Tomatoes are a fruit and part of the nightshade family (like potatoes and eggplants), but they are served and prepared as a vegetable, which is why most people consider them a vegetable and not a fruit. Tomatoes come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes: large red beefsteaks are slightly irregular; globes are red, medium-size and round; plum tomatoes are egg-shaped and red or yellow (grape tomatoes are baby plums); cherry tomatoes are small and round, etc. There are many heirloom varieties that are not marketed widely but come in red, yellow, green and even purple, as well as striped. Native to South America, and brought to Europe by Spanish explorers, the tomato took some time to be accepted because tomatoes were thought to be poisonous, like other members of the nightshade family. It was not until the 1900s that tomatoes started to gain popularity in the US.
There are few vegetables that better mark the summer months than the sweet juiciness of a vine-ripened tomato. Although tomatoes are now available year-round, the truly wonderful qualities of tomatoes are the best when they are in season from July through September.
Tomatoes have fleshy internal segments filled with slippery seeds surrounded by a watery matrix. They can be red, yellow, orange, green, purple, or brown in color. Although tomatoes are fruits in a botanical sense, they don’t have the dessert quality sweetness of other fruits. Instead they have a subtle sweetness that is complemented by a slightly bitter and acidic taste. Cooking tempers the acid and bitter qualities in tomatoes and brings out their warm, rich, sweetness.
Only the fruits of this plant are eaten since the leaves contain toxic alkaloids (see Individual Concerns section below). Tomatoes have fleshy internal segments filled with slippery seeds surrounded by a watery matrix. They can be red, yellow, orange, green, purple, or brown in color.
Although tomatoes are fruits in a botanical sense, they don’t have the dessert quality sweetness of other fruits. Instead they have a subtle sweetness that is complemented by a slightly bitter and acidic taste. They are prepared and served like other vegetables, which is why they are often categorized as such. Cooking tempers the acid and bitter qualities in tomatoes and brings out their warm, rich, sweetness.
Although tomatoes are closely associated with Italian cuisine, they are actually originally native to the western side of South America, including the Galapagos Islands. The first type of tomato grown is thought to have more resembled the smaller-sized cherry tomato than the larger varieties.
The tomato was not cultivated in South America, but rather in Mexico, supposedly because the Mexican Indians were intrigued by this fruit since it resembled the tomatillo which was a staple in their cuisine. The Spanish conquistadors who came to Mexico shortly after Columbus’ discovery of the New World “discovered” tomatoes and brought the seeds back to Spain, beginning the introduction of the tomato into Europe.
Although the use of tomatoes spread throughout Europe and made its way to Italy by the 16th century, it was originally not a very popular food since many people held the belief that it was poisonous since it was a member of the deadly Nightshade family. They were wise but not fully accurate, as the leaves of the tomato plant, but not its fruits, do contain toxic alkaloids. Yet, due to this belief, tomatoes were more often grown as an ornamental garden plant than as a food for many more centuries in several European countries.
Tomatoes made their way to North America with the colonists who first settled in Virginia, yet did not readily gain popularity until the late 19th century. Since new varieties have been developed and more efficient means of transportation established, tomatoes have become one of the top selling vegetables in this country. Today, the United States, Russia, Italy, Spain, China and Turkey are among the top selling commercial producers of tomatoes.
How to Select and Store
Choose tomatoes that have a deep rich color. Not only is this one of the signs of a delicious tasting tomato, but the deep color also indicates that it has a greater supply of the health-promoting phytonutrient red pigment, lycopene. Tomatoes should be well shaped and smooth skinned with no wrinkles, cracks, bruises or soft spots. They should not have a puffy appearance since this indicates that they will be of inferior flavor and will cause excess waste during preparation. Ripe tomatoes will yield to slight pressure and will have a noticeably sweet fragrance.
When buying canned tomatoes, it is often better to buy those that are produced in the United States as many foreign countries do not have as strict standards for lead content in containers. This is especially important with a fruit such as tomatoes, whose high acid content can cause corrosion to, and subsequent migration into the foods of the metals with which it is in contact.
Since tomatoes are sensitive to cold, and it will impede their ripening process, store them at room temperature and out of direct exposure to sunlight. They will keep for up to a week, depending upon how ripe they are when purchased. To hasten the ripening process, place them in a paper bag with a banana or apple since the ethylene gas that these fruits emit will increase the tomato’s maturation. If the tomatoes begin to become overripe, but you are not yet ready to eat them, place them in the refrigerator (if possible, in the butter compartment which is a warmer area), where they will keep for one or two more days. Removing them from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before using will help them to regain their maximum flavor and juiciness. Whole tomatoes, chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce freeze well for future use in cooked dishes. Sundried tomatoes should be stored in an airtight container, with or without olive oil, in a cool dry place.
