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Sunday Food: Tomatoes

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

(Picture courtesy of Elliot Gllflx at flickr.com.)

It’s everywhere these days, tomatoes are in season and we almost always have a plant growing in a pot if not in the garden.   You probably will see bins of them in your grocery store, and all varieties out there for you to yearn for.

Once in our eating past, though, the tomato was considered quite poison.   Its reputation was terrible, and for aeons the lovely fruits went to waste.

A nickname for the fruit was the “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit.

Around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato grew widespread in popularity in Europe. But there’s a little more to the story behind the misunderstood fruit’s stint of unpopularity in England and America, as Andrew F. Smith details in his The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery. The tomato didn’t get blamed just for what was really lead poisoning. Before the fruit made its way to the table in North America, it was classified as a deadly nightshade, a poisonous family of Solanaceae plants that contain toxins called tropane alkaloids.

One of the earliest-known European references to the food was made by the Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrae Matthioli, who first classified the “golden apple” as a nightshade and a mandrake—a category of food known as an aphrodisiac.

Of course, we have so many uses for the tomato now, this is hard to imagine, but civilization was spared its lack after those early days, and now they’re everywhere – and should be.

The tomato is now grown and eaten around the world. It is used in diverse ways, including raw in salads, and processed into ketchup or tomato soup. Unripe green tomatoes can also be breaded and fried, used to makesalsa, or pickled. Tomato juice is sold as a drink, and is used in cocktails such as the Bloody Mary.

Tomatoes are acidic, making them especially easy to preserve in home canning whole, in pieces, as tomato sauceor paste. The fruit is also preserved by drying, often in the sun, and sold either in bags or in jars with oil.

Tomatoes are used extensively in Mediterranean cuisine. They are a key ingredient in pizza, and are commonly used in pasta sauces. They are also used in gazpacho (Spanish cuisine) and pa amb tomàquet (Catalan cuisine).

Though it is botanically a berry, a subset of fruit, the tomato is a vegetable for culinary purposes, because of its savory flavor (see below).

(snip)

Tomatoes are now eaten freely throughout the world. They contain the carotene lycopene, one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. In some studies, lycopene, especially in cooked tomatoes, has been found to help prevent prostate cancer,[46] but other research contradicts this claim.[47] Lycopene has also been shown to improve the skin’s ability to protect against harmful UV rays.[48] A study done by researchers at Manchester and Newcastle universities revealed that tomato can protect against sunburn and help keeping the skin looking youthful.[49] Natural genetic variation in tomatoes and their wild relatives has given a genetic plethora of genes that produce lycopene, carotene, anthocyanin, and other antioxidants. Tomato varieties are available with double the normal vitamin C (Doublerich), 40 times normal vitamin A (97L97), high levels ofanthocyanin (resulting in blue tomatoes), and two to four times the normal amount of lycopene (numerous available cultivars with the high crimson gene).

Of course, you can hardly have a sandwich or a salad without at least one slice of tomato these days, and I am glad of it.   There are too many plants in the garden here, we’ll be leaving them in baskets at neighbors’ doors by dark of night by August.   But who would want to go through a planting season without those wonderful tomatoes?   Not me.

Tomatoes and friends last week in the garden

Tomatoes and friends last week in the garden

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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.

  • Ruth

    morning, pups, hope you have some homegrown tomatoes on your schedule, ours are still babies of course.

  • Beverly Lawson

    Yep, One of life’s great treats…been quite awhile since I planted any.
    Good Morning All…..Hope it’s a lovely day. Still early & quiet here; Nice.

  • Ruth

    Morning, glad you’re getting a peaceful start to the day.
    Actually, I have some in a pot too, can move it to sunlight whenever that moves too.

  • http://firedoglake.com/ CTuttle

    Aloha, earlybird pups as I turn out the lights and try to get some sleep…! 😉

  • Ruth

    good to see you! Sleep well and hope songbirds don’t keep you awake.

  • Rachel

    Our neighbors (that we share food with) planted tomatoes and peppers, so we are looking forward to that. I miss a good tomato, not a fake stand-in for a tomato like the ones at Walmart. To me, a tomato, if it’s real, is all you need on a sandwich.

    Yesterday we rescued an enormous smooth softshell turtle from a road- absolutely gorgeous. And just…huge, even bigger than the snapping turtle from last week. The internet says these turtles are only 7-13 inches across. BS. This one was twice that big. I guess it’s true that everything is bigger in Texas.

  • Ruth

    Thanks for saving it, on our rural roads it’s easy just to avoid them. Nerdy, but land variety actually is called a tortoise as I recall. Not that I know of any differences, but if it’s on the road here that’s what I am told to call it.
    Hey, tomatoes are always greener on the other side of the fence!
    In Denison there’s a farm market somewhere, bet you could find tasty ones there, also.

