There are more than 1,000 varieties of tomatoes. The peak season for fresh tomatoes is early summer through mid-fall. Tomatoes are at their absolute best vine-ripened towards the end of summer.
The tomato is a fruit used as a vegetable in savory dishes for its juicy texture and mildly sweet, rich taste. There is nothing like vine-ripened tomatoes used in appetizers, soups, salads, sauces, stews, and side dishes.
Try a just picked tomato quartered and add to a mixed green salad or halved and stuffed with egg salad or shrimp salad. A tomato sliced and layered on a sandwich is a summer standard. In my part of the world, we mince tomatoes with onions, cilantro, and chiles to make salsa almost every day during the summertime.
The French use tomatoes in ratatouille. The Moroccans favor a tomato and green pepper salad. The Spanish use tomatoes in gazpacho. The Italians claim tomatoes for sauces and pastas.
Check out the variety of tomatoes at your farm market. Most are red, others are yellow, pink, orange, whitish-green, deep purple, and striped. Most are round, but others are pear-shaped, oblong, or tear drop shaped.
Here are basics for selecting and preparing tomatoes:
Types by use. There are three major tomato categories based on use: cherry or miniature, slicing and eating, and cooking.
• Cherry or miniature tomatoes are the smallest tomatoes ranging in size from ¾ – 1½ inches (1.9-3.8 cm) in diameter. They come in hues of red, yellow, and zebra-stripe green. Cherry tomatoes are used in salads or for snacking.
• Slicing and eating tomatoes are generally the largest, juiciest, most flavorful tomatoes. These tomatoes are usually slightly squat shaped, have large seed and juice filled cavities, and can grow up to 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter. They come in both early-season and longer-developing varieties. The most popular color is red, but you will find slicing tomatoes in a rainbow of colors. Because they have longer growth periods, their taste and texture are greatly enhanced.
• Cooking tomatoes are usually oblong or pear shaped, with meatier, less juicy flesh than the slicing and eating varieties. Cooking tomatoes are usually red or yellow, thick fleshed (so they hold their shape when cooked) and sweet flavored. On the vine, they generally ripen at the same time providing quantities for canning and sauces.
Flavor. The flavor of a tomato depends a lot on when it’s harvested, its skin texture and flesh, and its sugar and water content. Variety and nature have a lot to do with the taste of a tomato.
Supermarket tomatoes are picked green and ripened with ethylene gas or in special warming rooms. They rarely have the texture, aroma, and taste of vine-ripened tomato.
Hydroponic tomatoes are grown in water without soil in greenhouses and often lack flavor.
Tomato facts. The tomato is a short-lived perennial in tropical regions and an annual in temperate regions. It requires long periods of sunshine and warm temperatures to ripen.
- The tomato is a sprawling plant that can not climb but is commonly referred to as a vine. It has aromatic, compound leaves.
- The tomato is native to the Andean regions of north and central South America in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The first tomatoes resembled what we know today as cherry tomatoes. The tomato spread to Central America, Mexico, and North America along with corn during migrations more than 2,000 years ago.
- The word tomato is derived from tomalt, the name of this fruit in the Nahuatl, language of the Aztecs. The tomato was cultivated by the Incas and Aztecs as early as 700 A.D.
- The tomato first traveled to Europe around 1523. It was used mostly as an ornamental plant in Europe until the seventeenth century. Europeans first thought the tomato to be poisonous, probably because its unripe fruit and leaves contain a toxic alkaloid.
- The Italians—who called the tomato pomodoro or golden apple—were the first Europeans to adopt it in their cookery.
Choose. Select tomatoes that are firm and smooth with no wrinkles or cracks. A tomato that is ready to use will be fragrant, heavy for its size, and yield to the light pressure of your fingers. Avoid tomatoes that are soft, mottled, or bruised.
Unripe fruit can be ripened by placing them, stem-side down in a pierced paper bag for several days at room temperature. Cold temperatures will make the flesh pulpy and destroy flavor.
Store. Tomatoes will keep for a week at room temperature. Do not leave them in direct sunlight. Overripe tomatoes will keep in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days. Let them sit out of the refrigerator for 30 minutes before using.
Prepare. Wash tomatoes before using them.
- To Peel an uncooked tomato: Cut an “x” in the blossom end of the tomato and then immerse it in boiling water for 15 to 30 seconds then let it cool or rinse it under cold water; the skin will slip off.
- To seed a tomato: Cut the tomato in half horizontally; hold the cut side down over a bowl and squeeze the halves to extract the seeds and juice; remove remaining seeds by hand.
- To Pare a tomato: Cut a circle around the stem and remove the hard part.
Cooking tomatoes. Cook tomatoes slowly over low heat. Prolonged cooking over high heat will make the sauce difficult to digest. To soften the acidity of a tomato, add sugar or honey. Avoid cooking tomatoes in aluminum pots; their acid will make them take on an unpleasant metal taste.
Serve. Use tomatoes raw or cooked. Eat tomatoes raw without dressing or added to salads, appetizers, and sandwiches.
- Use tomatoes raw in salads with Mozzarella, basil, olive oil, and seasoning. Add tomato to salads after tossing the salad with dressing that way the tomato won’t thin the dressing.
- Use raw currant and cherry tomatoes as a snack.
- Use beefsteak tomatoes as a garnish or hollow out and stuff with shrimp, potato salad, cold salmon, cottage cheese, or mashed curried egg; serve hot or cold.
- Use tomatoes cooked in soups, stews, sauces, pastas, risottos, and omelets.
- Gazpacho is a spicy cold soup of tomatoes, sweet peppers, cucumbers, and onions.
- To grill a tomato, cut it in half and cover the cut surface with olive oil, pepper and sugar, then grill for 5 minutes.
- Glaze a tomato with wine and brown sugar then broil.
- Green tomatoes can be eaten when cooked: sautéed, fried, or used in marinades.
Flavor partner. Tomatoes have a flavor affinity for basil, blue cheese, cucumbers, feta, fish, garlic, leeks, mint, mozzarella, onion, oregano, pasta, poultry, ricotta, shellfish, stir-fries, veal, garlic, shallots, basil, tarragon, thyme, bay leaf, oregano, and cumin. Tomatoes are easily combined with olives, peppers, and eggplant.
Nutrition. Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C and potassium and also supply folic acid and vitamin A.
The botanical name of the tomato is Lycopersicon esculentum.