Tomato Heaven

By Nava Atlas

"Too many tomatoes!" I've seen numerous articles — and even a book — titled with this phrase. If only I could share this lament. This summer, I've been growing three different varieties of tomatoes on my deck. They've had a fairly prolific yield, but every time my sons spot a handful of ripe ones, they're plucked straightaway and eaten out of hand. While others complain about having to make industrial-sized pots of sauce, I barely have enough tomatoes to make a salad. My husband and I have been able to steal but a few tastes of the yellow and red grape tomatoes and Romas. We have smart kids — they already understand that there's no better way to eat an excellent organic tomato than straight from the vine and warm from the sun.

Still, tomatoes are among the most nourishing and versatile of vegetables (or are they fruits? I'll address this question shortly), and it's handy to have a cache of ideas to draw upon when their season is in high gear. Whether you grow barrels of tomatoes in your own garden or buy them by the bushel from the local farmers' market, read on for simple, tasty recipes, tips on preparation and storage, nutritional news, and more.

The Tomato's Intrepid Travels

Tomatoes are believed to have been cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as the 8th century, CE (Common Era). The European conquistadors carried the tomato back from Central and South America to their homelands in seed form in the sixteenth century. Tomatoes found favor in Spain, Italy, and Portugal. For some time, though, Europeans were wary of tomatoes, regarding them more as aphrodisiacs and objects to admire than as sustenance. The French once called the tomato pomme d'amour, which translates as "love apple." On the other hand, as members of the sometimes deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were long considered poi-sonous. Even as recently as the mid-nineteenth century some cookbooks recommended boiling them for several hours to reduce the risk of eating them. I wonder what might be left of a tomato that's been boiled for several hours!

Spanish colonists were most responsible for the tomato's international route. It made its way to Africa and Asia, where cooks began using it in stews and curries, and eventually full circle back to the New World. From the Caribbean, the tomato made its way to what was to become the southern United States, thus cementing its stronghold in nearly every major world cuisine. Today, polls suggest that tomatoes are the third most popular vegetable in our culture, just behind potatoes and lettuce. Most tomatoes grown commercially in the US come from Florida and California.

Fruit or Vegetable? the Tomato on Trial

Botanically, tomatoes are actually fruits — a fruit being defined as the edible part of a plant containing the seeds, while vegetables are the edible stems, leaves, and roots.

The debate over whether tomatoes belong in the fruit or vegetable category once went all the way to the US Supreme Court over a tariff dispute on imports. In 1893, the court ruled that though tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, as are squashes and beans, they "are usually served at dinner . . . and not, like fruits generally, as a dessert." Thus, by decree of the US Supreme Court, the tomato is legally a vegetable!

Basic Tomato Techniques

Think you like dried tomatoes? Just wait until you dry your own. The process is incredibly simple and rewarding. You don't need a dehydrator, and unless you live in Tuscany, you don't need the sun, either. All you need is your oven and a little bit of patience. Flavorful plum or Roma tomatoes work most successfully with this technique. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Arrange cut side up on a baking sheet. Bake at 200 degrees for 2 to 3 hours, or until they look somewhat collapsed and with edges slightly shriveled. Use as you would sun-dried tomatoes, or eat as a snack.
Slice large, firm tomatoes at least 1/2-inch thick, or cut plum tomatoes in half lengthwise. Brush lightly with olive oil. Cook on a prepared grill on both sides until the edges brown, about 5 to 8 minutes total. Mesh-type grill toppers are useful for grilling tomatoes since they tend to go so soft. Cherry tomatoes are great for using in grilled kebabs. No special preparation is needed aside from basting with whatever marinade you are using.
Place large chunks of tomato into the workbowl of a food processor. Process until evenly puréed. If you want a smoother purée, put them through a food mill, which will remove the seeds and small bits of skin.
If a recipe calls for seeded tomatoes, simply cut them in half vertically (that is, through the stem end), and scoop out the seeds with a small spoon, such as the 1/2-teaspoon measure of a measuring spoon set.
Removing the skin from tomatoes is not as complicated as it might seem. All you need to do is plunge tomatoes into boiling water for 10 seconds, then remove. Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, the skins slip off easily.

Buying and Storing Tomatoes

According to tomato growers as well as gourmands, the biggest mistake people make with tomatoes is to refrigerate them. This compromises their flavor and gives them a mealy texture. Better to buy what is needed for the near term and simply store them on a countertop, away from direct sun. Underripe tomatoes may be put in a paper bag in a dark place and left for a few days (checking often) to ripen and develop flavor.

