by Joe George
For everything there is a season.
Recently while standing in my tiny urban garden, on a relentlessly steamy days, I found myself in awe. Despite the recent devastation my tomato plants endured from Jurassic-sized hornworms, they still yielded a fair amount of fruit. I plucked a perfect crimson orb from its vine, inspected it, and ate it where it grew, in my front yard.
Of course I am not the only tomato gardener appreciating the fruits of their labor, because tomatoes are America’s favorite backyard vegetable to grow and eat. But this wasn’t always the case. To illustrate this I offer a brief story.
In September of 1820, Mr. Robert Gibbon Johnson, who at the time was the president of the Salem County Horticultural Society in New Jersey, stood on the steps of city hall and publicly ate an entire tomato in front of a crowd of horrified and skeptical onlookers. This may seem an insignificant event but it wasn’t—at the time tomatoes were still considered by many Americans to be poisonous. They are after all related to the poisonous nightshade family, a botanical category that includes potatoes and eggplant, which were also once considered poisonous. Some early skeptics are said to have mistakenly consumed the leaves of the plant instead of the fruit. This surely would have tarnished the tomato’s early reputation because the plant’s leaves and stem are toxic and would most definitely make a person ill. At any rate, Mr. Johnson did not drop dead, nor did he come down with a fatal illness, thus proving to Salem County that tomatoes were not poisonous.
Here’s another interesting piece of information. Tomatoes are indigenous to the Americas but were not eaten by settlers here until they were first accepted as edible in Europe. British colonists initially rejected tomatoes because of their supposed poison. In fact, it took the tomato two trips across the Atlantic before European settlers accepted it into American culture. Tomatoes played a major role in the “Columbus Exchange,” a phrase making reference to foods exchanged between the new and old worlds during the first European explorations of this country. It wasn’t until immigrants from the Mediterranean basin arrived in this country and brought the tomato back to its homeland that it was accepted as edible. (It must be noted that Native Americans, particularly those in Central America, had been growing and eating tomatoes for millennia.)
Imagine the cuisines of the Mediterranean prior to 1500 without the tomato. Bouillabaisse was a pale broth, as was zuppa di pesce; gazpacho was green from herbs, or simply an off-white garlic-bread liquid, and there were no tomato sauces in Italy. Cuisine without the humble tomato would indeed be boring.
Once 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, and the tomato was 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, and the English variation is apparent.
Here’s yet another interesting fact. While the tomato is generally considered a vegetable, it is actually a fruit by botanical standards. In fact, it wasn’t until 1893 that the tomato was actually ruled a vegetable by the United States Supreme Court.
Tomatoes are easy to grow and are one of the most versatile vegetables. Besides the obvious options they can also be used in sweet confections, such as tomato ice or sorbet. I inherited a small recipe book, handwritten by my grandmother, which contains a recipe for tomato soup cake, which is not unlike carrot cake.
Besides tasting great, tomatoes are also very good for you. One medium tomato (about one cup chopped) is more than 90 percent water and contains a mere 35 calories. It also contains 35 percent of a person’s recommended daily intake of vitamin C, and 15 percent of the recommended vitamin A. In addition, tomatoes are naturally sodium-free, cholesterol-free, and high in fiber: one medium tomato has approximately the same amount of fiber as a slice of whole wheat bread. I’ve also read recently that tomatoes—cooked or raw—aid in the fight against cancer, specifically prostate cancer.
Whether or not you grow your own tomatoes or purchase them, now is their time; August is peak season. And when I bite into one, and a little juice runs down my hand and flavor explodes in my mouth, I really question why I would eat them any other time of the year. Tom Petty sings that the waiting is the hardest part…but it’s usually worth it.
Fried Green (or Red) TomatoesYield: 4 servings
4 firm tomatoes, green or red
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.
Cream of Tomato SoupYield: 2 quarts
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
8 cups diced tomatoes
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup chopped basil leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
Heat the butter in a small soup pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic; cook them for a couple of minutes, until they are translucent but not browned. Stir in the tomatoes, broth, basil, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then lower to a slow simmer. Cook the soup for about 30 minutes. Add the cream and cook for a couple minutes. Transfer to a blender and process until smooth.
GazpachoYield: 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. Gazpacho may be served chilled or at room temperature. Traditional garnishes are raw onion, hard cooked egg, chopped parsley, and olives.
Linguine with Tomatoes and BasilYield: 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.
TaboulehYield: 4-6 servings
3/4 cup bulgur wheat
2 cups warm water
2 bunches flatleaf parsley, washed and chopped
1 bunch mint, washed and chopped
1/2 bunch green onions, sliced thinly
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cups diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
Soak the bulgur in the warm water for 1/2 hour, or until it is soft, then drain and squeeze out any excess water. Transfer the bulgur to a bowl along with the remaining ingredients and mix to combine. Refrigerate before serving.
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v9n33 (Week of Thursday, August 19) > Tomato Time
This Week's Issue • Artvoice Daily • Artvoice TV • Events Calendar • Classifieds