A ripe, red tomato is the classic summertime vegetable that allows indulging in the pleasure of hearty, healthy eating. Indigenous to Peru, the tomato, originally known as the “love apple,” is becoming more versatile, used not only in salads, soups and sauces, but also dried, roasted and sweetened in jam. The ripeness and variety -- such as beefsteak, plum or cherry -- determines a tomato's flavour. The tomato is the most popular garden vegetable grown, and once it develops a pink colour, it can ripen off the vine.
The best choices are plump (not hard) tomatoes that yield slightly in your palm, with tight, smooth skin and a distinct tomato smell. A light red or green colour means that it needs to ripen further.
Tomatoes should be kept at room temperature, uncovered, unwashed and out of direct sunlight for about one week. Very ripe tomatoes can be stored in the fridge; however, refrigerating them too soon can interfere with ripening, causing flavour loss, bitter seeds and a watery centre. To enhance ripening, place them in a paper bag with an ethylene-producing fruit, such as a pear.
At about 25 calories each, they not only provide vitamins A, C and E, niacin and potassium, but also lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that gives tomatoes their rich colour. Lycopene is associated with reducing the risk of cancer, particularly prostate cancer. Unlike with other nutrients, heating tomatoes and tomato products increases lycopene's absorption and beneficial properties, as does the use of oil. The "love apple" belongs to the nightshade family and contains a tiny amount of solanines, which can cause migraines in sensitive people. Tomatoes can also cause allergic reactions, and therefore should be one of the last vegetables introduced to a baby's menu.
Plum tomatoes are a key element of the Mediterranean diet, associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, blood pressure, certain cancers and diabetes. A little amount of fat, such as olive oil (another key factor in this diet), helps to release and boost lycopene's protective properties. Plum tomatoes are best for canning and sauces because they are meatier and contain less water and smaller seeds, which can be a source of bitterness in larger varieties. Off season, canned tomatoes are a healthy and economical alternative.
Try a few recipes featuring tasty tomatoes: