(Lycopersicon esculentum, L. lycopersicum, or Solanum lycopersicum— Family Solanaceae)
Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits (a berry to be exact), rather than a vegetable; but traditionally, they are used as a vegetable.
The origin of the tomato seems to be Central America and the Andean regions of South America. The ancestor of the modern version was Solanum pimpinellifolium, which bears a long spray of tiny red fruits that split on the plant.
The edible descendants travelled north to Mexico and was one of the many nightshade plants to be cultivated by the Aztec. From these humble beginnings sprang a whole network of names.
The Aztec word tomatl simply meant “plump fruit”. From this came xitomatl, the edible tomato; miltomatl, the husk tomato or “tomatillo”; and tomate, which finally encorporated both.
As a result, when reading early Spanish sources about the Aztec, it is often difficult to distinguish the use of the tomato; but what is clear is the fact that there was a consistent linkage between the tomato and chili peppers in Aztec cuisine.
Maize and quinoa were other staples for the Aztec.
When the tomato was first taken to Europe about 1523, it was not well received. For a long time, it was considered to be poisonous and grown mainly as an ornamental, according to Dodoens in his 1578 book entitled Historie of Plants.
Italy was the first European country to use it as food; and cultivated it on a large scale, even to this day. The Italian name pommi dei mori was corrupted during translation to the French as pomme d’amour or “love apple”, since many vegetables introduced from the New World were thought to have an aphrodisiac effect.
The earliest known printed recipe using tomatoes came from a Neapolitan book of 1692/4, which called for the use of tomatoes along with parsley, onions, and garlic and several other ingredients, to make the “Tomato Sauce Spanish Style”.
In 1646, a painting by Murillo (The Angel’s Kitchen) shows angels preparing a meal. In the corner, a tomato, two eggplant (aubergines), and a type of pumpkin are depicted.
In England, it was the Jewish immigrants that displayed more readiness than others to eat the fruit, as many were of Portuguese or Spanish descent.
A 1797 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that the tomato was now “in daily use”. However, the people of Britain remained skeptical until the end of the 19th century.
The use of the tomato by North American settlers was not recorded until after their independence; but, before then, they were regularly used as food by the Italian and French immigrants.
It was the French living in New Orleans who began to make the now infamous tomato ketchup in 1779. Thomas Jefferson was certainly growing tomatoes in his garden in 1781.
They were introduced to Philadephia eight years later. Although tomato ketchup is by far the most important tomato product, it is the tomato paste, or concentrate, that is the staple, much to the disbelief of many a teenager’s parent.
The tomato is the most important export of the Canary Islands. About 200,000 tons of tomatoes per season are exported from Tenerife, Lanzarote, and Fuerteventura into Northern Europe, with most going to Holland, who distributes them to neighbouring countries. In addition to the Belgians, the Dutch have for many years been leaders in the cultivation of hothouse tomatoes.
Commercial tomatoes are usually picked green in order for them to survive the long distances to markets. In order to have them the appealing red colour by the time they reach the consumer, they are sprayed with ethylene, which turns them red.
These tomatoes are called hard-ripened, as opposed to vine-ripened. These will not soften by storing them at room temperature and must be refrigerated to prevent them from rotting. However, vine-ripened tomatoes should never be refrigerated as cold temperatures interfere with the ripening process and zaps the flavour.
Nor should they be lined up on the windowsill to greet the sun. The ripening process can be speeded up just like any fruit by placing them in a brown paper bag with an apple or a banana.
Tomatoes also freeze well but can be used only in cooking thereafter. Because of the high acid content of tomatoes, they should never be cooked in aluminum ware, iron, or copper pots.
However, copper is the worst as the reaction can be toxic. Glass or stainless steel are the best. Cooking stuffed tomatoes in trays of muffin cups ensures the tomato will stay intact and not spread apart should it burst open.
Tomatoes contain no starch, but are rich in sugars (fructose, glucose, and sucrose). They also contain moderate amounts of food fiber, including cellulose and lignin in the seeds and peel. They are an excellent source of vitamins C and E, folate, and potassium.
Those grown outdoors have almost twice as much vitamin C as those grown in hothouses. A garden-grown tomato picked just after it is beginning to turn yellow already has more vitamin C than a fully ripe, red hothouse tomato. Most of the vitamin C is concentrated in the jelly-like substance that encases the seeds.
Tomatoes are not an important source of carotene since most of their colour comes from lycopene, a red carotenoid that the body cannot convert to vitamin A. When cooked, tomatoes also contain high amounts of lycopene, a powerful plant pigment considered to be a better antioxidant than beta carotene.
Studies have shown that lycopene is effective in reducing many types of cancers. Tomatoes also contain two other cancer-fighting phytochemicals, P-courmaric and chlorogenic acids.
On the downside, those allergic to nightshade vegetables must also avoid tomatoes (see warning below). In American herbal medicine, tomatoes have been used to treat dyspepsia, liver and kidney complaints, and are said to cure constipation.
