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Ode to the Tomato

Recently I found myself in a quandary at a grocery store. It’s not that I couldn’t decide what to buy; I knew what I wanted. I just didn’t know if I should purchase it. And it’s not that it was too expensive or poor quality; it was beautiful and well within my means.

But as I stood with a tomato in my hands I wrestled with my morals. While I generally eat within the seasons and as locally as possible, I am not a stickler about it by any means. But there’s something about tomatoes where I draw a line in the sand.

As an avid vegetable gardener, I purchase tomatoes infrequently because they are so easy to grow, and when you grow your own it’s easy to see when they are in season. But as I stood there looking at the mountain of crimson orbs, I also knew that those hanging on their vines in my tiny garden were still green. The real problem was that I did not have my reading glasses with me and couldn’t read the annoying little sticker you find on most fruits and vegetables these days. But it was hot outside and I really wanted a tomato sandwich slathered with mayonnaise. I held the tomato to my nose and smelled it; its familiar aroma is what pushed me over, and I purchased a couple.

Much to my chagrin, after arriving home and taking a closer look, I could see that the sticker clearly said: “Product of Mexico.” The sandwich was delicious nonetheless but not as delicious as if I had grown the tomatoes myself.

I realize that I am not alone, because tomatoes are the number one vegetable Americans grow for themselves. Tomatoes, along with herbs and peppers, were in fact one of the first vegetables I grew many years ago. I was surprised how easy it was; I put a few seedlings in the ground and they grew. And ever since those first few perfectly ripe tomatoes, nothing has been comparable. They reminded me of the tomatoes I ate as a kid, when I would sprinkle them with salt and bite in like they were apples.

One of the things that I find interesting about tomatoes is that while they are often used as—and sometimes considered—a European ingredient, they are actually indigenous to the Americas, specifically South and Central America. Tomatoes are, in fact, part of the Columbian Exchange, foods that were exchanged between the new and old worlds during the first European explorations. And it wasn’t until immigrants from the Mediterranean basin arrived and brought the tomato back to its homeland that it was accepted as edible. (Native Americans, particularly those from Central America, had been growing and eating tomatoes for millennia.)

British colonists initially considered tomatoes poisonous and grew them as ornamental plants. They are, after all, related to the poisonous nightshade family, a botanical category that includes potatoes and eggplant, which were also at one point considered poisonous. The vegetables are, of course, edible but the leaves are poisonous and can make a person ill. It’s speculated that this is the reason tomatoes were once shunned as a food.

At any rate, in 1820 a man by the name of Robert Gibbon Johnson—who at the time was the president of the Salem County Horticultural Society in New Jersey, and knew firsthand that tomatoes were not poisonous—stood on the steps of city hall and publicly ate a tomato in front of a crowd of skeptical onlookers. Johnson did not drop dead, nor did he come down with a fatal illness, thus proving to that tomatoes were not poisonous.

And interestingly, while the tomato is generally considered a vegetable, botanically speaking it is actually a fruit; it wasn’t until 1893 that the tomato was ruled a vegetable by the United States Supreme Court.

Eventually, when brave souls did begin to eat tomatoes, it didn’t take long for their flavor and versatility to catch on. The Italians originally called it pomo d’oro, or golden apple, because many of the early varieties were yellow or golden; the Italian word for the tomato today is pomodoro. The French called it pomme d’amoure, literally “apple of love,” because they considered tomatoes to have aphrodisiac properties. The name “love apple” stuck for a while; tomatoes were referred to as such by both the French and English well into the 19th century. The Spaniards, though, adopted a name that is a direct derivative of its original Aztec name, tomatl; today both the Spanish and the French refer to it as tomate.

Now here’s the best part: Tomatoes are really good for you. It’s been known for a long time that tomatoes carry a lot of vitamins and fiber (vitamins C and A specifically, and one medium tomato has about the same amount of fiber as a slice of whole wheat bread), but somewhat recently they’ve been touted as an antioxidant.

According to the USDA, the bright red hue of tomatoes is the result of a phytochemical called lycopene, and people with diets high in lycopene have a reduced risk of developing certain types of cancer, especially prostate cancer. Lycopene is present in tomatoes whether they are raw or cooked, but especially if they are cooked. While cooking may deplete certain vitamins in foods, this is not true with lycopene; in this case it is more concentrated because of a lower water content, thus tomato sauce and even ketchup are excellent sources. While the American Cancer Society generally concurs with these findings they also state that further research is needed for conclusive evidence concerning tomatoes and cancer reduction, and that the preventive effect of diets high in fruits and vegetables cannot be explained by just a single part of a diet. Based on today’s evidence, the foods that you eat likely play a greater role in preventing cancer than treating it.

