Foods traditionally associated with warm weather have special appetite appeal in colder months. That makes the appearance of tomatoes in the winter fruit bowl a surprise that's both eye-catching and practical.
Tomatoes in the fruit bowl are not as unusual as they may sound. Although they are used almost exclusively as vegetables in countries around the world, they actually are fruit, and winter tomatoes grown in Florida benefit especially from being treated as fruit.
These field-grown tomatoes are hand-picked before they are fully ripe, since most of them must travel great distances to reach consumers.
Fresh Florida tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator, as many vegetables are. The cold kills their flavor and impedes ripening. Instead, they should be kept at room temperature, away from direct heat and light, until they are bright red and juicy.
An attractive method of ripening winter tomatoes is to arrange them in a fruit bowl, either alone or with fruits such as apples, bananas and grapes, available in cold weather.
Don't hurry them . . . sometimes ripening takes three to five days. Place them stem side up because their ''bumpy'' shoulders at the stem end bruise easily.
If they have been ripened and then refrigerated, be sure to return them to room temperature for at least an hour before serving in order to enjoy their full flavor.
Although it cannot be denied that there is nothing like the fresh fruit of your own garden, winter tomatoes have some advantages. One in particular is that they hold their shape when cooked, which makes baked stuffed tomatoes an excellent choice for a cold weather main dish.
Stuffings can be made from many combinations of ingredients and the recipe that follows uses a delicious blend of meat, rice, cheese, onion, and seasonings. A green salad and warm French bread are good accompaniments. Beef-Stuffed Tomatoes 6 medium-sized tomatoes Salt 2 tablespoons oil 1/2 cup chopped onions 1 pound ground beef 2 teaspoons basil leaves, crushed 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/2 cup cooked rice 1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese 1 egg, slightly beaten 1 slice (1 ounce) Cheddar cheese, cut into strips
Use tomatoes held at room temperature until fully ripe. Cut off a 1/4-inch slice from the stem end of each tomato. With a spoon carefully scoop out pulp (save 1 cup pulp for later use).
Lightly sprinkle insides of tomato shells with salt and turn upside down to drain. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large skillet heat oil until hot. Add onion. Saute for 2 minutes. Add beef. Cook and stir until browned, about 5 minutes. Remove excess fat. Add basil , 1 teaspoon salt, black pepper and reserved tomato pulp.
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until liquid is reduced, about 8 minutes. Stir in rice, cheese and egg. Heat gently until just hot. Spoon into tomato shells. Top with strips of cheese.
Place on a baking pan. Bake until hot, about 15 minutes. Serve garnished with parsley, if desired. Serves 6.
In many sections of the country, Greek-style salads have increased in popularity as a change from the traditional American tossed salad. Greek Tomato Salad 6 medium-sized tomatoes 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 small garlic clove, crushed 1 1/2 teaspoons oregano leaves, crushed 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper 8 ounces feta or cream cheese, cut into cubes 1/2 cup Greek olives or ripe olives
Use tomatoes held at room temperature until fully ripe. Remove cores from tomatoes. Cut tomatoes into 1/2-inch cubes (makes about 5 cups). Place in a medium-size bowl.
To make dressing, combine olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, salt, and black pepper. Set aside for 10 minutes to allow flavors to blend and develop.
Add cheese and olives to tomatoes. Pour reserved dressing over all. Toss gently. Serve at once. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Fried tomatoes are a quickly prepared side dish, a pleasant accompaniment for a main dish of meat, fish, or eggs for a winter meal. Fried Tomato Slices 1 medium-sized tomato 1/2 cup flour 1 1/4 teaspoons salt 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Hold tomato at room temperature until fully ripe. Cut off stem end and cut tomato in 4 slices. Combine flour, salt, and pepper. Coat each slice with flour mixture. Fry slices in 1/4 cup hot salad oil, about 1 minute for each side. Serve immediately. Makes 2 servings.