Tomatoes aka ‘Love Apples’
Fully ripe summer tomatoes can be sublime, raw or cooked. Though it is botanically a berry, a subset of fruit, the tomato is considered a vegetable for culinary purposes, because of its savory flavor.
Native to South America, the first domesticated tomato may have been a little yellow fruit, similar in size to a cherry tomato, grown by the Aztecs of Central Mexico as far back as 500 BC. The large, lumpy tomato, a mutation from the smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes. The Aztecs called the fruit xitomatl, meaning “plump thing with a navel”. Other Mesoamerican peoples, including the Nahuas, took the name as tomatl, literally “the swelling fruit” from which some European languages derived the name “tomato”.
It is thought that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan, now Mexico City, in 1521. However it wasn’t until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print pomi d’oro, or “golden apple” by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist. In 16th century, the adoring French transliterated the moniker to La Pomme D’Amour, “The Love Apple” due to their belief in its aphrodisiacal powers.
In 1753, Linnaeus placed the tomato in the genus Solanum (alongside the potato) as Solanum lycopersicum. The scientific species epithet lycopersicum means “wolf peach”, and comes from German werewolf myths. These said that deadly nightshade was used to summon werewolves, so the tomato’s similar, but much larger, fruit was called the “wolf peach” when it arrived in Europe.
Today, the tomato is now grown and eaten around the world and there are around 7,500 varieties. For a food once considered to be poisonous—tomatoes belong to the nightshade family—they have clearly come a long way. One of America’s most popular vegetables, heirloom tomatoes in particular are becoming increasingly popular among home gardeners and organic producers since they tend to produce more interesting and flavorful crops. Although the definition of an heirloom tomato is vague, unlike commercial hybrids, all are self-pollinators that have bred true for 40 years or more.
Tomatoes are the most important non-starchy vegetable in the American diet. Nutritionally, tomatoes are a low calorie, low fat food and an excellent source of vitamins A, C and K. They also contain potassium, which helps control blood pressure, maintain nerve function and help muscle control. Tomatoes are also the biggest source of carotene lycopene; a powerful antioxidant that, unlike nutrients in most fresh fruits and vegetables, has even greater bioavailability after cooking and processing, so keep making your spaghetti sauces! Lycopene is the pigment that gives the tomato its color—the redder the tomato, the more lycopene it contains. Research has found that dietary lycopene is associated with reducing our risk of certain cancers and other diseases, including macular degeneration. Since lycopene is fat soluble, using a little heart-healthy olive oil in tomato recipes will boost your absorption of this disease-fighting carotenoid.
There’s nothing better than a just-picked tomato and you have to treat them right to enjoy them at their best. Just as you shouldn’t choose tomatoes from the refrigerated section at the store, you shouldn’t refrigerate them at home either. Temperatures below 55 degrees will destroy the flavor of your tomatoes and make them mealy. If some of your tomatoes need ripening, place them in a paper bag with a banana or an apple for a day or two. The gases from the fruit will help ripen them.
If you’re buying from a local farmers’ market, only buy what you intend to eat within a few days. Summer fresh tomatoes are like babies—they have sensitive bottoms. The soft skin can’t bear the weight of these heavy fruits. Instead, they prefer to relax on their heads: stem side down. Place them upside down on a cooling rack; the holes allow a perfect place for any long stems to poke through so you don’t have to rest the tomato on its side (also a no-no).
If you want to stock up on summer’s bounty, tomatoes can be stored in the freezer until you’re ready to cook with them. Simply arrange tomatoes on a cookie sheet so that they don’t touch each other and place in freezer. Once they are frozen solid (without sticking to each other), transfer to an airtight container and store in the freezer. Use as needed throughout the winter.
Here are some tips on preparing your tomatoes:
- Wash tomatoes in cold water before use.
- Slice tomatoes vertically for salads and sandwiches to prevent the juice and seeds spilling out.
- For stuffed tomatoes, cut them horizontally to remove the seeds and juice.
- To peel your tomatoes, mark an X on the bottom of each one and place them in boiling water for no more than 20 seconds. Remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon and plunge them into cold water. The skins should come off easily.
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