Excerpt from the book Italian Pride: 101 Reasons to be Proud You’re Italian by Federico and Stephen Moramarco
Italian Pride Reason 79. Basil and Tomato
Is there a marriage of herb and vegetable (well, technically herb and fruit) more clearly made in heaven than the combination of basil and tomato?
Try this experiment:
Take a (preferably homegrown) vine-ripened tomato and cut it into quarter-inch slices from top to bottom. Spread the slices, overlapping one another in a circle, on a plate. Insert a single basil leaf between each slice. Sprinkle very lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil over the slices and sit down in a sunny place with a knife and fork to savor your creation.
Eat slowly, one small bite at a time, making sure you always have a bit of basil as well as tomato on the end of your fork. After you do this, you’ll probably replace the expression, “Stop and smell the roses” with “Sit down and savor the basil and tomatoes.”
The tomato, introduced throughout Europe sometime in the sixteenth century, was believed to have aphrodisiac properties; when you taste the lush gorgeousness of a fresh tomato on a sunny day, you will understand why. The Italian name for tomato – pomodoro (golden apple) — probably derives from the color of one of its varieties, but it may also have to do with the high value that the Italians accord this incomparable fruit.
Today the tomato appears everywhere in Italian cooking, particularly in the south. And where the tomato goes, can basil be far behind? Virtually every sauce that includes tomatoes calls for basil to give the sweet, juicy flavor of the tomatoes a fuller, livelier taste-to “kick it up a notch,” as TV chef Emeril Legasse is fond of saying as he adds outrageously spicy ingredients to one dish or another. But basil does not overpower tomatoes as some herbs and spices do to the foods they flavor. Instead, it deepens and ennobles the tomato’s essential flavor, reminding us that both plants are gifts of the earth’s bounty.
The ancients regarded basilico as a sacred plant, to be cut only with specially designed instruments, made of pure metals, after proper rituals had been performed. Legend has it that Saint Helena discovered the “true Cross” under a basil patch, further sanctifying the herb for Christians.
No Italian garden is complete without enough tomato plants and fresh basil to perform the celestial marriage again and again. Their union is a distillation of the essential flavors of Italy-sweet, earthy, pungent, and lingering .
Types of Italian Tomatoes
San Marzano Tomato: These long, thin and pointed red tomatoes are named after the San Marzano region from which they originate. Located at the base of Mt. Vesuivus. the bittersweet crimson San Marzano tomatoes are considered some of the finest plum tomatoes in the world.
San Marzano tomatoes are perfect for sauces, and their canned variety is popular throughout Italy and the US. You can get varieties grown outside of Italy, but the truly authentic cans come with an official DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) seal. BUY San Marzano DOP Tomatoes here!
Roma tomato: A little plumper and a more common plum tomato, also great for sauces because it’s thick and has few seeds. It’s the most common plum tomato sold, so it’s likely available anywhere you shop. It’s always best to buy local and organic.
Heirloom tomatoes: Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollenated tomatoes that have special physical and taste characteristics that have been handed down for generations (hence the name). One of the more distinct varieties from Italy is the Cuore di Bue (above) a thick and hearty beefsteak type tomato grown primarily around Calabria and Liguria. Again, these can be found in farmer’s markets or certain supermarkets and it’s fun to experiment with textures and flavors!
Italian Pride Tomatoes: Grow Your Own!
If you’d like to try growing your own tomatoes, let us recommend this highly informative site: http://www.loyalgardener.com/ultimate-guide-growing-tomatoes
Sweet Basil. This is one of the staple Italian basils, and there are many different types including Napoletano, Large Leaf and Lettuce Leaf Italian Basil. Genovese basil is a close cousin, and these two varieties make up the bulk of pestos and basil recipes. The peppery flavor works great with olive oils, garlic, lemons, and, of course tomatoes. You can buy cut basil at stores like Trader Joe’s or other specialty stores, but in many climates in the US, it’s very easy to grow your own as basil grows very quickly during summer and its leaves regenerate. (It doesn’t survive the cold winter.)
If you’re thinking of starting a basil garden, follow these instructions from the Farmer’s Almanac:
- Make sure that the soil is moist. Basil plants like moisture. If you live in a hot area, use mulch around the basil plants (the mulch will help keep the soil moist).
- Make sure to pick the leaves regularly to encourage growth throughout the summer.
- After 6 weeks, pinch off the center shoot to prevent early flowering. If flowers do grow, just cut them off.
Let us know your favorite tomatoes, basil, or if you have any tips or recipes below!