When buying tomatoes, generally you'd want fairly firm, smooth ones that feel heavy for their size. In July and August, when you might want to use them for cold soups and raw or cooked sauces, don't hesitate to go for softer, squishier tomatoes, but do use them right away.

Good News on the Nutritional Front

Tomatoes and tomato products are so commonplace that we sometimes fail to acknowledge them as the nutritional powerhouses that they are. One medium tomato can provide 40% of the recommended daily value of vitamin C, and 20% for vitamin A.

Even more significant is the news about lycopene. This substance is a carotenoid, a plant pigment which, in this case, gives tomatoes their glowing colors. In numerous studies, lycopene's antioxidant properties have proven so powerful that researchers concur about its ability to reduce risk of several types of cancer. Data thus far indicates beneficial effects against prostate, lung, and stomach cancers, but also extend to several other types, according to a 1999 report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute by Dr. Edward Giovannucci. A leading researcher at the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Giovannucci concluded, after analyzing the results of 72 studies of their health benefits, that tomatoes and tomato-based products can provide significant protection against many cancers.

A Mayo Clinic health letter also reported that extensive studies of European men found that those who consumed several servings of tomatoes or tomato products each week lowered their risk not only of prostate and other cancers, but heart attacks as well. The same report also concluded that while fresh tomatoes are brimming with lycopene, its usability is increased by cooking tomatoes. A small amount of fat also aids lycopene absorption — all the more reason why tomatoes and olive oil are such perfect partners.

Can you get lycopene from any other foods? It's not easy. The only other major sources are pink grapefruit and watermelon, but they have only a fraction of the lycopene content of tomatoes.

Scientific information on lycopene is from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (February 17, 1999) and Mayo Clinic Health Oasis (online newsletter — September 29, 1998).

Salsa Ranchera (Raw Tomato Salsa)

(Makes about 2 cups for 16 servings)

The most basic relish of the Southwest — coarsely puréed raw tomatoes spiked with chile peppers — is sometimes known as salsa cruda. As an appetizer dip for crisp tortilla chips or nachos, there's nothing like homemade salsa using fresh, ripe tomatoes.

  • 2 cups coarsely chopped ripe tomatoes
  • 1 small onion, quartered
  • Several sprigs fresh cilantro
  • 1 to 2 fresh jalapeño peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped (optional; see Note)
  • One 4-ounce can chopped mild green chiles
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

To prepare in a food processor, simply combine all the ingredients in the canister and pulse on and off until the ingredients are coarsely puréed. To prepare by hand, finely chop the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and optional jalapeños. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Store in an airtight jar. This will keep, refrigerated, for several days, but it is best fresh.

Note: The use of one jalapeño will result in a hot salsa, while two will make it incendiary. Those with more experienced palates are free to use as many jalapeños as they'd like.

Total calories per 1-ounce serving: 8 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 2 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 65 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Fresh Summer Tomato Sauce

(Makes enough for 1 pound pasta, about 6 servings)

The lush tomatoes of late summer can hardly be put to better use.

  • 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 pounds very ripe, fresh tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh oregano, or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 Tablespoons capers, or 1/4 cup chopped green olives (optional)
  • 1 pound hot or warm cooked pasta
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat 1 Tablespoon of the oil in a small skillet. Add the garlic and onion and sauté over medium-low heat until golden.

In a food processor, combine the garlic-onion mixture with the remaining oil, tomatoes, dried tomatoes, basil, oregano, lemon juice, and optional capers. Process, pulsing on and off, until the mixture is coarsely and evenly chopped, but not puréed.

Toss with hot or warm pasta, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve.

Total calories per serving: 96 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 11 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 112 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Simmered Tofu with Leeks and Tomatoes

(Serves 4 to 6)

This simple but tasty dish makes a nice entrée for a summer dinner. To make it more substantial, serve over warm cooked grains or noodles. Hoisin sauce, a salty-sweet condiment, is readily available in the Asian foods section of well-stocked supermarkets.

  • 1 Tablespoon light olive oil
  • 2 large or 3 medium leeks, white and palest green parts only, well-rinsed and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound firm tofu, drained, blotted, and cut into 1/2 -inch cubes
  • 3 to 4 medium ripe, juicy tomatoes
  • 2 Tablespoons soy sauce, or to taste
  • 2 Tablespoons dry red wine or sherry (optional)
  • 1 Tablespoon hoisin sauce, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Heat the oil with about 3 Tablespoons of water in a stir-fry pan, wok, or wide skillet. Add the leeks and garlic and "sweat" over medium heat, covered, for 8 to 10 minutes or until just tender.

