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What a Tomato!

(photos by Joe George)

Two summer classics, tomatoes and peppers... easy to grow and even easier to eat

Three years ago it was the rabbits. They ate nearly everything, or at least everything they liked. Which was a lot.

The year after that, two neanderthal-sized caterpillars (tomato hornworms) descended on the garden and ate three full-sized tomato plants down to stumps before I captured them. Last year it was racoons. Nocturnal city vermin uprooted and dragged my entire little patch of corn up a neighbor’s tree and ate it, tossing discarded husks on the sidewalk for me to find in the morning.

But this year was the worst, or at least the scariest. It’s the thing I’ve had least control over…an enemy from within. Vermin and giant insects are one thing, but when the problem comes from the soil or the plant itself, I feel helpless. My tomato plants—nearly half of my small crop—have been afflicted by something unscientifically named “blossom-end rot.” They start out as lovely green orbs but by the time they ripen the the lower third—the blossom end—is jet black with rot. Hence the graphic but unsavory name. Half my early crop was wiped out, or more specifically plucked from the vine and discarded before they contaminated other fruit. Thankfully—after I changed watering patterns, adjusted the soil, and offered plenty of TLC—the problem seems to be nearly rectified.

By the sounds of this, you’d think that I have acres of rural property, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I have just two teeny gardens in my front and rear yards in the heart of Allentown. I find growing food more interesting and rewarding than cutting grass. Each year is a new learning experience, and even with the issues that may arise, the hard work is worth it. Because there is, I believe, nothing like picking a vegetable just outside your door and eating it where it grew, still warm from the sun.

That said, whether you grow your own or purchase them at country stands or urban farmers markets, the time is ripe for locally grown vegetables in Western New York.

I’ve found, through trial and error mostly, that our hot and humid summers are ideal for growing a large array of produce. But the recipes in this article will focus on two of my favorites that grow well together and thrive in Western New York soil: tomatoes and peppers. Both are members of the nightshade family (which encompasses a large variety of vegetables, including potatoes and eggplants) and in fact, botanically speaking, are fruits, not vegetables.

These iconic summer foods, though associated with the cuisines surrounding the Mediterranean basin, originated closer to home, in South and Central America. Both are said to be part of what is historically known as the Columbian Exchange of goods and populations and foodstuffs that took place between the Old and New Worlds more than half a millennium ago.

Tomatoes and peppers—along with a variety of herbs—were the first vegetables I grew many summers ago, and they’re still my favorite. 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 into them like they were apples.

British colonists initially considered tomatoes poisonous and grew them as ornamental plants. Being a nightshade variety, they are in fact poisonous—at least the leaves are, and can most definitely make a person ill. At any rate, in September of 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 that tomatoes were not poisonous. But 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 the tomato 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 initially called it pomme d’amoure, or apple of love, because they considered tomatoes to have aphrodisiac properties. The name “love apple” stuck for a while and was used 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.

Being an amateur culinary historian, I have wondered many things about food, and one of them is who the hell first decided it was okay to eat a spicy pepper. Nature has a way of warning us not to eat certain foods. When meat is spoiled, for example, it smells and tastes disgusting and may even turn our stomachs; inversely, when freshly grilled, its aroma makes our mouths water. I can’t imagine what went through the mind of the first person who decided to bite into a spicy chili for not just the first time but the second. One would think that the pepper’s heat would be a warning sign not to eat it. Likely—as is the case of many foods—they saw animals eat them first and followed suit.

And have you ever wondered why people that live in the hottest climates also eat the spiciest foods? This is no coincidence; generally the closer you get to the equator, the spicier the cuisine. It seems like the last thing you’d want to eat when it’s hot outside is something that makes you sweat from the inside-out, right?

This at first may sound illogical, but spicy food actually helps to cool you off.

Capsaicin is the odorless and flavorless compound in chilies that gives them their fiery kick, but it also makes you sweat, and while this may not be the most attractive thing to do, sweating (or more precisely, the sweat that evaporates) is our body’s natural air-conditioner. Sweating cools us off, and chilies sort of fake out the brain: Capsaicin stimulates the tongue and mouth, and this makes the brain think that your entire body temperature has risen. As a result, the brain turns on your body’s air-conditioner.