  • Molly

    Good morning everyone. Got up early to ride Bike the Bend and it is now raining, so out of my bike clothes and off to breakfast with a biking friend. Since we can’t ride we may as well eat.

    I love tomatoes but can’t grow them even in a pot in my shady yard. When they aren’t in season at the Farmer’s Market I buy Campari tomatoes. They are as sweet and wonderful as homegrown, look a bit like extra large cherry tomatoes. A little pricey but Costco and Sam’s Club have them 2 lbs for about $5. They are the only tomatoes I will eat in the “off” season.

  • Ruth

    We oversupplied with Amish roma here, will be putting them on neighbors’ porchsteps by dark of night by August.

  • joel

    Molly, backup plans r us. “Since we can’t ride we may as well eat.”

    Ate my first from my planter of “Better Bush” a couple days ago. There will only be a few more, getting too hot to set now. I buy those round red things that look like they might be tomatoes at the store all winter, well spiked with blue cheese dressing they pass..

  • Ruth

    A friend in TX had rollers on her tomato planters, and wheeled them to sun as the sun moved around. Can put a fan on them!
    But the store variety is not grown for taste, but for looks sad to say.

  • JClausen

    Ruth,

    I love tomatoes. I do romas and blanch them and freeze for chili and spaghetti
    during the cold Iowa winters. Greetings to all fellow firepups. Been lurking lately and not commenting. I miss you all.

  • Ruth

    Good to see you again, and yes, putting up tomatoes makes a better plan than depending on the store in winters here in NW PA, also.
    Have been hearing much about Iowa politics hereabouts, must be much better to be outdoors when polls are so bigtime.

  • Canyon2

    Good morning everyone.
    Thank you for the post Ruth.
    Ahh, tomatoes are my favorite and I thank you.

  • Ruth

    aren’t we delighted not to live in tomato-less times!
    glad to see you

  • Alice X

    mmmmm… tomatoes…

    last year I had four plants – this year none – like Molly my yard is too shady to have much a garden at all –

  • Ruth

    Farmers’ markets want you!
    and always love to have a garden, have even used community garden space when the kids were little.

  • Ruth

    off to the barbeque, spud has announced he’s going to go light it before the rain can snuff out our burger plans.
    thanks for good company

  • Canyon2

    Thank you again Ruth for keeping our early morning social set going.
    You are special and yes, I am glad that we have the chance to get tomatoes when we want them.

  • Screwtape

    If you grow tomatoes it’s useful to consider the difference between indeterminate tomatoes versus the determinate varieties. Select depending on your growing environment.

    If you buy seeds, most offered (80 % or so) will be indeterminate. Importantly, that means the plants will tend to sprawl and consume a lot of space. These include beefsteaks and most other large types. They do tend to be the most flavorful. But even many cherry types are indeterminates, so look at the seed packet to be sure.

    All of your indeterminates will tend to sprawl. They will try to re-root from wherever the existing growing stem touches the ground. But over a long growing season, you’ll get a lot of flowers (and tomatoes) that way if you give them room. Yet the risk is that the plant may pick up viruses from where it re-roots — especially so if you plant where you had grown tomatoes the year prior.

    OTOH Determinants have a shorter “spreading” season. They tend to stop, or pause, in growing and produce their flowers and fruit over a relatively short “burst” of a season. A lot of the paste tomatoes are like this, as well as some small to medium slicing varieties. Benefits are less pruning maintenance and perhaps less exposure to viruses, since the plants are less prone to spill over and try to re-root.

    There aren’t as many determinate varieties to choose from, however, and very few are among the most flavorful heirloom types. Still, they are sturdy, and you can extend your determinate fruiting season by starting seeds sequentially, several at a time, a few weeks apart. Pull up the old, spent determinate plants and replace them with younger ones.

    Another consideration will be growing tomatoes in containers. You can grow determinates and indeterminates this way.

    I’ve found the best containers are the “squat” varieties at five to seven gallon sizes. Smaller containers will tend to constrain the roots, but may still be OK for determinate varieties. I try to avoid three gallon containers, because they require almost constant (daily) watering. You will risk plants drying out and wilting if they’re in three gallon pots unless you watch and water a lot. Tomato plants which dry and wilt will not produce good tomatoes, and those you get will often have blossom end rot. So, stick with five and seven gallon pots if possible.

    An advantage of containers is you can move them around. You’ll often find each plant needs more space as it gets larger, so move the containers around accordingly. In containers, you can ensure the soil is new and sterile each year, so your plants don’t pick up viruses from the prior season. Still, a bit more work, take care to shield the pots from the sun to avoid overheating the roots. And remember to prune the indeterminates if you grow them this way.

    If there’s interest in September or so, I’ll describe easy ways to save seeds from your own tomatoes, and dry them to save for next year’s crop.