June “Vegetable” of the Month: Tomatoes
This summer, head to your local farmers market for an all-natural, farm-fresh, and delicious way to protect your skin against UV damage: tomatoes.
The world’s second most popular vegetable may indeed protect your skin, but more importantly, tomatoes are an indelible part of our edible landscape, full of disease-fighting antioxidants and bursting with juicy flavor. The incredibly diverse tomato comes in literally hundreds of varieties and a rainbow of colors, boasts a rich history, and can help you fight cancer. All of that below, plus–the Supreme Court weighs in to answer this: Are tomatoes vegetables or fruit?
Background & History
Like potatoes (the number one most popular vegetable), tomatoes are native to South America. First domesticated in Mexico, they were grown as early as 700 AD by the Aztecs and Incas. Both tomatoes and potatoes, along with other foods like chocolate, squash, corn, and peppers were introduced to the “Old World” as part of the Columbian Exchange, the widespread exchange between the Americas (the “New World”) and Europe, Africa, and Asia (the “Old World”) following Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage.
Although the tomato was initially met with suspicion (Europeans thought it was poisonous), tomatoes grew in popularity in subsequent centuries. The French referred to the tomato as pomme d’amour (“love apple”), and the Germans, Paradiesapfel (“paradise apple”). Tomatoes were brought to the US in the late 18th century, and quickly rose to popularity by the 19th century with the help of gardeners like Thomas Jefferson. Today, Americans consume 88 pounds of tomatoes per person per year.
Characteristics & Types
Tomatoes are incredibly diverse–the US Department of Agriculture alone has a library of 5,000 seed varieties, with thousands more held by other seed producers. In addition to the most common red tomatoes found in grocery stores everywhere, there are hundreds of heirloom varieties with colorful names like Red Peaches, Russian Limes, Black Zebras, Green Sausages, and First Lady, each with their own unique flavor and color.
Generally speaking however, we can group tomatoes by size and juiciness into three types: cherry, plum, and slicing:
Cherry tomatoes are round and bite-sized, excellent for salads or a quick sauté;
Plum (or Italian or Roma) tomatoes are elliptical and usually less juicy than slicing tomatoes. Plum tomatoes work well when cooked, as in sauces;
Slicing (or beefsteak) tomatoes are large and round. They retain their shape well when cut and are thus fantastic additions to a sandwich, or also good for cooking.
Although botanically-speaking, tomatoes are fruits (i.e., the edible seed-containing portion of a plant), an 1893 Supreme Court decision (Nix v. Hedden) ruled that tomatoes are vegetables–for tax reasons.
These many categories aside, tomatoes are packed with nutrients. They’re a major source of lycopene (the phytonutrient that can help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease and underlies tomatoes’ sun protective qualities), and also contain vitamins A and C and beta carotene.
Tips & How to Enjoy
When you’re next at the farmers’ market, pay a visit to our friends at Tutti Frutti Farms, a Santa Barbara-based all-organic farm that grows a bounty of different heirloom tomatoes (the most popular is the intriguing Cherokee purple tomato). They’ll be sure to help you pick the most delicious tomatoes, but here are a few tips to get you started:
Look for smooth, relatively blemish-free tomatoes.
Avoid soft, bruised, cracked, or sunburned tomatoes.
To determine a tomato’s ripeness, very gently depress your thumb into the tomato. If there is no mark left, the tomato is not yet ripe; if an indentation appears and then disappears, the tomato is ripe; if an indentation appears and remains, the tomato is overripe.
To ripen a tomato, keep it in a warm place but out of direct sunlight; to hasten the ripening process, you can place tomatoes in a paper bag with an apple or banana.
Don’t refrigerate tomatoes! Cold temperatures ruin their flavor and prevent them from ripening properly.
Tomatoes appear in cuisines all over the world, whether raw, in sauce, baked, stir-fried, deep-fried, or otherwise–the possibilities are endless. But on a California summer’s day, we love to cool off with a refreshing bowl of gazpacho, made from farm-fresh vegetables from our local farmers’ market stands.
You can read more about tomatoes here: