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Mini explosion

Times Staff Writer

There are tiny tomatoes hidden in the back of Maryann Carpenter’s Coastal Organics stand at the Santa Monica farmers market, cases of them. They look like exotic jewelry strewn in cardboard treasure chests. Some of the tomatoes are round, some are grape-shaped and some look like miniature pears. They are every color in the tomato rainbow: red, green, yellow, white, even purple-black.

The one thing they have in common is their size, or lack of it. The biggest is a little smaller than a pingpong ball. The smallest is as tiny as the tip of your little finger.

Each case is labeled with the name of a restaurant; together they read like a foodie’s dream dinner calendar: Angeli Caffe, Josie, AOC, La Terza, Water Grill, Hungry Cat, Campanile and Lucques.

And at least on this cloudy day in mid-July, that’s where you’ll have to go to taste one of these miniature treasures. The tomatoes are so much in demand that Carpenter has sold every single one to the chefs who call her days in advance to order them.

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On the other side of 2nd Street, fellow tomato queen Barbara Spencer from Windrose Farm in Paso Robles says that as many as half the tomatoes she delivers to her chef clients every week are miniatures.

Tiny tomatoes are one of the hottest trends to hit the produce market in the last couple of years. They’re all over the place: at farmers markets, fancy groceries and even at your local supermarket.

According to a Department of Agriculture research report, sales of small tomatoes have increased more than 300% over the last several years. At the same time, the familiar round regular-sized tomato has taken a nose dive, its market share falling by more than half.

Big difference

People aren’t buying these little gems just because they’re cute. Most of these tomatoes are actually naturally sweeter than their bigger brothers. This isn’t your imagination: While regular tomatoes have sugar percentages (Brix) of around 4% or 5%, cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes reliably sweeten into the 8% to 9% range, and sometimes even higher.

Because they’re so small, they ripen much more quickly than regular tomatoes, a real boon in cool, cloudy springs like the one this year. Though farmers are still waiting for their big heirlooms to ripen, cherries and grapes are already in full flavor.

Even better, these miniatures last longer after picking than other tomatoes, so they can be picked nearly dead ripe and still be delicious a week later when you get them home from the supermarket.

The benefits of all of this are obvious. Though the tomatoes might be small, their flavors are outsized. Pop one in your mouth (because of the higher ratio of skin to pulp, pop is the appropriate verb here) and there is an explosion of flavor -- sweet and tart and all of those layers of various tomato tastes that tell you summer has arrived.

And just as with heirloom tomatoes, these miniatures have an almost startling array of flavors. Taste an assortment of them and you realize there is no such thing as one single “tomato taste.” Rather, there is a spectrum of flavor notes, running from almost lemony to nearly beefy.

But gobbling them like candy is far from the only way to enjoy these tomatoes. In fact, you can use them in just about any way you’d use a regular tomato, including in cooking.

One of the best ways to eat them and to showcase each variety’s distinctive flavor is raw in a salad. Cut them in half and let them sit with a little salt, some minced garlic, a glug of olive oil and a dash of red wine vinegar. Build from there. Add cucumbers and feta. And how about some slivered black olives?

Or go in a different direction and let those explosive flavors play out against comparatively bland white beans. Capers are good in this salad, particularly if you can find the salt-cured ones. They have a firm texture and an intriguing flavor that is almost flowery. Just soak them for a couple of minutes and rinse off the excess salt before you use them.

A chef favorite

Angeli Caffe chef and KCRW radio host Evan Kleiman says she likes the small tomatoes in vegetable sautes, the kind you might use as pasta sauces. “They hold together really well, and except for the super-sweet ones, they have a lot of acidity, which I like.”

In fact, she says, “about the only way I use larger tomatoes at all anymore is if I want to slice them and serve them raw.”

Maybe her favorite way to use the miniatures is in what she calls “intensified tomatoes.” These are tomatoes that she cuts in half, then slowly bakes with olive oil and herbs.

