I love tomatoes & always sneak a few into everything I cook; it’s a kind of secret ingredient that improves most dishes; when I’ve been ill & am recuperating, they’re the first thing I want to eat & I prefer munching on raw tomatoes to eating fruit any day; my favourite breakfast is the singularly unfashionable wholewheat toast with fresh tomatoes & a decent drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil & my children were reared on pasta, tomato sauce and extra virgin olive oil & they ate them like sweets when they were little.
Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) belong to both the nightshade & to the potato family & are considered a vegetable for culinary purposes even though botanists categorize them as fruit. It’s generally accepted that the Spanish explorer Cortez brought the first tomatoes to Europe (it was a small yellow tomato that looked much like a cherry tomato) after the capture of the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan (today known as Mexico City) in 1521; however, there’s also a theory that it was the Italian, Christopher Columbus, who apparently brought it to Europe much earlier, in 1493.
The plant is actually native to South America & geneticists tell us that the first tomatoes were green plants bearing small green fruit & grew in the Peruvian highlands & not Mexico. Theorists say that in Peru, they could have spread as a weed growing in between the maize and beans cultivated by the early Peruvians (bear in mind that even rye and oats were considered weeds at one time) & could have been traded with the seeds of the maize but that was only theory. In early Aztec writings they mention that tomatoes were prepared with peppers, corn and salt – probably the original salsa recipe.
The first people who actually cultivated tomatoes & used them for cooking purposes were the Aztecs who lived in southern Mexico; by 500 BC people living in their region were also cultivating them and the big tomatoes that we eat today probably originated in this region. The Spaniards distributed them & the earliest cookbook containing tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692 but further north, in Florence and surrounds, they were used for decoration and not for eating! The Brits (and North American colonists) were convinced they were poisonous (thanks to man called John Gerard) and refused to eat them even though they knew the Italians & Spaniards were eating them; it was only much later towards the middle of the 18th century – which quite a bit after the Middle Eastern chefs were using them; nowadays the Americans grow masses of tomatoes, especially in California and Florida where they use an interesting method of cultivation called dry-farming!
POLPETTE AL POMODORO
- 900 g minced beef
- 150g onion, finely chopped
- 2 lemons, grated zest only
- 2 tbsp freshly chopped origano
- 1 extra large free-range egg, beaten
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp virgin olive oil for frying
Sugo di pomodoro
- 2 x 400 g tins Italian tomatoes, chopped
- 4 preserved anchovy fillets
- 6 capers
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 110g small onions, sliced
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 200 g fresh mozarella, ripped into small pieces
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper (be careful with the salt here because the anchovies are salty)
- Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a heavy stainless steel saucepan over a gentle heat and add the onion, covering and sweating the onions for 4 minutes, until soft and golden in colour, allow to cool.
- Mix the minced beef with the cold sweated onion and garlic, add the lemon zest, the oregano, the herbs and the egg and season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste.
- Divide the mixture into small round balls, cover them and put in the fridge until you need them.
- To make the sauce, heat the oil in a pot or a saucepan, add the sliced onion, the anchovies, the capers, the crushed garlic and toss until everthing is coated, put on a lid fry until the onion is soft & translucent and the garlic hasn’t taken on too much colour (you could continue until the garlic and onion is golden but that’s a matter of preference).
- Add the tinned tomatoes to the onion mixture, season with salt and freshly ground pepper but take care with the salt and simmer for about 30 mins until the tomato softens and during this time, make your polpette (meatballs).
- Heat the saucepan and fry the meatballs for about 10 minutes in about three tablespoons of virgin olive oil.
- Once cooked, put them into an oven dish with the sauce and top with the grated mozzarella – place under a pre-heated grill until the cheese has melted – be careful not to put it to near the grill because you want the cheese to melt before it darkens (sometimes when the grill is too hot, it burns it before the cheese is soft, so take care, serve with pasta of your choice.
The word tomato comes from the Nahuatl word tomatl which, translated, means a swelling fruit and in Italian it was called a Pomo d’oro (golden apple) by the Italian botanist, Pietro Andrea Mattioli. In Iran it was called Armani badenjan (Armenian eggplant) at first but that changed & they’re now called gojeh farangi which means European plum.
TOMATO AND PANCETTA SAUCE
- 8 vine ripened tomatoes (you can use a 400 g tin tomatoes if you need to), chopped
- 120 g smoked pancetta, cut into strips on the diagonal with a sharp knife
- 150ml extra virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic, crushed and finely chopped
- 1 hot red chilli, finely chopped – remove the seeds if you have a sensitive palate
- 1 large handful fresh basil, roughly chopped
- Sea salt to taste
- Grated parmesan cheese to taste
- Heat the oil and add the, pancetta strips, the chilli and the salt and cook until just soft, add the tomatoes, the garlic and the basil.
- Simmer for about 15 minutes, stir, check and correct the seasoning and serve with pasta of your choice.
Wild tomato species have tiny fruits, and only the red ones are edible. Tomato plants don’t like frost & only grow as annuals in colder regions; because I love them & because they’re so healthy, here are 10 reasons why you should eat them, thanks to MedicineNet (edited by me):
- Tomatoes contain all 4 major carotenoids: alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene – they may have individual benefits, but also have synergy as a group (they interact to provide health benefits).
- Tomatoes, particularly, contain awesome amounts of lycopene & have the highest antioxidant activity of all the carotenoids.
- Tomatoes & broccoli have synergy that may help reduce the risk of prostate cancer – one study showed that prostate tumours grew much more slowly in rats that were fed both tomato & broccoli powder than in rats that were given lycopene as a supplement or fed just the broccoli or tomato powder alone.
