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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mala Insana

Tomatoes.  I think they're the reason that July and August exist.  Not only are they delicious right off the vine, but they are incredibly healthy--full of vitamins and the cancer-fighting substance, lycopene.  Here's a piece I wrote for my August '09 newsletter that gives the history, nutrition and other information about these orbs of happiness.

The heat and humidity of the Dog Days of Summer make our green vegetable friends very happy. Without a doubt, the thing I most look forward to each summer is a fresh, ripe, juicy tomato. In my mind, there’s not much that tastes better than a freshly picked tomato with a little sprinkle of salt. Mmmm…. I know that many of you agree with me. But these fruits (botanically, they really are fruits, not vegetables) haven’t always been favorites.

In the 16th Century, botanists called tomatoes mala insana or “unhealthy apple”. Why? Tomatoes were thought to be poisonous since they are a member of the nightshade family. I suppose that IS unhealthy. This unfortunate belief continued in America long after Italians disproved it by making tomatoes a staple of their cuisine. In fact, it wasn’t until 1848 that the tomato was first mentioned in an American cookbook. And that was only to describe how to temper its taste. Luckily, some brave folks finally started eating and realized that
these gems were far from unhealthy. Today we know that besides great taste, tomatoes are filled with Vitamins C, A, B6 & E among other things. In addition, as many as 72 studies show that the more tomatoes and tomato products people eat, the lower their risk of many different kinds of cancer. Tomatoes contain lycopene, the cancer-fighting chemical that gives them their red color. Cooked tomatoes—including ketchup, tomato sauce, etc—have even more lycopene, since cooking breaks down cell walls and releases the chemical.

Tomatoes come in many different varieties. Salad tomatoes are small to medium in size and are not very juicy—perfect for a salad. Slicing tomatoes are large and are full of juice. Currant tomatoes, the closest we can find to wild tomatoes, are grown in South America and are very tiny and ultrasweet. Cherry and grape tomatoes are plentiful in the U.S. and are delicious in a salad or eaten out of hand. Some of the most popular and versatile tomatoes are the plum varieties, such as the Roma. Plum (or Paste) tomatoes are meaty and firm and are the favorites of sauce makers the world over.

Heritage or Heirloom tomatoes are becoming more available these days—mostly in specialty stores or farmers’ markets. They are grown from non-hybrid plants that have not been grown in large numbers.  These plants have been cultivated from those of the past—before cross pollination spoiled their uniqueness. The result is delicious fruit in a rainbow of colors—red, orange, yellow, purple, green and more. Many have patterns such as stripes or swirls. A colorful platter of heirloom tomatoes looks beautiful on your summer table.

Tomatoes ripen after being picked, but their sugars do not continue to develop, so taste won’t improve after being picked. When choosing fresh tomatoes, pick firm, brightly colored fruits that feel heavy for their size. They should also have a nice “tomatoey” smell to them. You should eat freshly picked tomatoes as soon as possible. Never store tomatoes in the refrigerator—they’ll get mealy and lose their flavor. Store them at room temperature with the stem side down.  This helps to prevent moisture from escaping and mold and bacteria from entering.

This truly is the time to enjoy the wonderful flavor of tomatoes. Did you ever taste a tomato from a supermarket that’s been shipped, artificially ripened and picked out of season? Yuck. These tasteless red balls can be sold as tomatoes, but they sure don’t taste like it. Out of season, use canned tomatoes. They’re
picked and canned at their ripest and have very good flavor.

But now in the heat of the summer fresh tomatoes are everywhere. So grab a salt shaker, sit out in the garden and let the juices flow!

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