All this talk about tomatoes has made me want another tomato sandwich, but those in my yard are still green. If nothing else, growing my own vegetables has taught me about patience, which is not necessarily one of my strong points. To quote the musician Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part. But when the wait is over I will fully enjoy picking a perfectly ripe tomato that is still warm from the sun and eat it where it grew. And that, to me, is a reward that is both true and real.

Tomato Quiche with Parmesan and Basil

Makes 8 pieces

1 10” quiche shell, par-baked and still in its pan
3-4 large ripe tomatoes, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped basil
1 cup heavy cream
8 eggs
1 teaspoon sea salt

Preheat an oven to 325F. Layer the tomatoes in the quiche shell in a circular shingle pattern. Distribute the garlic, cheese, and basil across the tomatoes. Mix together the cream eggs and salt, then pour it over the tomato-cheese mixture, allowing a minute or two for the liquid to settle into the tomatoes and cheese. Bake the quiche for about 30 minutes, or until the eggs are fully cooked and the quiche is firm. If the quiche begins to brown too quickly cover it with foil. Allow it to cool for five minutes before removing it from its pan and slicing.

Summer Tomato Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2-3 tomatoes, diced (about 2 cups)
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
5-6 basil leaves, chopped

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium skillet, then add the onion. Cook the onion until it just begins to brown, then add the garlic, sugar, salt, fennel, and hot pepper; cook for a minute or two. Add the tomatoes and broth; bring it to a boil then lower it to a simmer. Cook the sauce for about 10 minutes, or until it reduces by half. Transfer the sauce to a blender and puree until smooth. Return the sauce to the pan and add the basil leaves.

Fattoush (Lebanese Toasted Bread And Vegetable Salad)

Makes 2 large or 4 small salads

2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper
1/2 cup chopped mint
1/2 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup olive oil
1 loaf Middle Eastern flat-bread
6 leaves romaine lettuce, torn into 1 inch pieces
2 large tomatoes, diced
1 cucumber, diced
1/2 cup sliced green onions
1/2 cup diced bell pepper
1/2 cup chickpeas

In a small bowl, combine the garlic, salt, pepper, mint, lemon, and oil. Toast the bread in a 350 oven for five minutes, or until it is golden brown and crispy. Break the bread into 1-inch pieces. In a large bowl, combine the bread, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, green onions, bell pepper, and chickpeas. Drizzle the dressing over the salad, toss it together, and serve at once.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Makes 4 servings

4 unripe tomatoes
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for frying

Slice the tomatoes 1/2 inch thick. Discard the ends. Whisk together the eggs and milk. Place the flour on one plate, and mix the cornmeal, bread crumbs, salt, and pepper on another plate. Dip the tomatoes first into flour, then into the eggs, and finally into the breadcrumbs and cornmeal. Heat about 1/2 inch of vegetable oil in a large skillet. Carefully place the tomatoes in the oil and fry on both sides until golden and crispy. Remove the tomatoes from the pan and drain on absorbent paper.


Makes 4-5 cups

2 cups diced tomatoes
1/2 cup diced red bell peppers
1/2 cup diced cucumbers
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup diced onion
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce
2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon oregano

Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix together. Transfer to a blender or food processor and process until a course puree. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Traditional garnishes are raw onion, hard cooked egg, chopped parsley, and olives.

Chicken Makhani (Indian-Style Chicken Braised in Tomato and Cream)

Makes 4 servings

4 boneless chicken breasts, quartered
1/2 cup flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 jalapeno, minced
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup tomato puree
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Lay the chicken pieces on a plate and dust it with the flour. Heat the butter in a large non-stick skillet. When the butter begins to bubble, pat the chicken free of any excess flour and add it to the skillet along with the onion, garlic, ginger, and jalapeno. Cook the chicken for a minute or two without browning. Sprinkle the curry, garam masala, chili powder, coriander, sea salt, and pepper into the pan. Cook for another minute, until the spices become fragrant but still not browning the chicken. Stir in the broth, cream, and tomato. Bring to a boil, then lower it to a simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the sauce has thickened. Just before serving stir in the cilantro. Serve with steamed basmati rice.

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