“I started using this as a condiment for fish,” she says, “but then I found it’s one of those things that once you have it you end up using it all different kinds of ways.”

That’s how David Lentz at Hungry Cat prefers them too. “They’re super-sweet that way,” he says. “Just braise them real slow in olive oil and garlic, maybe some rosemary. Cook them just until they burst open.” He serves this with summer beans as an accompaniment to salmon.

“Intensified,” “confited,” “slow-braised,” whatever you want to call them, these rich, meltingly soft tomatoes make a perfect dish for home cooks. They are almost effortless to make and last for at least a week in the refrigerator. Serve them on toast as a bruschetta. Mix them with quickly blanched green beans as a salad. Use them as a sauce for fish or pasta, either in chunks or pureed.

Or, rather than braising the tomatoes for an hour in olive oil, try stirring them briefly with melted butter. The slight amount of heat gently poaches the tomatoes, turning their texture silky but keeping the flavor fresh. Accented with shallots and tarragon rather than garlic and rosemary, think of this as the French version of braised tomatoes.

Pair the intensified olive oil tomatoes with assertive flavors, such as grilled sardines. The suave, buttery tomatoes are better with more subtle dishes, such as sweet seared scallops or broiled wild salmon.

Whether you use olive oil or butter, miniature tomatoes cooked this way retain their original colors, though the quality of it changes somewhat from shiny to burnished. Use them in assortments to get the full range of yellows, oranges, reds and greens.

The miniature invasion

The tiny tomato revolution began about five years ago. Cherry tomatoes, of course, have been with us always.

But miniatures really caught fire when grape tomatoes hit the scene. Smaller than cherries, and more oblong rather than round, the seeds for these actually were first imported from mainland China. The first grape tomatoes grown in this country began hitting store shelves on the East Coast in 1997.

The introduction was rocky, troubled by -- among other things -- legal tiffs between the original importers and distributors, including a trademark battle over the name “grape tomato.” But by 2001, the explosion in popularity was well underway.

Between 1999 and 2003, the volume of grape and cherry tomatoes sold increased 302%, according to the USDA. More importantly to growers, since these are premium products and they sell at higher prices than standard tomatoes, the value of the miniatures sold increased 429% at the same time.

Because most tiny tomato varieties are relatively new, there is still a lot of work to be done finding the best strains and the best ways to grow them. A tomato called Santa is the original grape and is still an industry mainstay.

But there are others. This year, Coastal Organics’ Carpenter is raising Sungold, a little super-sweet tomato introduced in 1992 and now on its way to being a perennial favorite, as well as several others.

There is Juliet, a red oval tomato slightly bigger than most grapes, then there are green and yellow grapes, white, purple and pink cherries, purple plum, Candy (like a miniature German pineapple tomato) and red-and-yellow striped Tigerella.

The one thing all of these tiny tomatoes have in common -- and the single best tip for selecting them -- is that whatever the variety, the color should be full and glossy.

In fact, one of the biggest hurdles tomato farmers are facing now is teaching crews how to pick the miniatures. Rather than harvesting tomatoes at the slightest sign of a blush the way pickers do with regular tomatoes, they should wait until the colors are fully developed.

This is difficult for home gardeners too because even when they are under-ripe, tiny tomatoes taste so sweet. But to get the best flavor, you still must choose tomatoes with the deepest, richest color. As with all the most precious jewels, brightest is always best.

*

Tomato and white bean salad

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Add a drained can of good-quality tuna and this becomes a light summer supper.

1 1/4 pounds mixed miniature tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons capers

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1/4 cup diced red onion

1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans

1/4 cup whole flat-leaf parsley leaves

1. Cut the tomatoes in half and combine them in a mixing bowl with the salt, garlic, capers, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Set aside to macerate 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Place the red onion in a small bowl of ice water.

2. When ready to serve, rinse and drain the beans. Drain the red onion. Stir the beans, onion and most of the parsley into the tomatoes. Taste and adjust seasoning (it may need more salt or vinegar), garnish with the remaining parsley and serve.

