North America, and then into Europe, this fruit (yes, the tomato is a fruit) kept gaining favor.

This unsuspecting treat started out as a tiny, gnarly, even wild fruit. Growers have been developing hybrid tomatoes ever since, creating bigger, smoother crops. However, during this hybrid process, we’ve lost much of the flavor of the true tomato.

Growing your own tomatoes can help you get back to the basics; a sweet, firm, flavorful tomato. Once you get closer to the tomatoes that the Aztecs worshiped, you’ll enjoy flavors that will have you singing the praises of tomatoes as a gourmet treat.

Old Fashioned Favorite Takes Center Stage

Tomatoes are one of the more versatile veggies in the garden. It’s difficult to think of tomatoes as gourmet, but it’s time to rethink. When you plant a tomato, you expect a fresh salad at harvest time, but perhaps you haven’t given a gourmet salad much thought. Most likely you’ve thought of the tomato as an addition to a green salad. It’s time to give fresh tomatoes a bigger stage on the family table.

Yes, tomatoes give a glorious boost to mixed greens in a salad. But, as a central ingredient in salads, you can’t go wrong with the bright colors and flavors of the garden grown tomato. There are so many ways to turn this simple side show into a headliner.

When choosing tomato plants or tomatoes at your farmer’s market, choose heirloom tomatoes or home-style, not hybrid, tomatoes for the best of both worlds. These tomatoes don’t look like the tomatoes you may be used to in the produce aisles, but the further you get away from hybrids, the better the flavor.

Simple ideas for fresh tomatoes can produce gourmet classics. For instance, combine fresh diced tomatoes with prosciutto, baby mozzarella, fresh basil, and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette or even just a good olive oil, and you’ll discover a salad that is bound to please even the most jaded gourmet. Or skip all the other ingredients and cut up a variety of tomatoes of all shapes, colors, sizes, and flavors for a surprising salad that’s both simple and elegant. Splash with a mix of good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a dash of kosher salt, and your choice of herbs to give the tomato a chance to really stand out.

Another option is to use fresh tomatoes as a bowl or ‘vehicle’ for a crab salad, tuna salad, shrimp salad, smoked salmon, or other main-dish style salad for a special luncheon or light dinner. Scoop the inside out of a large, sweet tomato, dice and combine with other fresh veggies, then fill the tomato ‘bowl’ and serve.

You can serve a hot salad with the same basic ideas. Saute onions and mushrooms, then toss with chopped kale and dill, put inside the tomato bowl, top with shredded provolone or mozzarella cheese and set under the broiler just long enough to melt the cheese. Now you have a wonderful hot salad, side dish, or luncheon favorite with unexpected flavors.

There is no end to the excitement a fresh garden tomato can elicit when combined with other imaginative flavors or when standing on its own fresh good taste. The gourmet happens when you get creative and think way beyond the notion that a tomato is just a supporting actor in your salad. Make it the star and taste the possibilities!