Fresh Ideas: Grape tomatoes worth the drive back to La.

Photo by Helana Brigman  --  Caprese Skewers can be served raw or thrown on the grill. Either way, they're a summer treat.
Photo by Helana Brigman -- Caprese Skewers can be served raw or thrown on the grill. Either way, they're a summer treat.

Last week, I began to drive south. After spending two months on the coast of Maine, it was hard to say goodbye to 75-degree days and ridiculously cheap local seafood.

In many ways, it was hard to leave, but as I packed up my car, I thought of all the things I’d missed this summer: watermelon sold by the pound, the Red Stick Farmers Market and my favorite August fruit — the grape tomato.

August is an especially sweet time for tomato enthusiasts, as the fruit is at its peak and most affordable. In other parts of the country (like Maine), lower temperatures, dry weather and claylike soil make it hard to produce quality fruits.

Fortunately, for those of us who live and cook in Louisiana, we have access to a rich tomato-growing season with the kind of varieties other states can only dream of.

So when people ask me what I’ve missed most about cooking in Louisiana, I say how much I’ve missed the grape tomatoes. Whether you’re eating them raw or canning tomato sauce for the winter, sweet tomatoes — like those found in Louisiana — can be hard to find in other parts of the country.

To celebrate my return to Baton Rouge, I’m revisiting a classic summer recipe that takes advantage of our most treasured produce, the grape tomato. These Caprese Skewers feature Louisiana cherry and grape tomatoes front and center and are an easy way to enjoy fresh ingredients with little work.

To prepare, skewer ribbons of basil between chunks of milky mozzarella (buffalo if you have it) and tomatoes for a fast appetizer or snack.

Although I typically serve this dish raw (seasonally ripe tomatoes are naturally sweet), they can be thrown on the grill briefly until the tomatoes take a char and the mozzarella starts to melt. Or, if you’re looking for even more flavor, lightly sprinkle the dish with good-quality balsamic vinegar before serving.

As always, the fresher and brighter the produce, the better it is for you. Research shows that cherry and grape tomatoes, more so than other varieties, can be good for your health.

When it comes to selecting Louisiana tomatoes at your local market, grocery store or roadside stand, keep these tips in mind:

Color — Look for tomatoes that are vibrantly red, not dull or pinkish in hue. If tomatoes appear to be underripe, let them stand for two to three days at room temperature like you would any other fruit.

Feel — Tomatoes should be firm (but not hard) and heavy for their size. Weight is important when picking out produce, as it indicates the ripeness and juiciness of the fruit.

Skin — A truly ripe tomato should have little or no bruises or blemishes. Cracked (and healed) tears in the skin are another issue when dealing with heirloom varieties, but, for cherry and grape tomatoes, stick with clean, blemishless skin that has yet to pucker.

As for your basil, select bright green leaves with little or no dark spots and firm, freshly cut stems.

After driving 2,000 miles and spending more than 25 hours in the car, arriving in Baton Rouge has been a wonderful end to a long summer. Plus, I’d say these Caprese Skewers were definitely worth the drive.

Reach Helana Brigman at clearlydeliciousfoodblog.com or via email at hbrigm1@tigers.lsu.edu.