Most greenhouse varieties grow on a main stem which can be several yards long, but those grown out of doors tend to be bush types.
Tomatoes should be stored at room temperature until they turn a full orange-red, but out of direct sunlight as this will soften the tomato without ripening it, as well as destroy the vitamin C.
Tomatoes picked before they have ripened on the vine will be at their most nutritious stage if they are allowed to ripen at temperatures between 60°F and 75°F. At room temperature, yellow to light pink fruits will ripen in three to five days.
Warning: The roots and leaves of the tomato plant are poisonous. They contain the nerve toxin solanine which interferes with the body’s ability to use acetylcholinesterase, a chemical that facilitates the transmission of impulses between body cells. The fruits themselves, contain solanidine, a less-toxic derivative of solanine. Those displaying nightshade allergies should avoid this fruit. These “allergic” symptoms are usually display symptoms that can be mistaken for severe arthritis.
There are more than 300 varieties of tomato, ranging from tiny currant types to the beefsteak king which can weigh over two pounds each.
are the classic variety that tastes best in season, sun-ripened, organically grown, and picked ripe. Generally, there are three or four slicing tomatoes to a pound, and are dual purpose. Imported cluster tomatoes are sold on the vine and can be expensive, but better tasting than other imports which have been gassed with ethylene to ripen them during transport.
are oval-shaped and about three to four inches long. They are smaller than slicing tomatoes, but bigger than the cherry. Plum tomatoes have thick meaty walls, more flavour, but less juice than the slicing ones. They are perfect for making paste and other general cooking needs. The seeds are smaller and less bitter and need not be removed before cooking.
are the largest of all. Huge and juicy, they are used mainly sliced and added to sandwiches. Unfortunately, they rarely appear during the winter months.
Yellow and green tomatoes
can come from any type. They are less acidic and milder in taste than the red. Green tomatoes are usually the unripe stage of a tomato. However, there are some new varieties that stay green even when ripe.
Colombian cultivated tomatoes come from old varieties that produce highly ribbed and often misshapen fruits; but generally speaking, they are extremely high-yielding and disease-resistant.
Cherry tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum var. cerasiforme)
are only about half an inch in diameter.
There are three variants:
- L. esculentum var. pyriforme is the same size as the cherry tomato, but pear-shaped
- var. pruniforme is also about the same size, but plum-shaped
- var. ribesiforme is the smallest of all the tomatoes
For the gardener, growing French marigolds
Some varieties of tomatoes include the following:
Ailsa Craig grows well indoors and outdoors, producing a tasty fruit.
Alicante is another indoor/outdoor variety, producing a smooth tasty fruit.
Black Plum is a Russian variety found on specialty lists. Its fruit is elongated and a deep mahogany to brown in colour.
Brandywine is a delicious old variety, producing quite large fruits. The skin is rosy pink or tinged slightly with a purplish-red.
Cherry Belle is a cherry tomato of good quality.
Cherry, also known as Tear Drop, is bite-sized variety that can be very sweet and juicy, and tends to taste better than slicing tomatoes during the winter season.
Delicious andDombito are large beefsteak varieties.
Gardener’s Delight is an extremely popular variety, grown indoors or outdoors, and producing cherry tomatoes over a long period of time.
Green Zebra is a tasty fruit with unusual green skins and yellow stripes.
Marmande Super is a delicious outdoor variety with deep red, ribbed fruits.
Marvel Striped Traditional is an old Mexican variety with large, tasty, juicy, striped fruits.
Minibel is a bush tomato with tiny tasty fruit that grows well in pots and window boxes.
Moneymaker is a famous old variety grown indoors or outdoors, producing succulent scarlet fruits.
Oaxacan Pink is a Mexican variety from the state of Oaxaca that produces small flattened pink fruits.
Red Alert is an early bush variety, producing small, sweet, oval fruit that can be grown indoors or outdoors.
Roma VF is an outdoor bush plum tomato grown for paste, ketchup, soups, or juice.
San Marzano is an Italian variety good for soups, sauces, or salads.
Shirley is grown commercially and has good quality tasty fruit. It can withstand lower temperatures than most types and is an ideal one for organic growers.
Siberia Tomato matures very early, about seven weeks after transplanting, and can withstand temperatures as low as 5°C (38°F), producing clusters of bright red fruits.
Super Beefsteak is a huge, old fleshy variety whose fruits can reach a pound in weight.
Tigerella produces tasty, but small, orange-red fruits with pale stripes.
Tiny Tim is ideal for window boxes and hanging baskets. The fruits are cherry-size, but tasty.
Tumbler was bred for hanging baskets as it has flexible hanging stems. The bright red fruits ripen quickly and are sweet to taste.
Yellow Cocktail is an indoor variety that produces large trusses of tiny, pear-shaped, golden-yellow fruits.
Yellow Pear-shaped is aptly named producing dense clusters of sweet-tasting fruits that have few seeds.
Yellow Perfection is prolific with excellent bright yellow fruits.