by Victoria Challancin
With new produce appearing almost weekly at our local organic market and local farms, it is easy to be dazzled. This week I was struck by the tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes. Green Zebras (the first time to find these!), tiny yellow teardrops, baby chocolate cherries, miniature beefsteaks (is there such a thing?), and more. So of course I bought a few of each, just because they were pretty. Ditto for the yellow wax beans--another first in the market.
I returned home with my treasures, along with some very good cheeses and bread, plus purple and large-leafed basil, and thought about how I would use them. Frankly, a quick steam of the beans, slicing of tomatoes, whirling of a pesto-type drizzle--and a big part of lunch was done. And it beckoned.
Yes, that is a stray plum, not a deep purple tomato (They were disinfected together)
History of the Plump Thing with a Navel
( I am paraphrasing the following facts mainly from investigative reporter Barry Estabrook's revealing Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit and from Wikipedia)
Although it is hard to imagine southern Italian food, Provençal dishes, Spanish fare, or many cuisines throughout the world without the tomato, the tomato is in fact a New World plant which originated in the coastal deserts and Andean foothills of Ecuador and northern Peru. The tiny tomato prototype that proliferated there, was the predecessor of the modern tomato and was about the size of a garden pea. Random mutations and human selection later led to the larger versions we now appreciate. The actual domestication of the tomato took place in the Mayan world of southern Mexico or northern Central America, more than a thousand miles from its place of origin. You see, in its original form, the pre-Columbian Americans simply would never have bothered to domesticate such tiny berries. Luckily for us, the Mayans did.
By the time Cortés conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtiltan (now Mexico City), tomatoes were an importan part of the indigenous diet, appearing is a variety of salsas and stews. Called tomatl, or "swelling fruit" in the Nahuatl language (or I have also read it comes from xitomatl which means "plump thing with a navel"), the tomato, as we know it today, was a hit with the conquerers, who took it with them on their return voyages where it caught on rather quickly in many areas. The Spanish are responsible for introducing the tomato into the Caribbean, the Philippines, and later to Europe.
Even after a short 10 years, it was popular in Italy, where it was called mala aurea, or golden apples, referring to the yellow color which was popular. The modern name in Italian is pomodoro, or golden apple. As with the pineapple, which was actually rented as an ornament early in its European days, the early tomato was often viewed as merely decorative. Later, tomatoes were used as medicine, particularly to treat ailments of the eyes.
In France, they were called pommes d'amour, or love apples, which could just be a touch of early French poetry, as I like to think, or less appealingly a corruption of the Spanish name pome dei Moro, or Moor's apple. By the end of the sixteenth century, tomatoes were an established part of the southern European diet.
The British, cautious as ever, were latecomers to the appreciation of the tomato. Used for its medicinal powers only, the Brits didn't embrace the tomato as food until much later. In fact, the tomato was considered unfit for eating, if not actually poisonous by many in Britain and by their early American colonists. But by the mid-18th century, tomatoes were a part of the daily diet in Britain.
Those early American colonists who did embrace the tomato called the fruit by its Mexican name, tomate (it is now called jitomate in Mexican Spanish, clearly from the Nahuatl xitomatl). Although it was thoroughly incorporated into their cooking, many were suspicious of it (probably due to its bad press in the home country), as they were of many plants of the Nightshade Family...or the Deadly Nightshade Family as it is often called [I actually once read a terrific book called The Fascinating World of the Nightshades--not to be missed by plant-lovers or foodies or people like me that just love to read such as this]. We do know that Thomas Jefferson, who was exposed to the tomato while living in France, sent seeds back to America.
Introduced into cultivation in the Middle East by a British consul to Syria around 1799 to 1825, the tomato eventually became an indispensable ingredient in the regional cuisine. Entering the region through Armenia, and possibly via certain royal families visits to France, the tomato was known early on by the Iranian term Armani badenjan, or Armenian eggplant, an unintentional tribute perhaps to the fact that they both belong to the nightshade family.
