Tomatoes
have conquered the world

Tomatoes are enjoyed worldwide, but this was not always so. From their native origins on the equatorial west coast of South America, they were taken to Mexico by the Aztecs more than two and a half thousand years ago. The cuisine of the rest of the world which now finds

cherry tomatoes on vinecherry tomatoes on vine

those mostly red berries indispensable, had to do without them for two millennia until the Spanish conquistadores took them to Europe, the Caribbean and Philippines. It is hard to imagine what Indian or Italian cooking must have been like before this. The love of the apple of love spread slowly, and especially in Europe and the US suspicion and superstition surrounded these fruit and they were granted strange properties such as inflaming passion, or second sight, but mostly just being poisonous. This was largely because they were preceded by a native fruit in the same family Solanaceae, namely the deadly nightshade or belladonna, which was both a hallucinogen and deadly poison. Confusion was created by their similarity in appearance. For hundreds of years the laggers in Italy and England (the slowest of all) did not taste the fruity tart flavors of the tomato that later became culinary staples, but cultivated the plant for horticultural and table displays ! 

In addition to the deadly European nightshade, the tomato belongs in the same plant family with many edibles, such as aubergines (originating in Asia), and medicinals such as mandrake and recreational drugs such as tobacco. However, the foods are most often of South American origin. In the Americas one finds a greater diversity of peppers, mild and hot, potatoes of all colors and sizes, tomatillos, tamarillos or tree tomatoes, ‘Cape’ gooseberries and pepino melons and many more interesting rarities.

Tomatoes ripening in the sunFruit ripening in the sun

The alkaloids in the nightshade family are poisons that have some interesting pharmacological properties, and are generally tolerated by most humans, but toxic reactions differ between people, and as its name implies, in the deadly nightshade high concentrations can be deadly. This is also why it is best to avoid the leaves of potatoes and tomatoes, and other foods in this family. It has taken thousands of years to breed the strong alkaloids out of certain parts of the cultivated food plants.

Tomatoes, Fruit or Vegetable?

Today China is the biggest producer with its yearly 170 million ton harvest, and is followed by India, the US and Turkey. In the US 90% of production are processed for Italian and Mexican style dishes. California and Florida account for 2/3 of the summer supply and in winter Mexico steps in to fill the production gap. Americans are very choosy and feel only their fruit are produced to a high enough standard of food safety in the canning process. Yet oddly legislation is tighter in Canada and the Eurozone.

In American cooking of the last two centuries, fruit and vegetables are prepared as sweet and savory respectively, leading to a dispute about whether tomatoes are a vegetable or fruit. This mainly had practical implications for canning processes and tariff laws. The US supreme court thus declared them a vegetable in 1893. This explains the sensitivity to this binary when discussing tomatoes in some areas of the world, its an interesting cultural artifact. However, it is all a bit for anyone else not exporting to the US, and has little meaning in global cooking world and I’ve only to take the example of South Africa, where fruit like mango's, peaches and oranges are often added to savory dishes, or pickled with salt, fresh juices are made with root vegetables, and earthy tubers caramelized with sugar.

Genovese tomatoes grow big and are full of flavor.Fruit of the Genovese variety grow big and are full of flavor.

Tomatoes themselves are served with so much more latitude than the vegetable-fruit binary allows: raw, in racy salsas and relishes, salads and sandwiches, just heated in subtle Iranian stews and delicate Mediterranean pastries, boiled up in curries, fresh French garden soups and tempered by sweet oils in  burning Nigerian ‘chop’, reduced in pasta sauces and aromatic Indian curries, and preserved with sugar, salt, lactofermentation or vinegar in pickles, ketchup, achars, chutneys and jams or dried, either whole or in sheets. We are missing only beer, pudding and chocolate made from tomatoes…anybody out there ?

In short this fruit, or berry  (in botanical terms) is consumed in as many ways as the cultures of the world can come up with using their combined creativity. The sweet flavors of sun ripened summer are condensed in the tomato that is plucked late in the season.  This delicious sweet-tart fruitiness is the sensual sign of the tomato’s nutritional, preventative and rejuvenating medicinal power. Its simply not true that things which are good for you always taste bad.

Wash them before serving under cool running water and pat dry. Cook in order to temper the bitterness and acidity and bring out the mellow sweetness. Avoid cooking the fruits in aluminium cookware, which the acidity in the fruit will turn into a long term health hazard. Interestingly, the availablity of some of its nutrients is enhanced by cooking ! The pips and skin are very healthy, with a higher content of the beneficial anti-oxidants lycopene and beta Carotene, but if a recipe insists on their removal for a realy good reason, half the fruit and gently squeeze out the seed pulp. The skins are removed easily by freezing the fruit and then defrosting them again. You can also apply boiling water to fresh tomatoes to make them shed their skins.

Here are some suggestions for adding some tomato into your quick and easy gourmet experience in the everyday.

Bruschetta, toast rubbed with garlic and olive oil and topped with chopped tomato and basil

Sandwiches with butter salt and pepper

Bean and vegetable soup

Italian salad with onions, mozarella and olive oil

Blended smooth in salsa with onion, nuts and chilis

Blended with herbs, scallions, cucumbers and bell peppers to make cold Gazpacho soup or lightly boiled with green beans and onions, courgettes and bell peppers to make hot Minestrone soup served with pesto. With antipasti, with dips

In wraps, Canned with pasta sauces

Buying tomatoes

Avoid those with a puffy appearance, which may have poor flavour.  Avoid refrigerated fruit and choose those kept at air temperature.

Storage

We are urged by British chefs like Rachel Phipps not to refrigerate tomatoes, it spoils their flavour and texture. Chilling reduces the activity of hundreds of genes in this fruit accostomed to tropical temperatures. This leads to impaired flavour and nutritional quality and they may never recover, even when removed from the fridge. However when there is a glut and they are cheap, you can freeze them ripe and fresh, for later use in well cooked up dishes and purees. Just chop them and fill a container, or put them whole in a bag in the freezer. If you have to refrigerate them to prevent them rotting, remove a half hour before eating to let their flavour unfold.

You can also freeze tomato paste and ketchup easily. 

To remain succulent sun dried tomatoes should be kept in an airtight container in a dark place or in oil.

Ripening store fruit

When ripening green tomatoes you’ve purchased, it is recommended that you don’t put them on a windowsill as they may rot before they get red. You can ripen them quickly in a dark place, in a paper bag with a banana or apple, which will emit ripening chemicals. Once red, their flavor and color is enhanced by a little windowsill exposure.





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