Another theory about chilies in hot climates (and spices in general) is that they were used as food preservatives. A perfect example of this is chili con carne, which translates literally as “chilies with meat.” Some say that chili (the prepared food, not the pepper) began as a way of preserving meat, or at least extending it’s usability in the hot Texas sun. And early recipes were just as its name suggests: chucks of meat simmered in liquid with salt and chilies. The high ratio of chilies and salt may have preserved meat to a certain extent, and thus what began out of necessity soon became a staple. But I personally have a difficult time believing that spices alone preserve meat; a large dose of salt maybe, but not chilies. What it might have done is camouflage the off taste of meat past its prime.

Now here’s the best part: Tomatoes and peppers are really good for you. It’s been known for a long time that they 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 tomatoes been touted as an antioxidant. According to the USDA, the bright red hue of tomatoes is the result of a phytochemical called lycopene. Peppers also carry lycopene, but tomatoes are loaded with it. 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, so tomato sauce and even ketchup are excellent sources. While the American Cancer Society basically agrees with this 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. They go on to state that based on today’s evidence, the foods that you eat likely play a greater role in preventing cancer than treating it. At any rate, this is just another good reason to have a diet high in fruits and vegetables and to eat low on the food chain.

I believe we can all agree that it has been hot lately; as I type this words the thermometer outside hovers around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. And those of you who know me know that I cook for a living, which of course makes things even hotter. So after facing a stove all day the last thing I want to do is heat up my tiny home kitchen. Thus, I’ve been finding myself eating a lot of raw vegetable salads lately. And recently, as I sat down to dinner on a humid August evening, I had a simple chopped vegetable salad as my meal…tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and herbs dressed with oil and vinegar. It was delicious and I ate it under hanging grapes just a few feet from where the vegetables grew. As I ate I looked at the garden, which was now lush and full. But I also recalled the chilly spring day that I turned the wet cold soil and pushed the tiny seedlings below the surface. And when I did that—planted the vegetables that I now ate—I remember thinking in anticipation how good they would taste in the sun on a hot summer day. And today—this very moment, I thought—was the day I was waiting for.

To read more of Joe’s sometimes inept attempts at living simply in the city, visit his blog at

Chopped Vegetable Salad

Choose and wash whichever vegetables you like. My favorites are tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), and cucumbers, but anything will really work. Sometimes I add diced or crumbled cheese as well, such as feta, mozzarella, or Parmesan. Dice the vegetables and combine them in a bowl. If it looks like you’ve made to much do not worry because leftovers—after the flavors have thoroughly married—taste equally good. Add whatever other seasonings you like. I usually add sliced onion and minced garlic, plus a good handful of basil, mint, or parsley, or all three. And using a ratio of 3-parts oil to 1-part vinegar or lemon (or a combination of both), dress the salad lightly. A tablespoon of mustard tastes good, too. Mix the ingredients and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Quick and Easy 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.

Spicy and Smoky Tomato ketchup

Makes about 2 cups

2 pounds ripe tomatoes
1 small onion, peeled and diced
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
6 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Remove the cores of the tomatoes, and make a small X-shaped incision on the opposite ends. Drop the tomatoes in the water a few at a time and blanch them for only about 45 seconds, just to loosen their skins. Transfer the tomatoes to a bowl of iced water. Peel away their skins, cut them in half, squeeze out their seeds, and dice them. Transfer the tomatoes to a small pot with the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then lower to a low simmer. Cook for about an hour, until it becomes quite thick. Transfer to a blender and process until smooth.

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 5 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.

Linguine with Tomatoes and Basil

Makes 8 portions

1/4 cup virgin olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 cups diced tomatoes
1 cup white wine
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon course ground black pepper
1 pound linguine
1/2 cup coarse chopped basil leaves
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté it until translucent, then add the garlic and sauté another minute. Stir in the tomatoes and sauté another couple of minutes, then add the wine, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Cook the sauce for about 15 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened a little. Boil the linguine, drain it, and transfer it to a large bowl. Stir the basil into the sauce and pour it over the pasta. Add the cheese and stir until combined. This dish may be served hot or at room temperature.

Spicy Curried Shrimp with Tomatoes and Peppers

Makes 4 servings

16 raw shrimp
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup diced onion
1 small bell pepper, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 thin slices ginger, minced
2 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup diced tomatoes
2 cups chicken broth or water
2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro

Peel and de-vein the shrimp, set aside. Heat the oil in a large skillet over a medium flame. Add the onion,bell pepper, garlic, ginger and jalapeño; sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the turmeric, cumin, chili powder,cinnamon, coriander and salt. Sauté the spices, while stirring, for 1 minute. Add the diced tomatoes and broth; bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and simmer another 5 minutes. Stir in the cilantro just before using.

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