Tomato Facts and Fun
Here are some random facts about the now-beloved tomato:
- Many people have an aversion to eating raw tomatoes, but not cooked (it may have to do with the break-down of lycopene when cooked)
- There are over 7500 varieties of tomatoes (The USDA says there are 25,000)
- The now popular "Heirloom" varieties, called "heritage tomatoes" in the UK, refer to the open-pollinated (non-hybrid) cultivars of tomatoes which can be found in a wide variety of colors, shapes, flavors and sizes
- Tomatoes are often classified into several categories, based mostly on shape and size ("slicing" or "globe" types, Beefsteak, Plum, Oxheart, Cherry, Grape, Campari, and more)
- The "ribbing" or irregular surface of some popular varieties are similar to the original pre-Columbian cultivars.
- You should never store tomatoes in the refrigerator, which causes a loss of flavor
- Tomatoes are considered to be heart-healthy
- Technically, the tomato is a berry, which is a subset of fruit, but for culinary purposes, it is a vegetable
- Tomatoes contain lycopene which may be an effective cancer fighter
- Tomatoes may help lower urinary tract symptoms and may be beneficial for reducing cardiovascular risk associated with type 2 diabetes
- Like many of the plants in the Nightshade Family, tomato leaves are toxic
- You should not feed your dogs tomatoes
- The Latin lycopersicum used to designate tomatoes, means "wolf peach" and come crom German werewolf myths
- The heaviest tomato on record weighed 5.51 kg (7 lb 12 oz)
- The town of Buñol, Spain, celebrates the annual La Tomatina Festival which centers on an enormous tomato fight--around 30,000 participants throw 150,000 overripe tomates (100 metric tons) at each other for reasons I will never understand
- Tomatoes are popular weapons in mass protests in many places
- Throwing rotten tomatoes at bad performers on stage during the 19th century was a common practice
- The tomato is Americas' fourth most popular fresh-market vegetable, just behind potatoes, lettuce, and onions
- Americans eat about 22-24 pound of tomatoes per person per year (and more that half of those are consumed as ketchup and tomato sauce)
- Historically, the tomato has been used as both a medicine and a poison
- Tomato juice is the official state beverage of Ohio (who knew American states had official beverages???)
- In the US, at least 19 states hold tomato festivals
- 93% of American gardening households grow tomatoes
- Tomatoes are an antioxidant powerhouse and a great source of fiber
- Tomatoes come in every color except for blue
- The jelly-like substance around tomato seeds contains the highest concentration of vitamin C
- Tomatoes are the world's most popular fruit with more than 60 million tons produced each year (16,000,000 more tons than the second most popular, the banana)
- The principle alkaloid in tomatoes, tomatine, heals certain fungous disorders
- The tomato can be grown in just about any climate from sandy, dry, moist, or salty and in almost any type of soil
- Tomatoes have a natural ripening hormone called ethylene
Cook's Notes: This is just one of those dishes that requires no recipe. The basil drizzle is particularly dark because it contains both purple and green basil. You could make this a Genovese-type pesto by simply adding Parmesan cheese and pine nuts or walnuts. I also spiced this up with a touch of chile flakes, but this is optional.
A Non-Recipe Recipe: Wax Beans and Tomatoes with a Spicy Basil Drizzle
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
2 cups wax beans
1 lbs tomatoes, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 large pinces red chile flakes (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Trim the stem end from the beans. Steam until cooked, but still slightly crunchy (Time will depend on the age of the beans).
Place the olive oil, basil leaves, garlic, chile flakes, salt, and pepper in a blender. Process until smooth.
Place the beans and tomatoes on a platter. Drizzle with the basil puree.
Note: Save any remaining basil drizzle in a jar topped off with olive oil to prevent oxidation.
Mexico? No, Morocco
©Victoria Challancin. All Rights Reserved.
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