Vegetable Profile: Tomatoes
Origin of Tomatoes
Tomatoes are native to Central America and had been brought to Europe by the Spaniards. However, Europeans initially thought that they were poisonous so they did not gain popularity for quite some time. They were right to a certain degree as tomatoes belong in nightshade family of plant and they contain alkaloids –substances can cause adverse reactions in sensitive individuals.
Here’s a list of commonly available tomatoes:
• Sweet grape
• Truss tomatoes or on-the-vine tomatoes
• Red cherry
• Cherry cocktail
• Cherry gold
• Tommy toe
• Mini yellow pear
• Heirloom tomatoes
• Cherry Roma
• Tiny Tim
Tomatoes are available all year around. They are grown just about everywhere in the world, either in the open or under glass. If you don’t like the fresh ones this month and only want them for cooking, buy them canned.
Selection of Tomatoes
Choose firm, heavy, well-formed tomatoes that are free from deep blemishes. Avoid over-ripe and split ones. The colour should be deep red and even. Pale ones –unless they the natural yellow variety—tend to have less flavour.
Tomatoes should be stored at room temperature or in a cool but not cold place. Keeping tomatoes in the fridge is not ideal as the cold reduces their flavour. It is advisable to purchase them close to serving time. Use tomatoes within 7-10 days if they are red. If they are green, ripen them in a dark, slightly cool place.
Tomatoes are usually considered a salad ingredient but they also make a fine cooked vegetable. They quickly lose their shape when cooked, though.
To peel tomatoes: First, cut a cross at the bottom of tomato –not too deep. Dip into boiling water for about 1 minute, then plunge in cold water; slip off skin. Alternatively, pierce the tomato with a fork at the stem end. Hold the tomato over a low flame, turning slowly, until the skin pops. Remove from the flame and peel the skin away.
How to seed tomatoes: An easy way is to slice the tomatoes in half, then gently squeeze and press out the seedy portions. Then dice or cut in sections as called for.
Other preparation methods: Peeled or unpeeled tomato slices or wedges.
Chopping tomatoes: Wash, remove the stem and core. Then chop them into small pieces.
Cooking Tips for Tomatoes
Grilling tomatoes: Start with firm tomatoes and slice them in half horizontally. Brush with olive oil. Grill until stripy grill marks form. Flip and repeat. Sprinkle with salt.
Stuffing tomatoes: Slice them in half horizontally and scoop out the inside. Fill with your choice of filling (deep-fried eggplant, breadcrumbs, cheese, spinach, mushrooms, rice and quinoa are some possibilities). Slice them in half horizontally and scoop out the inside. Bake at 400ºF/200ºC/Gas Mark 6 for 20-30 minutes.
Where to Use
Tomato is the main ingredient in passata (pizza sauce), tomato paste, ketchup and a variety of pasta sauces. There are many dishes featuring tomatoes. Here are some examples:
• Mexican salsas
• Sauces like in this Smoky Tomato sauce
• Soups like Gazpacho
• Stews like Zucchini Stew with Green Lentils
• Vegetable bakes
• Raw salads like Shepherd’s Salad with Sumac or Sumaklı Çoban Salata
• Sun-dried tomatoes as in Bruschetta with Cream Cheese and Tapenade
• Pasta sauces like Spaghetti with Bolognese Sauce or Fusilli Pasta with Eggplant and Corn
• Breaded green tomatoes (not very common in Australia, however, this one for my friends from the US)
Here’s a list of ingredients which I believe go nicely with tomatoes:
• Fresh basil leaves
• Olive oil
• Dill weed
• Oregano (fresh or dried)
• Parmesan cheese
• Black pepper or white pepper
• Tarragon leaves
• Balsamic vinegar
• Curry pastes like Nyonya curry paste and Harissa
Nutritional Profile of Tomatoes
When the tomato is perfectly ripe, it is a highly nutritious vegetable, containing a good level of vitamin A, C, K, manganese, folate, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. Tomatoes also contain 95% water.
Health Benefits of Tomatoes
The biggest health benefit of tomatoes is its lycopene content. This anti-cancer ingredient is the most powerful antioxidant among the carotenoids and is the pigment that makes tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit and strawberries red. Tomatoes are the second lycopene richest plant, watermelon being the first. Lycopene is more readily absorbed when tomatoes are cooked and oil is added. You don’t have to look any further than your pasta sauce with olive oil in it. However, heating foods destroys vitamin C along with other nutrients.
The other anti-cancer substances tomatoes contain are coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid which combine with nitric oxides in certain foods to prevent them forming cancer-causing nitrosamines.
Special Note on Tomatoes
In botany, tomatoes are actually fruit, not a vegetable. No wonder why I sometimes feel like eating a whole tomato over the sink.