When Buying Ketchup, Choose Organic
Organic ketchup contains 3 times as much lycopene as non-organic brands.
Lycopene, a carotenoid shown to help protect against breast, pancreatic, prostate and intestinal cancer, and to reduce the heart attack risk (see Health Benefits above), is present in much higher amounts in organic compared to non-organic brands of ketchup.
Researchers Betty Ishida and Mary Chapman at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service in Albany, CA, tested lycopene levels and antioxidant activity in 13 brands of ketchup: 6 popular ones, 3 organic, 2 store brands, and 2 from fast food chains. While purple and green ketchups had a similar lycopene content to their red counterparts, organic ketchups excelled, with one brand containing 183 micrograms of lycopene per gram of ketchup, about 5 times as much per weight as a tomato. Non-organic brands averaged 100 micrograms per gram, with one fast-food sample containing just 60 micrograms per gram.
If you want high lycopene levels, pick the darkest red organic ketchup. And don’t forget to enjoy your ketchup in a meal that also provides a little fat. Lycopene, like other carotenoids, is fat-soluble, which means it is not well absorbed without fat.
How to Enjoy
Tips for Preparing Tomatoes:
Before serving, wash tomatoes under cool running water and pat dry.
If your recipe requires seeded tomatoes, cut the fruit in half horizontally and gently squeeze out the seeds and the juice.
It is especially important when cooking tomatoes to not use aluminum cookware since their high acid content will interact with the metal. This may result in the migration of the aluminum into the food, which will not only impart an unpleasant taste, but more importantly, may have deleterious effects on your health.
For the Most Lycopene, Use the Whole Tomato
It’s well known that a high intake of tomato products is associated with lowered risk of colon and prostate cancers, a beneficial effect thought to be due to tomatoes’ high content of the carotenoids, lycopene and beta-carotene.
Tomato products, such as tomato paste, have been recommended over whole fresh tomatoes because they concentrate tomatoes and thus deliver more of their protective carotenoids, despite the fact that tomato peels are usually eliminated during processing.
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition, however, once again confirms that Mother Nature knows best: consuming whole, natural foodsâ”in this case, the whole tomatoâ”is best.
When tomato paste that included tomato peels was compared to classically made (without peels) tomato paste, carotenoids were significantly better absorbed in the whole tomato paste. Study participants absorbed 75% more lycopene and 41% more beta-carotene from whole tomato paste compared to conventionally made (without peels) tomato paste.
The take home message: look for products that contain whole tomatoes, including their peels, or make your own whole tomato paste. Not only is it quick, easy and inexpensive, but the improvement in flavor will amaze you. Once you’ve enjoyed its heavenly aroma while cooking and tasted your own freshly made, whole tomato paste, you’ll only resort to store-bought tomato paste in emergencies.
A Few Quick Serving Ideas:
To make your own tomato paste, simply healthy sauté a couple of cloves of chopped garlic and/or 1-2 large chopped onions a couple of minutes until translucent, then add 8-10 chopped whole tomatoes, a teaspoon of dried or several teaspoons of fresh chopped oregano, basil, and any other herbs you enjoy, such as parsley or rosemary, and simmer for 30-45 minutes. Remove from the heat, drizzle with olive oil, and add sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. For a fancier version, sauté chopped olives and/or mushrooms along with the garlic and onions.
Tomatoes are a great addition to bean and vegetable soups.
Enjoy a classic Italian salad: sliced onions, tomatoes and mozzarella cheese drizzled with olive oil.
Combine chopped onions, tomatoes, and chili peppers for an easy to make salsa dip.
Purée tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and scallions together in a food processor and season with herbs and spices of your choice to make the refreshing cold soup, gazpacho.
Add tomato slices to sandwiches and salads. To keep things colorful, use yellow, green and purple tomatoes in addition to red ones.
Season: June – September
How to select: Available year round, but at their peak in June to September. The most flavorful are ripened on the vine, not in the store as most are sold. Choose firm tomatoes, richly colored and noticeably fragrant.
How to store: Ripe tomatoes should be stored at room temperature and used within a few days. Never refrigerate tomatoes as the cold temperature kills the flavor and turns the flesh grainy.
How to prepare: bake, broil, fry, grill, raw, saute, stew
Matches well with: anchovies, arugula, basil, bread crumbs, cheese, chiles, chives, cucumbers, eggs, garlic, lemon, marjoram, mint, mushrooms, olive oil, olives, onions, oregano, parsley, pasta, pepper, peppers, saffron, salt, seafood, shallots, sugar, tarragon, thyme, vinegar
Substitutions: 1 (14.5 oz) can tomatoes, drained = 2 cups chopped tomatoes