Tomatoes. Initially a misunderstood vegetable whose properties were thought to be poisonous, the tomato is actually a fruit. And a fruit that many cooks and gardeners are passionate about!
Seasonal eaters await impatiently for the first ripe tomato of the season. We love tomatoes in this country, although along with the English we were the last to accept the tomato as edible. We now produce and eat millions of pounds of tomatoes in the US; about 14 million pounds annually, of which about 12 million pounds are processed into easily accessible foodstuffs such as catsup, tomato sauce, tomato soup, etc. In fact, the tomato is the most processed vegetable grown in the US, and it is exceeded only by the potato in cultivated quantities.
Thousands of varieties of tomatoes are known and hundreds are actually cultivated. The commercial tomato industry tends to utilize newer hybrids genetically selected for such traits as sphere shape (to pack into boxes efficiently), thick skin (to survive mechanical harvesting and shipping), and slow ripening (for picking green and gassing with ethylene when redness is desired). Small local farms choose old and new varieties emphasizing flavor, disease resistance, and nutritional content.
The word “tomato” is derived from the ancient Mayan word “xtomatl” (don’t ask me how to pronounce it!). Native to Peru, it was first cultivated by native peoples in the 8th century. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the tomato was introduced in Europe, via Spanish explorers. The Italians were the first Europeans to begin eating the tomato, followed by the Spanish and French. The tomato was not globally accepted as a food until about 1850.
- Tomatoes are versatile. Sauté, bake, broil or grill them… and most of all, eat them raw!
- Try broiling sliced tomatoes topped with thin slices of cheese. Remove from heat when cheese is melted and tomatoes have softened and begin to bubble.
- Add tomato chunks to soups or hearty stews or puree tomato for a soup base or stock.
- Slice tomatoes and arrange on a plate; drizzle with olive oil and/or vinaigrette, chopped fresh basil or parsley and a little salt and pepper. YUM!