What is a tomato?
Lucky gardeners who grow their own vegetables love to savour the earthy, fragrant smell of a sun-ripened tomato, bursting with flavour. Hot, garlicky, ripe tomatoes are the stars of the favourite French recipe, Tomatoes Provençale, a dish sprinkled with golden breadcrumbs and freshly chopped parsley and baked until tender.
Tomatoes are native to Central and South America, and Spanish explorers introduced them to Asia and eventually Europe in the 16th century. Initially, tomatoes weren’t very popular with the French or the Italians. But by the late 16th century the French called tomatoes pomme d’amour (‘love apple’) and gave them as tokens of affection and the Italians called them pomodoro (‘golden apple’).
In Australia, Mediterranean immigrants helped to increase the popularity of tomatoes and nowadays many home gardeners grow them.
There are a number of different tomato varieties available in Australia. Tomatoes are generally categorised according to their shape and size.
Common tomatoes are red, round and medium-sized. Grosse Lisse is a very old tomato variety that is round and about 70 mm in diameter. The Beefsteak variety, another large, round, thick-skinned tomato is commonly used in salads, for bruschetta and for grilling.
When the calyx (part of the vine and stem) is left intact, common tomatoes are sold as vine-ripened or truss tomatoes. Truss tomatoes are usually sold as three or more tomatoes attached to the vine. Gourmet tomatoes are similar to the common tomato although their shape is more uniform and round.
Roma tomatoes are oval or egg-shaped and medium-sized. They turn deep red when ripe. Cherry tomatoes are small (about 2 cm in diameter) and sweet. This variety is available as a red or yellow tomato.
Newer varieties of tomatoes include the grape and pear-shaped types. These are small, sweet-tasting red or yellow tomatoes. Sometimes, exotic-looking Black Russian tomatoes are available. These are between 40 and 60 mm in diameter and have dark olive skin and red- to chocolate-coloured flesh.
Generally, yellow and orange tomatoes taste less acidic than red tomatoes.
Why tomatoes are good to eat
- Tomatoes are a good source of vitamins A, C and niacin.
- They also contain minerals such as potassium (which helps to regulate blood pressure) and manganese (involved in the regulation of brain and nerve function).
- Tomatoes contain dietary fibre, which is important for a healthy bowel.
- Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that may have health benefits.
- Energy – 100 g of tomatoes supplies about 65 kJ.
How are they grown and harvested?
Tomato plants can be grown from seeds or seedlings. The plants grow best in areas with dry conditions and moderate, stable temperatures. Tomato plants need to be planted in full sun. The quality of tomatoes is affected by temperature, and hot winds can cause the flowers to drop, resulting in a decrease in the number of tomatoes produced.
Tomatoes grow on a bush or on a vine (most common, nowadays). The vines have weak stems and are usually supported by trellises. The vines grow to between one and three metres. Yellow flowers grow in clusters on the vine and when these are pollinated they develop into tomatoes. Ripe tomatoes are usually produced between three and four months after planting seedlings.
Choose firm and ripe tomatoes that are well formed and have a uniform colour. Avoid soft tomatoes or those with tears or bruised skin. Ripe tomatoes have a distinctive earthy, pleasant smell. Select half-ripe tomatoes if you are not going to use them immediately.
How to store and keep tomatoes
Store tomatoes at room temperature, away from direct sunlight. Tomatoes lose their flavour if they are stored in the fridge. Use tomatoes within a few days of buying.
Unripe tomatoes can be kept at room temperature and they will ripen and develop flavour and be ready to use after a couple of days.
How to use
- Concentrate the intense flavour of tomatoes – halve tomatoes, splash with oil, season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, scatter with torn basil leaves, then roast until shrivelled around the edges before serving with salmon or an omelette.
- Prepare a simple but delicious Italian specialty – arrange slices of tomatoes and bocconcini on a platter, drizzle with olive oil, season with sea salt and pepper and scatter with torn basil leaves, then leave until the flavours develop before serving.
- Try a tangy gazpacho soup – blend tomatoes, cucumber, red capsicum, garlic and crustless bread (sourdough works) in a food processor, add water, salt, pepper and sherry vinegar and chill, then serve with a splash of olive oil.
- Make a tomato and goat’s cheese tart – arrange slices of tomatoes (cherry tomatoes also work) with goat’s cheese on a puff pastry case, scatter chopped shallots and freshly chopped basil leaves (or oregano) on top, drizzle with oil and bake until crispy and golden.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Better Health Channel
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