Although tomatoes are often closely associated with Italian cuisine, they are actually originally native to the western side of South America, in the region occupied by Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and the western half of Bolivia. The Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador are also believed to be part of tomatoes’ native area. The first type of tomato grown is thought to have more resembled the smaller-sized cherry tomato than the larger varieties.
The humble vegetable has grabbed the attention of millions of health seekers for its incredible phyto-chemical properties. Interestingly, it has more health-benefiting properties than that in an apple!
Botanically, it belongs to Solanaceae or nightshade family of common vegetables, which also includes chili peppers, potato,eggplant, etc. Its scientific name is Lycopersicon esculentum. This exotic vegetable of all seasons is native to the Central America and was cultivated by the Aztecs centuries before the Spanish explorers introduced it to all over the world.
There are more than 4,000 varieties of tomatoes, ranging from the small, marble-size cherry tomato to the giant Ponderosa that can weigh more than 3 pounds.
Only the fruits of this plant are eaten since the leaves often contain potentially problematic concentrations of certain alkaloids. Tomatoes have fleshy internal segments filled with slippery seeds surrounded by a watery matrix. They can be red, pink, yellow, orange/tangerine, green, purple, brown, or black in color.
Although tomatoes are fruits in a botanical sense, they don’t have the dessert quality sweetness of other fruits. Instead they have a subtle sweetness that is complemented by a slightly bitter and acidic taste. They are prepared and served like other vegetables, which is why they are often categorized as such. Cooking tempers the acid and bitter qualities in tomatoes and brings out their warm, rich sweetness.
Health benefits of Tomatoes
- Are one of the low-calorie vegetables containing just 18 calories per 100 g.
- Are very low in any fat contents and have zero cholesterol levels.
- Are excellent sources of antioxidants, dietary fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Because of their all-round qualities, nutritionists often recommend them to be included in cholesterol controlling and weight reduction programs.
- The antioxidants present in tomatoes are scientifically found to be protective of cancers, including colon, prostate, breast, lung, and pancreatic tumors.
- Lycopene, a flavonoid antioxidant, is the unique phytochemical present in the tomatoes. Red varieties are especially concentrated in this antioxidant. Together with carotenoids, it can protect cells and other structures in the body from harmful oxygen-free radicals. Studies have shown that lycopeneprevents skin damage from ultra-violet (UV) rays and offers protection from skin cancer.
- Zea-xanthin is another flavonoid compound present abundantly in this vegetable. Zea-xanthin (another flavonoid compound present ) helps protect eyes from “age-related macular disease” (ARMD) in the elderly persons by filtering harmful ultra-violet rays.
- Contains very good levels of vitamin A, and flavonoid anti-oxidants such as α and ß-carotenes, xanthins and lutein. Altogether, these pigment compounds are found to have antioxidant properties and take part in vision, maintain healthy mucus membranes and skin, and bone health.
- They are good source of antioxidant vitamin-C (provide 21% of recommended daily levels per 100 g); consumption of foods rich in vitamin C helps the body develop resistance against infectious agents and scavenge harmful free radicals.
- Fresh tomato is very rich in potassium. 100 g contain 237 mg of potassium and just 5 mg of sodium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure caused by sodium.
- They contain moderate levels of vital B-complex vitamins such as folates, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin as well some essential minerals like iron, calcium, manganese and other trace elements.
Select and Store
Choose tomatoes that have rich colors. Tomatoes of all colors provide outstanding nutrient benefits. Tomatoes should be well shaped and smooth skinned with no wrinkles, cracks, bruises, or soft spots. They should not have a puffy appearance since that characteristic is often associated with inferior flavor and may also result in excess waste during preparation. Ripe tomatoes will yield to slight pressure and will have a noticeably sweet fragrance.
Fragrance is a better indicator of a good tomato than color. Use your nose and smell the stem end. The stem should retain the garden aroma of the plant itself – if it doesn’t, your tomato will lack flavor and will be good only for decoration.
Since tomatoes are sensitive to cold, and it will impede their ripening process, store them at room temperature and out of direct exposure to sunlight. They will keep for up to a week, depending upon how ripe they are when purchased. Whole tomatoes, chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce freeze well for future use in cooked dishes. Sun-dried tomatoes should be stored in an airtight container, with or without olive oil, in a cool dry place.
Preparing and Cooking
Before serving, wash tomatoes under cool running water and pat dry.
To prepare, discard stem and top calyx end and cut into desired halves, cubes, slices, etc. Peel the skin and puree its juicy pulp. Some prefer to de-seed the fruit before adding in cooking.
When cooking tomatoes, we recommend avoidance of aluminum cookware since the high acid content of the tomatoes may interact with the metal in the cookware. As a result, there may be migration of aluminum into the food, which may not only impart an unpleasant taste, but more importantly, may have a potentially unwanted impact on your health.
They are used extensively in cooking especially in Mediterranean, Greek, Italian, Southeast Asian, and East European cuisine. Raw ones have extra acidic taste, but when mixed with other ingredients while cooking gives wonderful flavor and rich taste. Regular as well as cherry tomatoes are one of the popular items in salad preparations. Fresh tomato juices as well as its soups are increasingly becoming popular health-drinks all across the world. Organic varieties contain three times the more lycopene than non-organic.Unripe green tomatoes are used in many similar ways like other raw vegetables to prepare in curries, stews and to make “chutney” in some of the Indian subcontinent states.
The simplest way to preserve tomatoes is to freeze them whole. Just rinse them, spread them out on a cookie sheet, and freeze overnight. When frozen, put them in a freezer bag and return to the freezer. To use, remove from bag and thaw. When thawed, slip the skins off, and use in your favorite recipes.
Peel the tomatoes, puree them in a blender, and then strain them through cheesecloth or a coffee filer to drain off the excess tomato water (this can be used in soups). Freeze the pulp in ice cube trays. When frozen, store the frozen cubes in a freezer bag.
Roast halved tomatoes with olive oil and herbs before freezing.