Friday, April 27, 2012

The Tantalizing Tomato: History and Facts

The tomato is the perfect blend of sweet and tart, sugar and acidity. It goes so well with so many things. The tomato could possibly be one of the most versatile foods. So many tasty meals are made with tomatoes.

I couldn’t imagine life without spaghetti sauce, pizza, or chili. French fries wouldn’t be the same without ketchup and a grilled cheese would not be complete without a bowl of tomato soup.

A BLT wouldn’t even exist without the all important slice of tomato.

Too many delicious dinners wouldn’t be the same without the tomato. Especially delectable dishes from the Mediterranean area, could you imagine French, Greek or Italian food without the touch of the tomato?

Today the tomato grows all over the world, yet it is only native to areas of Mexico and South America. The Spanish explorer, Cortez, discovered the tomato growing in the gardens of the Aztecs in the early 1500’s and brought seeds back to Europe with him, yet the tomato still took over 100 years to become a food source.

Southern Italians were the first to embrace the golden globes (early tomatoes were yellow not red) and incorporate them into their cuisine. By 1758 the tomato was mentioned in “The Art of Cookery” by Hannah Glass in England.

The tomato is thought to have arrived in the American colonies around 1770 but it was believed to be poisonous. The “poison apple” was avoided because it was grouped in the same botanical family as Nightshade, a highly poisonous plant. At one time the tomato was also called the “love apple”, as it was believed to have aphrodisiacal powers, but the actual term “love apple” probably occurred because the word tomato stems from the French pomme d’amour and the Italian pomi d’amore which both meant apple of love.

Though it was the term “poison apple” that kept people from enjoying this fantastic fruit (yes, it is actually a fruit, part of the berry family), Europeans and Americans continued to avoid it throughout the 18th century.

Thomas Jefferson was an avid grower of tomatoes and helped push the tomato into American culture and food, along with Colonel Johnson of Salem, New Jersey who decided to eat an entire basket of tomatoes in front of the courthouse to prove they were not poisonous. In 1893 the Supreme Court ruled the tomato to be a vegetable so it would be subject to import taxes. Today the US is the biggest cultivator of tomatoes in the world and tomatoes are the third highest produced crop in the US.

The tantalizing tomato is one of the most widely used foods. It is used in every form; fresh, roasted, cooked, smoked, sun dried, turned into sauces, juice, soup, ketchup and used widely in seasonings. Not only is the tomato versatile it is also extremely healthy.

It is low in fat, has minimal carbohydrates, plus it is full of nutrients and antioxidants. It is a major source of Lycopene which research studies have shown to protect against and help prevent prostate and other types of cancers. It also improves circulation. The cooking process makes the lycopene readily available and is found in products like canned tomatoes and sauces. Plus you need to eat it with a little fat so the body can absorb the lycopene. So eating a combination of tomato sauce and olive oil can be extremely good for you.

Tomatoes are relatively easy to grow and there are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes out there to choose from. They can all be classified into four basic categories; standard slicing tomatoes these are most common to find, small grape and cherry tomatoes usually used for salads, Roma or plum tomatoes used for sauces, and the specialty or heirloom tomatoes.

Most of today’s tomatoes are bred to be hardier; they are still very fragile and delicate fruits/vegetables. They need to be handled carefully because they are easy to bruise. To store tomatoes you should keep them out of direct sunlight and never put them in the refrigerator. The cold destroys flavor molecules. If possible it is best to store them in a cool or room temperature area. Keep them away from onions and bananas. They will absorb the taste of the onion and bananas emit a gas that will cause the tomatoes to ripen too quickly.

The tantalizing tomato can be used to create hundreds and possibly thousands of dishes, being one of the most versatile foods available.

What will you eat today?

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