In praise of the tomato

Thanks to tuna − the ‘prince’ of summer foods, with its fresh store of vitamins − we shall be better placed to meet the demands of hectic city life on our return from our vacations.
Tomato sauce; toasted bread pieces seasoned with tomato, garlic, olive oil and salt; ‘frisella’ rusk bread with tomato; salad with tomatoes; pizza margherita; mozzarella cheese and tomato; gazpacho cold tomato soup; tomatoes in olive oil; tomato in bread soup; tomato au gratin; rice with tomato...
Raw or cooked, tomatoes are among the most favored ingredients of Italy’s cuisine, and a hallmark ingredient of the Mediterranean diet.

A colorful story

There are any number of anecdotes and curious items of information concerning the tomato. Where does the name ‘tomato’ originate? What do we actually know about the many uses to which the tomato has been put, up to the present and in the distant past?
For example…
  • Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Botanists will tell you that it’s a berry, of the plant, Solanum lycopersicum, and a fruit. But we all consume it like a vegetable.
  • Did you know that the main ingredient that sets Italian cooking apart from other cuisines actually comes from Central and South America (Mexico and Peru)? It is thought that the Aztecs cultivated and consumed tomatoes and that they used it to make creamy, flavorsome sauces. As the centuries went by, it was no longer used as a food (it was not considered edible). It was seen only as an ornamental plant. The plant reached Europe in the sixteenth century thanks to the Spanish Conquistador, Hernán Cortés, who brought some back with him on his return from Mexico.
  • At the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and particularly in France, tomatoes were used by alchemists rather than cooks. They made philtres and magical love potions − in a word, aphrodisiacs (the tomato was known as the “apple of love”).
  • The name in Italy is, of course, pomodoro or “pomo d’oro(pome of gold). This is because the first variety of tomato to reach us was of a golden color. