About tomatoesEveryone loves fresh tomatoes.Tomatoes are the third most popular vegetable, after potatoes and lettuce. For most Americans, buying tomatoes is part of the shopping routine every week, all year long. That adds up to per-capita consumption of about 19 pounds annually.
The Well-Traveled Tomato
The tomato has circled the globe like no other vegetable or fruit. The native populations of South America were the first to encounter tomatoes. Then, in the sixteenth century, the conquistadors took fresh tomatoes to Europe, where they were admired for qualities other than taste for quite some time. Europeans thought they might be helpful as an aphrodisiac but hesitated to eat them on a regular basis. In fact, tomatoes were considered poisonous and well into the nineteenth century, some cookbooks advised people to boil them several hours, for safety's sake.
Tomatoes, which grow exceptionally well in the warm soil surrounding the Mediterranean, gradually made their way into regional cuisines. Culinary history was made in a big way when gazpacho, pasta and pizza, three specialties that had been on the scene for centuries, met the tomato for the first time.
Eventually the tomato returned to the New World, following several routes. Spanish colonists took them to the Caribbean and, farther north, to Florida and Texas. Slaves in the Caribbean and perhaps Africa, who already knew how to use tomatoes in stews and other dishes, incorporated them into the cooking of the American South. French and Italian immigrants brought tomato seeds with them to plant in America.
The tomato traveled to the Philippines with the Spaniards and, from there, it was only a matter of time until they showed up in Indian curries and other Asian dishes.
In short, we may have been slow to recognize the virtues of fresh tomatoes, but we've been making up for lost time ever since!
A tomato by any other name...
The Aztecs gave the name xitomatl ("plump") to what we now know as tomatoes, probably thinking they were a larger version of a fruit called tomatl (which turned out to be unrelated). Eventually, Spaniards settled on the name tomate.
In France and Italy, the tomato acquired names meaning "golden apple" or "love apple." Most likely, these early tomatoes were small and were, in fact, a yellow tone--their reputation for inspiring ardor accounts for the second name. The English word "tomato" was probably first coined in Jamaica, where British colonists may have heard Spanish-owned slaves speak of tomates.
Fruit or vegetable?
The tomato is, botanically speaking, the fruit of the vine. But, from a culinary point of view, it is nearly always grouped with vegetables. Interestingly, the United States Supreme Court ruled on this issue in 1893. The verdict? For the purpose of levying a tariff, the court classified the tomato as a vegetable.
Though tomatoes are most often found in savory dishes, there are exceptions--such as a spiced bread pudding and tropical fruit salsas -- that use the tangy sweetness of tomatoes in wonderful ways.
Buying and storing tomatoes
When buying fresh tomatoes look for firm flesh with unblemished skin. As with most fruits, looks for a tomato that feels heavy for its size. Don't store tomatoes in the refrigerator as this can make them grainy and mealy and they lose flavor. Buy what you need and keep them on the counter. The folks at the Tomato Committee stress that this is the most common mistake people make with their product.
See the related recipes section below for even more fabulous tomato recipes!