Tomatoes are one of America’s most popular vegetables—okay, so the tomato is technically a fruit, but we treat it as a vegetable. For a food once considered to be poisonous—tomatoes belong to the nightshade (Solanaceae) family—they have clearly come a long way.
Tomatoes and Lycopene
Nutritionally, tomatoes are a low-calorie, low-fat food. They are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K. They also contain potassium, which helps control blood pressure, maintain nerve function and help muscle control. Tomatoes are also an excellent source of lycopene, the pigment that gives the tomato its color. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant associated with reducing our risk of certain cancers and other diseases, including macular degeneration.
The redder the tomato, the more lycopene it contains. There’s actually more lycopene in cooked or processed tomatoes than raw tomatoes, so we should keep making our spaghetti sauces and squeezing the ketchup. Since lycopene is fat-soluble, we should use a little heart-healthy olive oil in our tomato recipes to boost our absorption of this disease-fighting carotenoid.
Tomatoes are available all year round but it’s not until the summer that they really come into their own. The hothouse tomatoes that we see at the grocery store are almost never ripe when they are picked. Instead, these tomatoes are artificially ripened by exposure to ethylene gas. You’re better off using canned tomatoes for most of your cooking needs—one of the few instances where a canned vegetable is more desirable than its fresh counterpart. Wait for summer to make a fresh tomato sauce or gazpacho. But for salads and fresh salsa, which you may want year-round, finding good, flavorful, ripe tomatoes is undoubtedly a challenge.
Fully ripe summer tomatoes can be sublime. Plump, heavy, red and aromatic, summer tomatoes are completely different from their rest-of-year relatives. If you can’t grow your own tomatoes, buy them at your local farmer’s market whenever possible. Look for the reddest, ripest tomatoes you can, but watch for bruises and blemishes. The tomatoes should be soft, heavy and yield to the touch. Apart from the tomato’s physical appearance, smell is the best indicator of ripeness. Remember, size is not an indicator of quality. Large tomatoes can be just as sweet and juicy as the small ones. When you do buy tomatoes from the grocery store, never pick them from the refrigerated section: the cold kills their flavor.
You have to treat your tomatoes right to enjoy them at their best. Just as you shouldn’t choose tomatoes from the refrigerated section at the store, you shouldn’t refrigerate them at home either. Temperatures below 55 degrees will destroy the flavor of your tomatoes and make them mealy. If some of your tomatoes need ripening, place them in a paper bag with a banana or an apple for a day or two. The gasses from the fruit will help ripen them.
Here are some tips on preparing your tomatoes:
- Wash tomatoes in cold water before use.
- Slice tomatoes vertically for salads and sandwiches to prevent the juice and seeds spilling out.
- For stuffed tomatoes, cut them horizontally to remove the seeds and juice.
- To peel your tomatoes, mark an X on the bottom of each one and place them in boiling water for about 20 seconds. Remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon, then plunge them into cold water. The skins should come off easily.
Aside from making tomato sauce, what else can you do with your tomatoes? Here are a few ideas:
- Broiling: Try broiling halved tomatoes for 5 minutes with a little parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs sprinkled on top.
- Roast them: Halve some tomatoes crosswise, brush them with a small amount of olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar. Set the tomatoes on a baking sheet and roast at 400 F for 30 minutes. Or try slow-roasting them at a lower temperature for longer—300 F for two hours. Roasting tomatoes concentrates their flavor. Enjoy your roasted tomatoes as a side dish or puree them for soups and sauces.
- Sauté them: Cherry tomatoes are great for this. Mix the sautéed tomatoes with your favorite pasta, or spoon them on top of chicken or fish.
- Stuffed tomatoes: Halve the tomatoes crosswise, scoop out the pulp and fill them with your choice of rice, couscous, chopped vegetables, polenta, mushrooms—whatever takes your fancy. Bake the tomatoes at 375 F for about 15 to 20 minutes.
- Slice them: Place sliced tomatoes on top of a pizza or make a tomato tart with them.
- Make a salad: Make a tomato salad by slicing, chopping or cutting your tomatoes into wedges, and drizzling them with a little oil and balsamic vinegar. Mozzarella cheese is a great partner for sliced tomatoes. Add torn basil leaves and a light vinaigrette dressing to complete this classic salad.
- Make fresh salsa: Salsa is perfect for when you just want something to nibble on with your favorite chips or it tops many dishes with some great flavor.
- Make bruschetta: Seed and chop tomatoes, combine with oil and garlic and spoon onto a toasted baguette for bruschetta.
- Make tomato soup: Gazpacho, a chilled tomato-based soup, for summer, and a hot soup for fall and winter.
- Don’t forget to add fresh herbs to your tomato recipes: Basil, mint, cilantro, parsley, oregano, and thyme all complement the flavor of tomatoes well. Some people like to add a little sugar before cooking tomatoes; others prefer a smidgen of salt.