The perfect red ripe tomato – bursting with juices and rich flavor is the ultimate taste of summer. Yet, so often, what passes for a tomato at the supermarket is a bland, mealy, thick skinned offering that’s traveled thousands of miles to get to your plate – it’s no wonder people don’t like eating their vegetables!
Tomatoes are actually one of the 5 top vegetables eaten by Americans, though most of the time they are eaten cooked in ketchup, barbecue sauce or tomato sauce. Fortunately, cooking actually brings out one of the important antioxidants in tomatoes: lycopene.
Tomatoes originated in South America somewhere in the Peruvian highlands and were small green fruits. They were first domesticated by the Aztecs of Mexico because they were similar in size and appearance to the tomatillo, a staple of their diet. There is some disagreement among historians on whether the tomato was taken to Spain by Columbus (1493) or Cortez (1521) but it was first mentioned in Western literature in 1544 by an Italian botanist, who named it pomo d’oro, golden apple presumably because, by then, they were yellow in color.
The tomato is the fruit of the plant Lycopersicon lycopersicum and is a member of the Solanaceae, or Nightshade family like peppers and eggplant. Lycopersicon means “wolf peach” in Latin so they were originally thought be to poisonous by Europeans who used it primarily as an ornamental plant.
Although there are literally thousands of varieties of tomato there are three main types:
Globe tomatoes. Which are round and grow between 4 – 9 inches in diameter – these include Beefsteak, Brandywines, Early Girls and most Heirlooms
Plum tomatoes. Which are more elongated and meatier than other tomatoes – these include Roma’s and are most often used for sauces
Tomatoes can also be categorized by their skin color which includes: white, red, green, yellow, orange, purple, brown, multi-colored and even black.
Tomatoes actually will ripen off the vine though the taste is not as good as those that are vine ripened.
There are a couple of ways to combat the plague of inferior grocery store tomatoes:
- Buy them from a farmer or roadside market – this way you get vine ripened tomatoes that are grown for characteristics that don’t require long distance shipping (thinner skins, juicier, sweeter) – plus you get to know the farmer that grows your food.
- Pick them at a u pick farm – this way you get to hand select your own, meet the farmer that grows your food and lay in enough to can, dry, or turn into tomato sauce
- This is best – grow them yourself.
No matter where you live, even if it’s only a small apartment with a fire escape you can grow a single tomato plant. There are many varieties that are perfectly suited for growing in containers that are quite prolific and well worth the minimal effort. Grape and Sweet One Hundreds are good examples of cherry tomatoes; early girl and Brandywine for round tomatoes and Roma for plum tomatoes.
Although tomatoes are considered fruit in the botanical sense, they have a slightly bitter and acidic taste and a subtle sweet flavor that doesn’t rise to the level of other fruits. They are generally prepared and served like other vegetables, which is why they are often considered a vegetable and not a fruit.
Tomatoes can be eaten straight off the vine but for some varieties cooking enhances their warm, rich, sweetness.
Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin K. They are also a very good source of, potassium, manganese, dietary fiber, chromium, and vitamin B1. In addition, tomatoes are a good source of vitamin B6, folate, copper, niacin, vitamin B2, magnesium, iron, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, vitamin E and protein.
Tomatoes can be eaten fresh by adding to salads, sliced for sandwiches, turned into salsa or simply drizzled with a little olive oil and salt. They can be used in soups, sauces and stews. Tomatoes can be baked, roasted, grilled, stuffed, dried, or dried and cured in oil.
Choosing and Storing
Choose tomatoes that have a deep rich color and yield to slight pressure and have a noticeably sweet fragrance. Tomatoes are very sensitive to cold so always store them at room temperature unless they start to become over ripe. If you aren’t ready to eat them when ripe you can store them in the butter compartment for a few days. Let them warm slightly before using to maximize the juiciness.
If absolutely necessary you can speed the ripening process by placing them in a paper bag with a banana or apple – both produce ethylene gas that increase the tomato’s maturation.
Canned tomatoes are an excellent option for many dishes — just be sure to buy from suppliers in the US because they have strict standards for lead content in containers.
When Buying Ketchup, Choose Organic
Organic ketchup contains 3 times as much lycopene as non-organic brands. Lycopene, which may help protect against certain types of cancer and reduce the risk of heart is present in much higher amounts in organic brands of ketchup.
For a simple elegant entree featuring tomatoes.