The tomato is the fruit of the plant Lycopersicon esculentum. (Botanically speaking, tomato is not only a fruit, but also a berry since it is formed from a single ovary.) Originally, tomato was named after the food family to which it belongs - theSolanaceae (sometimes called "solanoid" or "nightshade") family. The botanical nameSolanum lycopersicum for tomatoes has now largely been replaced by the nameLycopersicon esculentum. (The genus/species name Lycopersicon esculentum is also sometimes used to refer to tomatoes.)
The French sometimes refer to the tomato as pomme d'amour, meaning "love apple," and in Italy, tomato is sometimes referred to as "pomodoro" or "golden apple," probably referring to tomato varieties that were yellow/orange/tangerine in color.
Regardless of its name, the tomato is a wonderfully popular and versatile food that comes in over a thousand different varieties that vary in shape, size, and color. There are small cherry tomatoes, bright yellow tomatoes, Italian pear-shaped tomatoes, and the green tomato, famous for its fried preparation in Southern American cuisine.
Only the fruits of this plant are eaten since the leaves often contain potentially problematic concentrations of certain alkaloids (see Individual Concerns section below). 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.
Beefsteak and beef master tomatoes are among the largest-sized varieties. Roma tomatoes are more of an intermediate size, while cherry and grape tomatoes are small and rounded. The term "heirloom tomatoes" has become somewhat confusing as it can have a variety of different meanings. In the most traditional sense, "heirloom" refers to seeds from tomato cultivars that get handed down over time from family to family. Obviously, seeds handed down in this way do not make it possible for tomato production on a very large commercial scale. Yet there are definitely "commercial heirloom" tomatoes in the marketplace (sometimes produced from cross-breeding and sometimes produced through open pollination.)
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.
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 tomato does not appear to have been first cultivated in South America, however, but rather in Mexico, most likely in Aztec civilizations and probably in the form of small yellow fruits. The word "tomato" may actually originate from the Nahautl (Aztecan) word "tomatl " meaning "the swelling fruit." It wasn't until the 1500's that Spanish explorers and colonizers brought tomato seeds from Mexico back to Spain and introduced this food to European populations.
Although the use of tomatoes spread throughout Europe (including Italy) over the course of the 1500's, tomatoes did not enjoy full popularity then and were seen by many people as unfit to eat. Part of this "food inappropriateness" was associated with the status of the tomato plant as a nightshade plant and its potential poisonousness in this regard. (It's true, of course, that tomatoes belong to the Solanaceae or nightshade family of plants, along with potatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, tamarios, pepinos, pimentos, paprika, and cayenne. It's also true that tomatoes contain alkaloids —substances that even in small doses can be associated with adverse reactions in sensitive individuals. But it's also true that the levels of alkaloids found in nightshade foods are well-tolerated by many individuals in diets worldwide. For more on nightshades, please see our article "What are nightshades and in which foods are they found?")
Today tomatoes are enjoyed worldwide—to the tune of about 130 million tons per year. The largest tomato-producing country is China (with approximately 34 million tons of production), followed by the United States, Turkey, India, and Italy.
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. To hasten the ripening process, place them in a paper bag with a banana or apple since the ethylene gas that these fruits emit will help speed up the tomato's maturation. If the tomatoes begin to become overripe, but you are not yet ready to eat them, place them in the refrigerator (if possible, in the butter compartment which is a warmer area), where they will keep for one or two more days. Removing them from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before using will help them to regain their maximum flavor and juiciness. 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.
Carmelized Tomato Bruschetta
- 1 slender baguette (8 oz.)
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 pt. large cherry tomatoes, halved
- About 1/4 tsp. each kosher salt and pepper
- 3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 1 cup small fresh basil leaves
1. Heat a grill to medium (350° to 450°). Cut 18 thin diagonal slices from baguette, angling knife so each slice is 3 to 4 in. long. Save remaining bread for another use. Set baguette slices on a tray and brush all over with about 1 tbsp. oil.
2. Arrange bread on cooking grate and grill with lid down, turning once with tongs, until browned, 1 to 3 minutes total. Transfer to a platter.
3. Heat a large cast-iron skillet or other oven-proof frying pan on cooking grate, with lid down, until water dances when sprinkled on skillet, 8 to 10 minutes. Add 1 1/2 tbsp. oil and spread with a heatproof brush. Pour tomato halves into pan, then quickly turn with tongs so all are cut side down. Sprinkle with 1/4 tsp. each salt and pepper. Cook with grill lid down, without stirring, until juices evaporate and tomatoes are blackened on cut side, 10 to 15 minutes. Gently loosen tomatoes from pan with a wide metal spatula as they’re done and transfer to a bowl.
4. Spoon ricotta into a bowl and drizzle remaining 1/2 tbsp. oil on top. Put basil in another bowl. Set out toasts with tomatoes, ricotta, basil, salt, and pepper so people can build and season their own bruschettas.
Probably invented in Seville, gazpacho was originally served at the end of a meal. Though there are many versions of this soup, the traditional, tomato-based Andalusian variety is the one you want on a hot afternoon or warm evening. It's salad in a blender, summer in a bowl.