Add the remaining ingredients and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Lift the lid to stir occasionally. Uncover and simmer 5 minutes more over low heat. Serve at once.

Total calories per serving: 283 Fat: 15 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 21 grams
Sodium: 603 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Curried Potato-Tomato Salad

(Serves 6)

Potatoes and tomatoes in a curry-flavored soy mayonnaise make a luscious treat.

  • 5 to 6 medium-large red-skinned potatoes
  • 2/3 cup soy mayonnaise, or as needed
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons good-quality curry powder, or to taste
  • 3 medium ripe tomatoes or 4 to 5 plum tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cup steamed green peas
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

If you'd like to keep the skins on the potatoes, scrub them well. Micro-wave or bake the potatoes in their skins until done but still firm. Let the potatoes cool to room temperature.

If you prefer to use peeled potatoes in the salad, slip their skins off when they have cooled. Dice the potatoes into approximately 3/4-inch chunks, and place them in a serving container.

Combine the mayonnaise and curry powder in a small bowl and stir together. Pour over the potatoes, add the remaining ingredients, and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until needed, or serve at once.

Total calories per serving: 252 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 34 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 99 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Spiced Tomato and Peach Relish

(Makes about 2 cups for 16 servings)

Serve this piquant relish with Indian-style curries. It resembles a chutney, but unlike chutney, does not have to be aged in sterilized jars before it is used.

  • 1 Tablespoon light olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon pure maple syrup
  • 1 pound very ripe, juicy tomatoes, finely chopped (peeled if desired — see Techniques)
  • 2 to 3 sweet peaches, preferably organic, pitted and diced
  • 1/4 cup raisins or currants
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes, more or less to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and sauté until translucent. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer.

Cook over low heat, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The tomatoes and peaches should be tender but not overdone.

Taste to correct seasonings, then simmer over very low heat for another 5 minutes, uncovered. Allow to cool to room temperature and serve with a curry dish or warm bread.

Total calories per 1-ounce serving: 35 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 3 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Fresh Tomato and Corn Soup

(Serves 6)

This soup is simple but slightly labor intensive. But if you want to immerse yourself in the summery, sensory experience of peeling fresh tomatoes and scraping kernels off of corn cobs, you won't regret it. This is an appealing accompaniment to a late summer meal of grilled vegetables and veggie burgers.

  • 3 pounds ripe tomatoes
  • 4 to 6 ears fresh corn, uncooked
  • 1 Tablespoon light olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 2 Tablespoons minced fresh dill
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Half-fill a soup pot with water and bring to a simmer. Add the whole tomatoes, return to a simmer, and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and drain.

When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and chop them into bite-sized pieces, and set aside.

Scrape the corn kernels off the cobs and set them aside.

Heat the oil in the same soup pot. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until golden, then add the corn kernels and enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer gently until the corn is just tender, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, parsley, and dill. Adjust the consistency with a bit more water if needed. Return to a simmer and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper. Let the soup stand until just warm, and serve.

Total calories per serving: 133 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 26 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 31 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Five Easy Things to do With Tomatoes

1) Tomato salad:
For a simple salad, cut lush tomatoes into large chunks. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with fresh herbs, such as a combination of basil and dill. For a really dazzling salad, use both red and yellow tomatoes.
2) Tomato sandwich:
To enjoy summer's ripest tomatoes in a sandwich, simply spread two slices of whole grain bread with soy mayonnaise, layer on some sliced tomatoes, cover, and enjoy.
3) Stuffed tomatoes:
Cut large tomatoes in half vertically and carefully hollow out with a spoon. Stuff with anything you fancy, such as leftover grain, bean, tofu, or tempeh salads.
4) Fried tomatoes:
Use red or green tomatoes, as you prefer. Dredge firm tomato slices in cornmeal and fry in a small amount of olive oil on both sides until the cornmeal is golden.
5) Fresh tomato pizza:
Instead of sauce, use sliced fresh tomatoes as the base for pizza, using good-quality crust or pita breads. Layer other toppings as you wish over the tomatoes (try soy "pepperoni," a sprinkling of mozzarella-style soy cheese, and some fresh minced herbs for a vegan delight) and bake for 10 minutes at 425 degrees.