TomatoesOne of the simplest pleasures of summer food is the tomato. Not the fraudulent red bullets on sale in supermarkets but the juicy fruits, picked from the vine, on a sunny afternoon. One hint of the musky aroma and I salivate; it is my favorite fruit. I could give up many foods but never tomatoes.
A ripe, juicy fresh tomato is nature’s fast-food; they need little or no work at all. A dash of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and a few leaves of basil for a simple and delightful salad. Overripe tomatoes make a sauce in less than fifteen minutes.
Health Benefits of Tomatoes
Packed beneath the skin are massive health benefits. They contain vitamins A, C and E, and flavonoids (found in red wine and tea). The vitamins and antioxidants in tomatoes combat the harmful effects of free radicals that cause cell damage. Recent research has shown the pigment lycopene, the stuff that makes most ripe tomatoes red, may be active in protecting the body against heart disease and some forms of cancer. Lycopene is more readily absorbed into the bloodstream in cooked tomatoes.
It is no wonder the tomato is one of world’s favourite fruits.
Tomatoes first arrived in Europe in the 16th Century, although how they got here is unclear. The first cultivated tomatoes were yellow and cherry-sized, earning them the name golden apples: pommes d'or in French, pommodoro in Italian and goldapfel in German.
There are now hundreds of varieties of tomatoes available to grow, all colours and sizes. If growing is not your thing, there are also many different ones to buy in greengrocers and good supermarkets.
My father grew tomatoes, which is where my love of ‘real’ tomatoes comes from. In his footsteps, I have four varieties growing in my garden. The tiny cherries in the hanging baskets, to eat like sweets. Shiny, round, perfectly-formed tomatoes for salads. Sexy Italian plums are for pasta sauces and colossal ribbed, purple tinged ones I use for everything else.
Nothing beats eating a tomato, warm from ripening in the sun. That is no comfort on a cold winter’s day. Use the glut of the summers’ bounty by cooking up pots of sauces and freezing in batches, or oven dry and pack in olive oil. Then, when all outside is grey, your kitchen will be instantly bathed in sunshine.
Hints and Tips on Choosing, Storing and Cooking
- To tell if a tomato is fresh, the smell should be faintly aromatic and the calyx, the stalk leaves, should look fresh and green. Most of the tomato scent comes from the leaves and stem, rather than the fruit itself. This is why vine tomatoes have a stronger aroma.
- Store at room temperature. Tomatoes are a sub-tropical fruit and storing them in the fridge hinders their flavour. Over-ripe tomatoes will go soft more quickly in the refrigerator.
- To ripen home-grown tomatoes, place them in a paper bag with a ripe tomato and keep at room temperature.
- Use under-ripe, green tomatoes for making chutney and overripe for sauces and soups. Tomato juice is an excellent hangover cure.
- Natural herb partners for tomatoes are mint, parsley, basil and oregano.
- Plum tomatoes are good for barbecues. Their firm flesh keeps them on the skewer, rather than slipping off between the bars.
- To skin or not to skin? For salads or grilling, no. If the resulting dish is sieved or strained then there is also no need to skin. However, chunky pasta sauce from fresh tomatoes, yes.
- To skin tomatoes (easiest with ripe tomatoes), cut a tiny cross in the base of the tomato with a sharp knife, plunge into boiling water for 10 seconds, then iced water for a further 10. The skin will fall away easily.