- 1 slice country-style bread, about 1" thick, crusts removed
- 2 small cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and chopped
- 2 lbs. very ripe tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
- 2 tbsp. sherry vinegar
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ green pepper, seeded and finely diced
½ cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 cup ½" croutons
½ small white onion, peeled and finely diced
1 small tomato, seeded and finely diced
1. Soak bread for ½ hour in a small bowl in water to cover. Squeeze out moisture with your hands.
2. Purée bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, and 1 cup water in a food processor until very smooth.
3. Push purée through a coarse sieve with the back of a wooden spoon. Gazpacho should be fairly thin. Season to taste with salt.
4. Chill gazpacho in refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Adjust seasoning. Serve in individual glasses, or in soup bowls with garnishes on the side.
Stuffed Tomatoes with Brown Rice & Feta
- 1 tbsp. plus 1⁄3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 6 large firm beefsteak tomatoes
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 2 1⁄2 cups cooked, cooled
- Short-Grain Brown Rice
- 1 1⁄2 cups roughly chopped
- flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 3⁄4 cup crumbled feta
- 1⁄2 cup plus 2 tbsp. chopped fresh mint
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Rub the inside of a 3-quart baking dish with 1 tbsp. of the oil and set aside. Using a serrated knife, cut off the top third of each tomato and discard the tops. Cut 1⁄8" off the bottom of each tomato so that they'll sit upright in the baking dish; discard bottoms. Using a small spoon (a grapefruit spoon works the best), scoop out the seeds and pulp from each tomato and discard. Sprinkle the insides of each tomato with a little salt. Place the tomatoes upside down on a plate layered with paper towels and let them sit for 30 minutes to extract excess tomato juice, which may make the filling soggy.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400° and make the rice filling: Stir together the remaining olive oil, rice, parsley, feta, mint, and garlic and season with salt and pepper. (You should have about 4 cups of the rice mixture.) Arrange the tomatoes in the prepared baking dish, cut sides up, and fill each with about 2⁄3 cup of the rice mixture, mounding the tops slightly. Using a small brush, coat the tomatoes with some of the olive oil from the baking dish. Bake the tomatoes until the filling begins to bubble and brown lightly and the tomatoes soften, about 45 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Garlic-Basil Grilled Chicken with Caprese Salsa
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves
- 6 garlic cloves
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 8 small chicken breast halves with bone and skin (5 lbs. total) $
- 1 qt. mixed colors cherry and grape tomatoes, halved
- 2 cups (12 oz. drained) fresh mozzarella balls such as perlini or small wedges of bocconcini
- 1 cup roughly chopped fresh basil leaves
- 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
1. Heat grill to high (450° to 550°) with a charcoal area left clear or a gas burner turned off to make an indirect heat area. Make rub for chicken: Pulse basil, garlic, oil, salt, and pepper in a food processor until roughly chopped. Rub mixture all over chicken.
2. Make salsa: Stir together tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl to combine; let stand at least 30 minutes.
3. Grill chicken skin side down over direct heat until browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Move pieces to indirect heat area, turning over, and grill until cooked through, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer chicken to a platter, tent with foil, and let rest 5 minutes. Spoon tomatoes, cheese, basil, and half the salsa liquid over chicken; save remaining liquid for a salad dressing if you like.
Roasted Eggplant and Chickpea Stew
Maybe you have a few eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and basil waiting for this recipe? It comes from Deborah Madison's Local Flavorscookbook.
Yield: About 6 servings
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 pounds waxy potatoes
2 large peppers
1 cup packed basil leaves
1 cup packed cilantro leaves
3 large garlic cloves
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon roasted ground cumin
2 large onions, peeled and cut into eighths
1 pound eggplant, cut into long strips
2-3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (1 can, rinsed)
- Preheat the broiler. Bring 6 cups water to boil and add 1 teaspoon salt. Slice the potatoes lengthwise about 1/2 inch thick, boil them for 5 mintues, and drain. Halve the peppers lenthwise, press to flatten them, then brush with vegetable oil. Broil, cut side down, on a baking sheet until blistered but not charred. Stack them on top of one another and set aside to steam. When cool, remove the skins and cut the pieces in half. Set the oven temperature at 350 F.
- Coarsely chop the basil, cilantro, and garlic, then puree in a small food processor with the olive oil, cumin, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
- Toss all the vegetables with 1 teaspoon salt, some freshly ground pepper, and the herb mixture. Using your hands, rub the herb mixture into the vegetables, especially the eggplant, then add the chickpeas and toss once more. Transfer everything to an earthenware gratin dish. Rinse out the herb container with 1/2 cup water and pour it over all. Cover the gratin dish tightly with foil and bake until tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove the foil, brush the exposed vegetables with the juices, and bake for 20 minutes more. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.
This versatile summer recipe is always a flavorful hit. Serve over rice, with pasta, as a topping for quiche or omelets, as a pizza sauce...the options are endless. The ingredients can be used in any combination or quantities.
2 onions, chopped
1 large eggplant, cubed
1 zucchini, sliced
1 green pepper, diced
5 tomatoes, chopped (optional to peel and seed them)
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
fresh basil for garnish
Preheat oven to 35o. Saute the onions, eggplant, zucchini, green pepper, and tomatoes separately in a generous amount of olive oil and then combine with the garlic and thyme on a baking sheet. Bake uncovered for about an hour. Season with salt, pepper, and fresh basil.