- A diet rich in tomato-based products may help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer (University of Montreal) where researchers found that lycopene (provided mainly by tomatoes) was linked to a 31% reduction in pancreatic cancer risk between men with the highest and lowest intakes of this carotenoid.
- Tomatoes contain all 3 high-powered antioxidants: beta-carotene (which has vitamin A activity in the body), vitamin E & vitamin C (U.S. Department of Agriculture report noted that a third or us get too little vitamin C and almost half get too little vitamin A.
- Tomatoes are rich in potassium, a mineral most of us don’t consume in sufficient quantities (a cup of tomato juice contains 534 mg of potassium, & ½ cup of tomato sauce has 454 milligrams.
- When tomatoes are eaten along with healthier fats, like avocado or olive oil, the body’s absorption of the carotenoid phytochemicals in tomatoes can increase by 2 to 15 times (Ohio State University).
- Tomatoes are a big part of the famously healthy Mediterranean diet & used in most Mediterranean dishes; A study from The University of Athens Medical School found that people who most closely follow the Mediterranean diet have lower death rates from heart disease and cancer.
- When breastfeeding moms eat tomato products, it increases the concentration of lycopene in their breast milk (here cooked is best since researchers found that eating tomato products like tomato sauce increased concentrations of lycopene in breast milk more than eating fresh tomatoes did).
- Tomato peels contribute a high concentration of the carotenoids found in tomatoes so eat those peels; the amount of carotenoids absorbed by human intestinal cells was much greater with tomato paste enriched with tomato peels compared to tomato paste without peels; the peel (skin) holds most of the flavonols (another family of phytochemicals that includes quercetin and kaempferol) as well.
QUICK TOMATO AND COCONUT CHUTNEY
- 400 g tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 2 heaped tbsp grated fresh ginger – grated on a large grate
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 hot green chilli, finely chopped
- 1 tsp cardamom seeds (ie the seeds removed from the green pods
- 10 fresh curry leaves
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 2 tbsp desiccated coconut
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp light brown sugar
- 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
- Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the onion and cook until soft and then add the ginger, garlic, the cardamom seeds, the mustard seeds, the chilli, the curry leaves and the coconut.
- Cook for a couple of minutes, until the coconut is lightly browned and then add the tomatoes, the sugar and the balsamic vinegar.
- Simmer uncovered for about 20-30 minutes, until the chutney has thickened and reduced.
- Remove from the heat and place in a dish or bottle – it can be eaten warm, at room temperature or cold.
The ancient Aztecs firmly believed that anyone who watched someone eat tomato seeds would be blessed with the powers of divination; in Britain it was originally called called a wolfpeach because it was round and delicious like a peach and the wolf because it was believed to be poisonous.
SOUTH AFRICAN STYLED LAMB BURGERS
- 100 g lamb mince
- 2 slices of parma ham (or anything similar)
- 1 small onion, chopped
- ½ tsp coriander seeds, ground
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp cumin seeds, ground
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 3 cardamom pods, seeds only, ground
- ½ green chilli, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp tomato purée
- 1 tsp fruit chutney
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Combine all the ingredients except the oil until well combined and then make the burgers, wrapping each one with a slice of parma ham – this recipe should make two big ones.
- Heat the barbecue or a heavy based pan, drizzle oil over the raw burgers and then fry for 3-4 minutes on each side, or until golden-brown on both sides and cooked through (do not flip immediately, wait for the meat to sear properly otherwise bits will stick onto the pan or the grill).
- Serve as you would a burger.
SARDINIAN SAUSAGES AND TOMATO SAUCE
- 400g penne
- Boil in plenty of salted water.
- 600 g chopped tomatoes (tinned or fresh)
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 300g fresh Italian sausages, meat removed from the casing and crumbled
- 35g dried porcini, soaked in water for half an hour, then finely chopped (keep the liquid)
- 3 tbsp white wine
- Sea salt and pepper, to taste
- Fry the onions until soft and translucent and then add the sausages and the porcini mushrooms (ceps), allow to simmer for a minute or two and then add the tomatoes, the porcini liquid and the wine.
- Allow to cook for about 45 minutes – to 60 minutes until thick and then check and correct the seasoning.
- Boil the gnocchi until al dente, mix with the sauce and serve immediately.
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation the top tomato producers, in order, are:
- United States
There are masses of different kinds of tomatoes & they’re usually categorized into shapes and sizes; the ones we normally see in the greengrocers are the slicing tomatoes, commonly known as beefsteak tomatoes for use in sandwiches, the plum shaped tomatoes which are bred to have more flesh & less seeds are great for sauces & pastes and the San Marzano tomatoes are the best; cherry tomatoes are small & great for salads as are the the grape tomatoes which are a relatively new kind of tomato. Here’s a list if you’re interested in the varieties.
- Until the 18th century doctors believed that tomatoes caused appendicitis and stomach cancer because, according to them, the skins would stick to the stomach lining.
- Tomatoes were planted for ornamental reasons and prizes were offered for the largest one grown annually in some parts of the world.
- On the 26th of September 1820 a certain Colonel Johnson proved that tomatoes weren’t poisonous when he stood on the steps of the Salem courthouse, in front of a crowd of over 2,000 people, and ate a whole basket of them – he didn’t keel over & die, nor did he feel sick.
- In 1842, farm journals still published articles that insisted tomatoes were just a passing craze and that people who planted them were absolutely stupid and wasting their time.
- In 1897, soup mogul, Joseph Campbell, created condensed tomato soup – it put the company on the road to fame and fortune.
- The first tomato soup recipe comes from Maria Parloa whose 1872 book, The Appledore Cook Book, contains her tomato chowder.
- The French referred to the tomato as pommes d’amour, or love apples, as they thought them to have stimulating aphrodisiacal properties.