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The Truth about TomatoesBy Vicki McClure Davidson
The versatility of the common tomato is inspiring and mind-boggling. It is a staple in most Mediterranean and Latin American countries, can be served cold, hot, puréed, stuffed, diced, jellied, stewed, broiled, braised, in soups, in sandwiches, in salads... the amount of frugal, health-conscious recipes that use tomatoes as a main ingredient number in the millions. The tomato is said to have been around since as early as 700 A.D., growing wild in the Andes of South America and cultivated by the Incas and Aztecs.
Reportedly, there is evidence that the first domesticated tomato was a little yellow fruit, an ancestor of L. cerasiforme, grown by the Aztecs in ancient Mexico—they called it xitomatl (pronounced shi-to-ma-tlh), meaning "plump thing with a navel."
An average-sized red tomato is low in calories and rich in vitamins, particularly Vitamin A (20 percent of daily values) and Vitamin C (40 percent of daily values). They're also a good source of fiber, potassium, iron, phosphorus, and Vitamin B. A thorough review of scientific literature strengthens the evidence that eating tomatoes and tomato-based products can provide powerful protection against many kinds of cancer. The data are strongest for reducing the incident of cancers of the prostate gland, lung and stomach, but also extend to several other kinds, including breast, pancreatic, colorectal, esophageal, oral, and cervical cancers.
Some studies (disputed by other studies) have indicated that men who eat a great quantity of tomatoes per week (in marinara sauces, pizza, whatever, as in a typical Mediterranean diet) have little to no prostate cancer as compared to other men who do not. Tomatoes, reasonably priced when they are in season, are filled with antioxidants and beta-carotene. Quite the legacy of health benefits!
Historically, tomatoes were not always so appreciated. The Scots, hundreds of years ago, not only would not eat them, but determined that they were poisonous because they were not mentioned in the Bible. Britain didn't trust them, either, because they were in the nightshade family. Italians didn't truly trust tomatoes for a long time, either, incorporating them finally in their diet during the late 1700s. Another odd belief was that the seeds from tomatoes had to be removed prior to eating them—this myth is still believed by many people in different parts of the world today.
Tomatoes were late to arrive in America. President Thomas Jefferson, having eaten tomatoes in Paris, is said to have begun growing them in Virginia in 1781. It took about 50 years for Americans in our fledgling country to learn of them and embrace them enough to include in American cookbooks.
In The America's Kitchen Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, the results of tests conducted on the flavors of canned tomatoes are included. Here are their findings:
"Ten months out of the year, the quality of canned tomatoes easily surpasses that of any fresh tomatoes you may be able to find. Picked at the peak of ripeness and canned immediately, they are sweet, flavorful, and convenient. We tasted eleven brands of canned tomatoes, both straight from the can and in our Quick Tomato Sauce, and discovered, not surprisingly, that not every brand was up to snuff. Whether you are buying whole or diced tomatoes, look for those that are packed in juice rather than puree, which has an unpleasant cooked tomato flavor. The winning brand, Muir Glen, uses organic tomatoes and won accolades for its vibrant, fresh-from-the-garden flavor."
If you're growing your own tomatoes, here are a few excellent tips on ripening and harvesting tomatoes from Tomato Dirt:
Looks count! Tomatoes ripen from the inside out. If a tomato looks ripe on the outside, it will be ripe on the inside.
Tomatoes need warmth to ripen, not light. Fruit will continue to ripen during overcast or cloudy days that are warm or tropical.
Tomatoes stop ripening when temperatures are above 86 deg. F. If you have a long string of hot days, or if you live in an area that has consistently hot summers, then tomatoes may ripen to a yellow/orange color and stop. Harvest them before they turn completely red.
Heirloom varieties ripen before they completely turn color. Pick heirloom tomatoes before they look totally ripe.
Cherry tomatoes crack if left on the vine too long. Pick them just before they look like they’re perfectly ripe.
To pick a tomato, grasp a ripened tomato gently and firmly. Twist it until it snaps off the vine. You can also use a clippers or knife to harvest tomatoes. Cut the stem close to the fruit.
Tomato Tips & Trivia
Members of the nightshade family, tomatoes have been used throughout the centuries as love charms or aphrodisiacs, along with other plants of the same family including belladonna, mandrake, henbane, thorn apple, potato, eggplant, paprika, and chile pepper.
A few bad spots don’t ruin the whole tomato. Just cut them off.
Acids in foods such as tomatoes and vinegar affect bean tenderness when cooking dried beans. So add acidic ingredients only once the outer shell of the bean is tender, about halfway through the cooking time.
