What’s summer without tomatoes? Lifeless…lackluster…flavorless…okay, okay…it would still be summer and wonderful at that, but tomatoes bring a luscious, sensual energy to hot, sultry days that is without peer in the plant-passionate world I live in. I can hardly imagine a salad without tomatoes bursting open on my tongue, their juices cooling off the summer heat…their flavor lifting my energy as much as my spirits.
Native to Mexico and Central America, the tomato was originally a small, round fruit that resembled what we now call ‘cherry tomatoes.’ Spanish settlers were introduced to this little treat by the Indians who cultivated it.
Interestingly, the tomato was believed to be poisonous, only grown decoratively and not consumed until the 18th century. Not as far-fetched as we might think, this belief grew out of the fact that unripe fruits, as well as the leaves and the stems of tomato plants contain a toxic alkaloid that can actually make people sick if consumed in excess.
Nevertheless, the tomato found its way into Italian cooking, through sharecropping (the fruit of the plant was all that was left to the farmer in his ‘share,’ so they had to figure out how to use them in cooking), around the 16th century and was named the ‘pomodoro,’ meaning ‘golden apple’ for its sensual texture and delicious flavor.
It was not until the 19th century, that the tomato grew popular in the U.S., with the name ‘tomato’ being derived from the Aztec name ‘tomalt.’ A bit of historic myth from the U.S. experience of the tomato and one of the reasons it took so long to catch on here. When George Washington was President, an assignation attempt consisted of mixing raw tomatoes into his food…so they say.
Those days are long behind us and the tomato has become a cherished part of our culinary repertoire. There are over 1000 varieties of the tomato, varying in size from 1-5 inches in size and a few ounces to 2 pounds in weight. The flavor of tomatoes depends on many factors, including when they are harvested, their degree of acidity, their sugar and water content, as well as the texture of their skin and flesh.
How to pick a good tomato? First, use them fresh only when they are in season. When tomatoes are cultivated out of season, they are as lackluster as a boring dinner date. Choose firm tomatoes, with smooth shiny skin, good strong color and no cracks or bruises. They should emit a delicate, sweet perfume and yield to light pressure. When out of season, choose canned or jarred tomatoes that were preserved at the height of their ripeness…the end of summer…and go with organic if you can when using canned tomatoes…for so many reasons. (Or can them yourself.)
Tomatoes can be eaten raw or cooked and are prepared in a wide variety of ways. They are a great source of vitamin C and potassium, as well as being rich sources of lycopene, folic acid and vitamin A. Highly acidic, tomatoes contain a toxic substance called solanine, which is neutralized in cooking, drying or marinating. Solanine can aggravate the symptoms of arthritis so if you suffer and can’t bear to give this luscious fruit up, go with cooked…always…for the least impact on your tender joints.
Tomatoes can be store for about a week at room temperature. Refrigerating fresh tomatoes destroys the flavor we so love. Green tomatoes can be ripened on a sunny window sill or cooked by frying or pickling.
With so many ways to cook these wonderful fruits, I had hard time choosing my favorite summer recipe, but here’s one…of many:
Tomato and Fennel Salsa
Fresh and crisp, this salsa is like no other I have tasted. Salty and a bit peppery, with the richness of olives, it goes great with chips or toast points on a buffet or at a patio party. But the best part is that the strong energies of the salsa will make for a very social event.
Makes 6-8 servings
2-3 small fennel bulbs, stalks trimmed, finely diced
4-5 ripe tomatoes, diced, do not peel or seed
½ cup oil-cured black olives, finely diced
3-4 stalks fresh basil, leaves removed, finely diced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons capers, drained well, do not rinse
grates zest of 1 lemon
1-2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons umeboshi or red wine vinegar
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, tossing well to coat the vegetables with the oil and vinegars. If more salt is needed for your taste, add it by the pinch and mix well. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours before serving to allow the flavors to develop.