Whatever you say, Solanum lycopersicum has firmly anchored itself into American and the
World’s cuisine. This brilliant red berry or vegetable depending on your perspective, and cousin
to the pepper, potato and eggplant can be enjoyed fresh, cooked, dried, pureed, diced, stuffed
and almost any other way you can imagine.
The “wolf peach” (lycopersicum = wolf-peach) is thought to have originated in either Central or
South America and spread throughout the world via Spanish conquistadors. The earliest tomato
recipes didn’t appear until the late 1600s and it’s unclear if these were Spanish or Italian recipes.
I guess since they are part of the Nightshade family which includes several poisonous varieties
(or pharmacologically active varieties if you’re a pharmacist); early man took the “let get Mikey
to eat it” approach to tomatoes.
Is it a Fruit or a Vegetable?
Since the tomato is basically an ovary of a flowering plant, botanically speaking it is a fruit or
berry. However in culinary speak (and also based on U.S. tariff laws), it is a vegetable. Therefore
your categorization of the “Love Apple” depends on whom you’re speaking to; fruit to a
botanist, vegetable to a chef. I personally don’t care whether tomatoes are considered animals; I’
ll prepare them and eat them as I usually do.
Tomato’s main claim to nutritional fame is due to its high lycopene content (other red fleshed
fruits are also high in lycopene). Lycopene is a long chain carotenoid compound related to beta
carotene in carrots. It’s suggested that diets high in lycopene may ward off several types of
cancer, namely prostate, stomach and lung. Before you start having daily tomato paste
sandwiches (or worse, lycopene supplements), remember that lycopene hasn’t been proven to
reduce or cure any disease yet. And remember that micronutrient supplementation may actually
be harmful in certain cases (beta carotene supplementation may harm smokers or higher doses
of Vitamin E may increase mortality). However if you simply want to enjoy the flavors of the
Love Apple, enjoy to your heart’s content.
I won’t bore you with the details of adding canned tomatoes, tomato sauce or paste to stews,
chili and pasta sauces since you probably have been doing this for years. However, have you tried
oven roasted tomato soup? Or tomato confit? Whenever tomatoes are slow roasted in low heat,
it allows the water (tomatoes are 95% water) to evaporate but doesn’t really change the flavor.
Therefore, roasted tomatoes simply have a rich tomato flavor that’s a little different than the
vine ripened, sweet flavor of raw or the concentrated flavors of sun dried tomatoes (which have a
raisiny, tomatoey flavor).
If you haven’t tried it, simply cut ripe egg tomatoes in half lengthwise and place cut side up in a
baking dish or sheet pan. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and black pepper and roast at 350 degrees for
45 minutes to 1 hour. After cooking onions and garlic in a saucepan, add the tomatoes and
either chicken or vegetable stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Puree and strain for some of the
best tomato soup you’ve ever tasted.
For tomato confit you basically use a little more oil, lower oven heat and a longer cooking
time. The goal is to allow the tomato halves to retain their shape so you can remove the skins
when they’re done. After cooling and peeling, these wilted ruby gems can be tossed in salads,
added to sandwiches, layered in lasagnas or used to garnish your entrees.
In the States, real sun dried tomatoes are a rarity unless you live in the lower Western States.
Most dried tomatoes are made that way by desiccators or ovens set at very low temperatures.
You can prepare your own by slicing tomatoes in half and placing them on baking sheets at the
lowest temperature your oven allows. It will take about 8 to 10 hours to get those babies
completely dry. Therefore in my book, it’s a lot easier to purchase dried tomatoes – either as is
or soaked in olive oil.
As mentioned, dried tomatoes have a slightly different flavor than fresh or roasted tomatoes.
Since they’re dried to the consistency of beef jerky they obviously won’t have a fresh tomato
flavor. To me they taste more like tomato flavored raisins. Because they don’t carry any
moisture with them, they’re perfect for adding to dips or stuffing mixtures where fresh tomatoes
would simply leave a watery mess. One of my favorite uses is to blitz a bunch of dried tomatoes
packed in olive oil in the food processor until they’re finely minced (refrigerated olive oil packed
tomatoes are easier to process than room temperature since the olive oil congeals when
refrigerated). I pack the minced tomatoes in an air tight container and occasionally mix a
tablespoon or so with mayonnaise (regular or reduced fat) and a couple of dashes of
Worcestershire sauce. This makes a mighty tasty sandwich spread and doesn’t get the bread soggy
as fresh tomato slices would.
The Fresh McKoy
Instead of simply picking what on sale at your local supermarket, I recommend looking for the
heirloom variety of tomatoes. Heirloom? Old stuff that’s passed down from generation to
generation? Well, almost. Heirloom tomatoes primarily refer to tomatoes grown from the
original seed stock (not genetically modified or hybridized) that are open-pollinated or
pollinated naturally by animals, insects or the elements. Because these tomatoes aren’t
genetically modified to be disease resistant or to have perfect shapes or to be handled without
bruising, they do cost more and are well, kinda ugly looking. Some have cracks in their skin or
are oddly shaped and because most are picked just as they are ripening, and are delicate and
bruise easily. What’s the upside? Taste, taste and well, taste. Real tomato taste, acidity that
complements the flavor and sweetness found only with vine ripening.
The perfect use for these ugly beauties? Sliced with a little sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper
and a touch of balsamic vinegar. Or perhaps cubed and mixed with olive oil, salt, black pepper
and fresh chiffonade basil and baked in mini puff pastry tartlets. Or maybe cubed with a little
minced garlic, salt, black pepper, wine vinegar, hot sauce and fresh cilantro for the best fresh
salsa you’ve ever tried.
The Gochiso Gourmet’s Fresh Salsa
10 ripe Roma tomatoes or 6 medium heirloom tomatoes
½ medium sweet white onion (Maui, Walla Walla, Vidalia) finely minced
½ cup chopped or 1 small bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
½ to 1 tsp sea salt
2 tsp wine vinegar
Fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste or finely minced jalapeno or Serrano chili
Chop the tomatoes to ¼ inch dice. Combine with minced onion and cilantro. Add salt, vinegar,
black pepper and hot sauce (minced hot peppers). Refrigerate for 1 hour then enjoy with tortilla
chips (our favorite is baked Dorito’s Scoops) or use on fish, chicken or pork.
For a colorful salsa, use a combination of red, green and yellow tomatoes with or without black
beans and/or fresh roasted corn.
You Say To-May-To, I say To-Mah-To