Regular use of kelp, or seaweed, sprays on your tomato plants in your garden have been shown to make plants heartier and healthier, and even improve the soil conditions and flavor of the tomatoes. According to data shared on the Tomato Casual website, "The use of seaweed as a growth stimulator is widely supported by scientific studies. There is also some evidence to support the idea that kelp is useful in helping plants through times of stress, including drought, disease, and cold weather."
Tomatoes are four times as popular as bananas. Every year, 60 million tons of tomatoes are grown for consumers, and the average person will consume about 80 pounds worth of them annually.
The state beverage of Ohio is tomato juice.
One tomato plant can produce an average of 15 tomatoes in a season.
After buying tomatoes at the store, it is best to not store them in the refrigerator. The cold storage is devastating to the taste. The fruits need 5 to 7 hours to regain taste again. The cooled food has practically no scent, because the scent, being a gas, does not come out. The cold also damages tomatoes. Many enzymes are no longer effective at low temperatures. Also, tomatoes emit ethylene gas, which can speed up the ripening and aging of other fruits and vegetables nearby.
You can store tomatoes outside of the refrigerator for about two weeks, provided that damaged fruits are immediately eaten to prevent fungus from touching the other tomatoes. A plastic or paper bag can protect the tomatoes from drying up.
Ketchup was once used as a medicine in the United States. In the 1830s, it was sold as Dr. Miles's Compound Extract of Tomato.
Tomatoes were believed to be poisonous for years because they are in the belladonna family. Some people avoided eating them because they aren't mentioned in the Bible. Rather than eat them, people used the plants as tabletop centerpieces or ornaments. When Robert Gibbon Johnson, a wealthy local landowner, brought tomates to Salem, New Jersey from Europe in the early 1800s, no one would eat them. To prove they were safe, Johnson ate an entire basket of them in front of a shocked crowd on the town's courthouse steps on September 26, 1820.
Cooking tip from Rachael Ray: "To sweeten a tomato sauce recipe, don't add sugar—simply add half a minced onion to the garlic beforehand, and let it soften and sweeten over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Then add your tomato products."
The Italian name for the tomato is pomodoro, which translates to "apple of love" or "golden apple," because the first tomatoes to reach Europe were yellow varieties.
The first Harley Davidson motorcycle was built in 1903, and used a tomato can for a carburetor.
Cooked tomatoes are believed to be even better for you than when they're raw. Apparently, heating them releases more of the primary antioxidant, lycopene.
Experts say that the jelly-like substance around the seeds of the tomato contains the highest concentration of vitamin C.
In Sicily, tomatoes are sun-dried and used throughout the winter. The flavor of naturally sun-dried tomatoes is far superior to that of oven-dried tomatoes.
Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit. This is because a fruit is the ripened ovary, together with its edible seeds, of a flowering plant that is edible; a vegetable, on the other hand, is the edible stems, leaves, and/or plant roots. But in 1863, the US Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes were to be considered vegetables. And with typical meal preparation in America, the tomato is indeed treated more like a vegetable than a fruit in the kitchen. "Vegetable" is a culinary term, not a botanical one. Its definition has no scientific value and is somewhat arbitrary and subjective. All parts of herbaceous plants eaten as food by people, whole or in part, are generally considered vegetables. For example, mushrooms—though belonging to the biological kingdom of fungi—are also commonly considered vegetables in the kitchen.
If you have are growing tomatoes in a vegetable garden, here are some great tips on how you can save your end-of-season tomatoes, from Expert Village.
Basic Gardening Tips: How to Save End-of-Season Tomatoes
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The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook: Featuring More Than 1,200 Kitchen-Tested Recipes, America's Test Kitchen, 2005.
Dodson, Mardi, Bachmann, Janet, and Williams, Paul, National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website, "Organic Greenhouse Tomato Production," ATTRA Publication #IP190/197, (http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/ghtomato.html), 2002.
Fresh Plaza website, (http://www.freshplaza.com/news_detail.asp?id=5839).
Morton, Sally, Suite 101 website, "Fruit or Vegetable?", (http://vegetablegardens.suite101.com/article.cfm/fruit_or_vegetable_), November 29, 2006.
Real Simple, Tomato Trivia, (http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/shopping-storing/food/tomatoes-101-10000001643017/index.html).
Rooks, P.J., Tomato Trivia, Associated Content, (www.associatedcontent.com/article/287264/tomato_trivia?cat=22). Tomato Casual website, (www.tomatocasual.com).
Wikipedia website, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomato).