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Yes, we have no tomatoes

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Oh, the precious pomodori.

Maybe you've noticed the signs on the doors or the notes attached to the menus and ordering areas of your favorite eateries recently that say, in effect, "We have no tomatoes," or "We're low on tomatoes."

This past weekend I saw such a notice at the counter of a Subway shop. The note advised customers that there is a weather-related shortage of tomatoes and the restaurant might not be able to supply tomatoes for your sandwich. Despite the warning, though, the particular Subway I visited Sunday night had plenty of tomatoes on hand. Apparently Subway has changed the type of tomato they use and is also getting some from Mexico, instead of Florida, whose tomato growers were hit hard by bad weather this winter. But Mexico has also suffered from an unusual cold snap that has affected tomato-growing.

At Potbelly, I found a not affixed to a catering menu that explained "the recent cold weather across North America has had a severe impact on the availability, quality and cost of tomatoes. Due to these factors, we will temporarily cease to offer tomatoes on your sandwich. As soon as the tomato crop returns to normal we will add them back to your sandwiches."

From October to June, Florida produces about half the tomatoes consumed in the United States.

Of course, let's hope that for the sake of the people whose livelihoods depend upon growing and selling tomatoes the market returns to normal soon, but at the same time, is it really such a hardship if, not even a couple weeks after we were buried under a couple feet of snow and then suffered through below zero temperatures, we have to wait a little while longer or pay a bit more for a tomato?

Tomato extras

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Food Worth Knowing Tomatoes.jpg

We solicited and received way more tomato-related tidbits than we had space for in today's cover story on eating tomatoes from morning to night.

Like: At Balsan in the Elysian Hotel, tomatoes are the supporting player this month and next. The hotel pre-ordered 2,000 pounds of the fruit from Heritage Prairie Farm in La Fox. It's just about time for the farm to make that delivery, after which the kitchen will be busy; 1,200 pounds have been allotted to make ketchup, 500 pounds for preserved tomatoes and the rest for pizza sauce. Not surprisingly, Balsan isn't the only kitchen around town going nuts for tomatoes.

For backyard gardeners taking notes, farmer Chris Covelli of Tomato Mountain offers this: "Water only as much as necessary. If you let the soil dry out, they taste incredible. And always harvest the day before watering, not the day after."

For tasting notes and photos of various heirloom varieties, check out this link from the Local Beet.

And if nothing about our story inspired you, there's always last year's.

PROJECT TOMATO.jpg

Food writer Ronni Lundy authored an entire book on tomatoes. She knows a thing or two about them.

In a delightful conversation with the New Mexico resident (but forever Southerner) about today's story on 50 ways to have your tomatoes, we got on the subject of not-quite-heirloom tomatoes.

See, as heirlooms have built up a following at farmers markets, Lundy says mass tomato producers have, not surprisingly, gotten into the game, watering down the definition of 'heirloom' that already is a bit jumbled.

(Generally, the term refers to the seeds of non-hybrid plants that have been passed down within families, ethnic groups or a specific region over a long period of time. Some say true heirlooms must have been grown for 50 years. Others say they must have been passed down within a single family).

"What's happening now," Lundy says, "is they're breeding things like Cherokee Purples with a more standard supermarket tomato to create an heirloom that has the color of an heirloom and a little more of the shape, but conforms more to supermarket tomato. Reproduction tomatoes, that's what we call them.

"And what's really distressing about it is you go to your farmers market and the guy there is selling incredible heirloom tomatoes for three dollars a pound, and then you go to the superstore, and you see the same brand, and it's got kind of the same colors but looks like it's got better shape, and it's only a buck a pound.

"The reason not to buy it is it's not the same tomato."

We know what she's talking about. We've seen tomatoes marked "heirloom" (though never bought them) at our neighborhood Dominick's. On the one hand, we were pleasantly surprised the first time we saw them. On the other hand, we knew it would feel bizarre buying them when we could just buy them at our farmers market a mile away and know exactly where our cash was going.

The other thing Lundy said that we can't get out of our heads: "An ugly tomato is actually a better tomato."

On another tomato note:

We offered 50 tomato tips -- a fun list to put together but by no means, the be-all, end-all. Chef Ina Pinkney gave us the following omelet recipe, but it was past our deadline and too late to include. She's excused, though -- she says she was just waiting until the good tomatoes came in to make this for breakfast the other day.

Got other favorite ways to eat tomatoes? Please share.

Pinkney's recipe after the jump.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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