By Jennifer Muck-Dietrich
Illustration by Joyous Garden
Native to the Americas, tomatoes have been traced back to the Aztecs, around 700 AD. It was not until the 1500s that the tomato reached Europe. The pomi d’oro, or golden apples, are believed to have arrived in Europe via Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. The strange, yellow fruits were thought of as eggplants and were widely accepted by lower class, southern Europeans, but considered poisonous by the wealthy upper classes in England. Theory has it that the acid in tomatoes caused the lead in their old pewter plates to leach out, giving them toxic stomach upsets. Mass European immigration and the blending of cultures brought the pomme d’amour (love apple) back across the pond where it was finally introduced to Canada and North America 200 years later.
The word “tomato” comes from the Aztec language word “tomat”, meaning “the swelling fruit.” The scientific name Solanium lycospericum interpreted literally means “wolf peach.” As members of the deadly nightshade family, the leaves, stems, and immature fruits of tomato plants do not produce solanine, but a different alkaloid which is less toxic, tomatine. Many members of the Solanaceae family are indeed poisonous or hallucinogenic, so its bad reputation is warranted. Germanic people believed werewolves could be created from members of this family. However, the French word for tomato is pomme d’amour (apple of love). They obviously had a very different opinion of this food.
Tomatoes are fruits, which are botanically classified as a berry, but are considered a vegetable. There are two types of plants: indeterminate, which has a weak stem that sprawls and requires support. It grows as a perennial in their natural habitat. The prickly hairs all over the vines facilitate the vining process. When they touch the ground, they develop into roots. Determinate, or bush plants, stop growing at a certain height and produce fruit all at the same time. The size and color of the fruit depends on the cultivar and typically range from 1/2 of an inch to five inches in width. There are over 10,000 varieties and they grow in the shape of pears, ovals, hearts, spheres, ribbed like an accordion or even pointed like a bull horn. The colors range from blue, pink, red, yellow, orange, green with or without stripes and even white. Some tomatoes have very few seeds and are hollow inside, others are thick and juicy with lots of seeds. They are best stored stem side down, unwashed at room temperature, and out of direct sunlight. Do not refrigerate as this causes the tomatoes to permanently lose flavor.
Commercially grown tomatoes are harvested and transported while green. Before selling they are sprayed with artificial ethylene gas which causes them to turn red. Because they have not been allowed to ripen naturally, the flavor is inhibited because of the low sugar content. Another interesting fact, the tomato was the first genetically modified food—called Flavr Savr, which was engineered to have a long shelf life.
As is in the name, tomatoes are high in the antioxidant lycopene. This has been linked to reduced heart disease and lower cancer rates and are a great source of vitamin C, potassium, folate and vitamin K. Tomatoes are an excellent source of fiber and low in carbs since they are made up of 95 percent water. Gram for gram, the amount of lycopene in processed tomato products is much higher than in fresh. Combining fats with lycopene can increase absorption by up to four times (not everyone absorbs at the same rate). According to one study, people who ingested 1.3 ounces of tomato paste (16 milligrams of lycopene) with olive oil every day for 10 weeks experienced 40 percent less sunburn. Even though processed tomatoes are higher in lycopene, it is recommended to consume fresh, whole tomatoes whenever possible. Getting healthy never tasted so good!
Greek Stuffed Tomatoes
4 large, round tomatoes (yellow or red)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup basmati rice
2 tablespoons capers, drained
2 cups water
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
4 tablespoons fresh, chopped mint
Cut the top 1/8 of the tomato off and set aside. Using a melon baller or spoon, scoop out all the flesh inside the tomato leaving the sides intact. Chop up the tomato insides and place in a bowl with the juices. In a large saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and add onions, and garlic. Cook at medium for approximately 5 minutes then add chopped tomatoes, capers, and rice. Saute to mix all ingredients, add water and bring to a boil. Cover and turn down the heat to a low simmer for 15-18 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed, mix in mint, and salt and pepper to taste. Place the tomato shells in a baking pan with high sides. Evenly stuff each tomato with the rice mixture and then place it’s lid back on. Drizzle first, with olive oil, and then the white wine. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for approximately 45 minutes (be sure to baste the tomatoes every 10 minutes with the wine juices to keep the tops from drying out) taking the foil off after 30 minutes. Delicious served hot or cold. Opa!
Confetti Caprese Salad
This salad is my favorite way to showcase all the amazing colors of tomatoes I have grown each season. Afterall, who wants just a red tomato when you can have Sungolds, Green Zebra, Brown Berry, Isis Cherry, Cherokee Purple, Big Rainbow, Yellow Brandywine, Aubrey’s Pink, Peace Vine, Yellow Pear, Oxheart, Indigo Rose, Black Icicle, and Striped Roma?
6 cups of fresh, chopped, or whole cherry tomatoes—one inch, bite-sized pieces. As many varieties as you have access to, in as many colors as possible.
2 lbs of fresh buffalo mozzarella—cut into one inch chunks, or use two packs of ciliegia
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons of chopped, fresh basil
2 tablespoons balsamic glaze
Salt and pepper to taste
On a large platter, place tomato chunks, and cherries. You can either mix all the colors together, or display them artfully with each color separated in a spoke pattern. Place the mozzarella in the center and sprinkle basil over entire platter. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and then thin ribbons of balsamic glaze. Serve immediately.