When I started planning my summer vegetable garden way back in the cold of the late winter, all I could think about were tomatoes – one of the foods I most look forward to during these warmer months. While we can get tomatoes year-round in the grocery store, there really is nothing like the flavor of a sun-warmed fresh tomato directly off the plant. Here in New England, tomatoes are finally starting to come into season, both in my backyard and in our local farmers’ markets, and will continue to be available through early-to-mid fall.

As it turns out, though, tomatoes needn’t be just a summertime treat. Fresh tomatoes are easily canned at home, and canned tomatoes from the market are a fine staple of cold weather eating. Every year around this time, my household looks for ways to use fresh, heirloom tomatoes (grown from non-hybrid seeds) at every meal – salads, sandwiches, gazpachos, simply sliced with salt and pepper. In the winter, we consume canned and dried tomatoes just as frequently in sauces, atop pizzas, alongside roasts, and in soups and stews.

There are certainly myriad ways to enjoy tomatoes – but before we get to preparation, let’s learn some fun facts about this fascinating plant.

  • Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family, which also includes eggplant, peppers, and chilies. Many nightshade plants are commonly known to be toxic, and while we can eat the entire tomato (skin, flesh, seeds), the green leaves are indeed poisonous and should not be consumed.
  • As you may have heard, tomatoes are technically a fruit (a berry in fact!), but we lump them in with vegetables for culinary purposes due to their affinity for savory flavors.
  • One of the reasons tomatoes work so well in savory dishes is their unique umami flavor. Tomatoes’ umami is concentrated mainly in the seeds and the jelly-like substance surrounding them, thanks to high levels of naturally occurring glutamic acid.
  • Tomatoes are native to the western side of South America, and they were cultivated in Mexico as early as 500BC! In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought tomato plants around the world, to places including Europe, the Caribbean, and the Philippines (after which, the plants made their way to Asia). Today, they’re grown around the world, with China, India, and the US leading in commercial production.
  • While tomatoes made their way to Europe in the 1500s, they didn’t gain ubiquitous culinary favor until the 19th century, when they were widely consumed as food throughout the Mediterranean. Today, of course, they’re a staple in many delicious foods from that region, including Italian and Spanish cuisines.
  • When we think of tomato, we might commonly consider the round, red fruit, but it turns out there are so many more varieties grown around the globe. They can range in size from grape tomatoes to huge beefsteak varieties, and their color can run the gamut from red, to orange, yellow, purple, and even black.  Different varieties of tomatoes can also span a range of flavor from acidic to sweet.
  • In addition to their delicious flavor, tomatoes contribute several important nutrients. They are a great source of vitamins A and C, and red, yellow, and orange varieties contain high levels of the phytochemical lycopene. This antioxidant gives tomatoes their color and has also been shown to help ward off cancer.

Now let’s learn about a few of the numerous ways to enjoy tomatoes!

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