Each serving: 109 calories; 5 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 3 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 0 mg. cholesterol; 288 mg. sodium.

*

Grilled sardines with confited tomatoes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 6

1 1/2 pounds mixed miniature tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 whole cloves garlic

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups olive oil, divided

1 1/2 pounds fresh sardines (about 12)

1 clove garlic, minced

Pinch dried Greek oregano

Pinch dried red pepper flakes

4 tablespoons lemon juice, divided

2 cucumbers

Red wine vinegar

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Cut each tomato in half and arrange them in a single layer cut side up in a 5-quart earthenware gratin dish. Sprinkle lightly with salt and scatter the whole garlic cloves over the top. Cover generously with three-fourths cup to 1 cup olive oil (depending on the size of the tomatoes); the tops of the tomatoes should just break the surface.

2. Bake at 300 degrees until the tomatoes are fragrant, have browned on the surface and are beginning to shrivel, about 1 hour. Set aside.

3. While the tomatoes are cooking, clean the sardines. Begin by laying the fish on a board and making a small cut on the dorsal side right behind the head and straight down through the backbone. Make another incision on the belly side just behind the front fins. Holding the fish under running water, gently twist the head from the body. If you do this right, most of the innards will come away with the head. Discard these. Using the same small knife, cut a slit the length of the belly and rinse out the inside. With your thumb and forefinger, grasp the backbone near the head and pull up, using the fingers of your other hand to hold the meat in place. The backbone and larger ribs should lift cleanly away, leaving you a neatly butterflied fish with the tail attached.

4. In a large pie plate or baking dish, whisk together the remaining one-half cup olive oil, the minced garlic, oregano, red pepper and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Dip the sardines in the mixture to season and then arrange them in a single layer in the mixture to marinate. Leave at room temperature for up to 1 hour, turning them over once.

5. Slice the cucumbers about one-eighth inch thick and season very lightly with salt and the remaining 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.

6. Heat the broiler. Line a broiler pan with aluminum foil and heat it for 10 minutes. Arrange the sardines on the pan skin-side up and place as close to the broiler as you can get it. Cook just until the skin begins to brown, about 3 minutes. The underside will be cooked by the heat of the pan but should still be moist.

7. Arrange the cucumber slices in a low mound on each of 6 plates. Place 2 grilled sardines on top and then spoon over some of the confited tomatoes, including a little of their oil. Season with a sprinkle of salt and just a drop or two of red wine vinegar onto the sardines. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 269 calories; 13 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 36 mg. cholesterol; 257 mg. sodium.

*

Petrale sole with tomato butter

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 6

1/2 pound mixed miniature tomatoes

1 1/4 teaspoons minced tarragon

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, plus 1 tablespoon

1 1/2 teaspoons minced shallots

6 Petrale sole fillets (about 2 pounds)

Salt, pepper

Red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons oil, divided

1. Cut each tomato into lengthwise quarters and combine them in a bowl with the tarragon.

2. Melt the half-cup of butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until they soften and become fragrant. Remove the butter from the heat and let cool 2 or 3 minutes. Lightly season the fillets with salt and pepper.

3. When the butter is cooler, but still hot enough to soften the tomatoes but not so hot as to cook them through, pour it over the tomatoes and stir to combine. Stir gently to avoid smashing the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt (it will take about 1 teaspoon). If the tomatoes lack acidity, add a few drops of red wine vinegar. Set the sauce aside while cooking the fish.

4. Add 1 tablespoon of oil and 1 tablespoon of butter to a large nonstick pan and heat over high heat. Place one to two fillets in the pan depending on the size and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the fish over and cook 1 to 2 minutes until done. Add the remaining oil to the pan as needed to finish cooking the remaining fish.

5. Place a fillet on each serving plate and spoon a portion of the tomato butter (about one-third cup) over the top. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 320 calories; 26 grams protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 0 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 116 mg. cholesterol; 502 mg. sodium.


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