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The Tomato—A Very Versatile “Vegetable”

The Tomato—A Very Versatile “Vegetable”

 The Tomato​—A Very Versatile “Vegetable”


“WHAT would I do without tomatoes!” exclaims the Italian housewife. This is a sentiment shared by countless other cooks around the world. Indeed, the tomato features in recipes of many cultures. Home gardeners grow it more than any other food. But is it a fruit or a vegetable?

Botanically the tomato is a fruit because it is a berry containing seeds. However, most people think of it as a vegetable, as it is usually eaten with the main course of a meal. This tasty food has a fascinating past.

Colorful History

In Mexico the Aztecs cultivated the tomato for food. During the early 16th century, returning Spanish conquistadores took it to Spain and, borrowing the Nahuatl word tomatl, called it a tomate. Soon Spanish enclaves in Italy, North Africa, and the Middle East were enjoying the new delicacy.

Later that century the tomato reached northern Europe. At first it was thought to be poisonous and was grown as a decorative garden shrub. Although a member of the nightshade family, with strongly aromatic leaves and stems that are toxic, the fruit proved to be completely harmless.

Likely this newcomer to Europe was yellow, since the Italians called it pomodoro (golden apple). The English called it tomate and later tomato, but the term “love apple” also became fashionable. From Europe the tomato made the long journey back across the Atlantic to North America, where eventually, during the 19th century, it became an important food.

Remarkable Variety and Popularity

Ask what color tomatoes are, and the answer will most likely be “red.” But did you know that varieties can be yellow, orange, pink, purple, brown, white, or green, and some are even striped? Not all are round. Some are flat or plum- or pear-shaped. They can be as small as a pea or as large as a man’s clenched fist.

This popular food is grown as far north as Iceland and as far south as New Zealand. Major producers are the United States and southern European countries. Cooler climates rely on greenhouse production, and arid regions grow the crop by hydroponic techniques​—that is, in a nutrient solution without soil.

The tomato remains a favorite of the amateur gardener. It is easy to grow, and a few plants provide enough tomatoes to feed a small family. If you have limited space, look for varieties specially developed for patios and window boxes.

Hints and Health Tips

Cold temperatures impair the flavor of tomatoes, so do not store them in the refrigerator. To speed up the ripening process, you could set them on a sunlit windowsill or you could keep them at room temperature in a bowl with a ripe tomato or banana or in a closed brown paper bag for a few days.

Tomatoes are good for you. They contain vitamins A, C, and E, as well as potassium, calcium, and mineral salts. Researchers are discovering that they are also an excellent source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, which, it is suggested, lowers the risk of certain illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease. Tomatoes are 93 to 95 percent water, and weight watchers will be glad to know that they are very low in calories.

 Deliciously Versatile

When you buy tomatoes, what type will you choose? The familiar red, classic variety are useful for salads, soups, and sauces. The tiny red, orange, or yellow cherry tomatoes, which are very sweet because they have a high sugar content, are delightful eaten raw. If you are making a pizza or a pasta dish, maybe the oval-shaped plum tomato with its firm flesh would be a good choice. The large beefsteak tomato​—called such because of its dense, beefy flesh—​is ideal for stuffing or baking. The green tomato, sometimes with distinctive stripes, makes excellent relish. Indeed, tomatoes add their distinctive flavor and color to a huge range of delicious vegetable, egg, pasta, meat, and fish dishes. If you cannot obtain fresh tomatoes, no doubt you will find many processed tomato products in your local store.

Each cook has his or her own tomato recipes, but here are a few suggestions you may want to try.

1. Prepare a quick and colorful appetizer by overlapping slices of tomato, mozzarella cheese, and avocado. Sprinkle with a dressing of olive oil and black pepper, and garnish with basil leaves.

2. Make a Greek salad by combining chunks of tomato, cucumber, and feta cheese with black olives and sliced red onion. Season with salt and pepper, and serve with a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.

3. Create a Mexican salsa with freshly chopped tomato, onion, green chillies, and coriander, mixed together with a little lime juice.

4. Produce a simple yet tasty tomato sauce for pasta by placing in a pan the contents of a can of chopped tomatoes, a pinch of sugar (or catsup), some olive oil, a minced garlic clove, a few herbs such as basil, bay leaf, or oregano, and some seasoning. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then simmer it for about 20 minutes until the sauce thickens. Pour it over your cooked and drained pasta.

The versatile tomato is just one example of the wonderful variety of foods that have been created for our use.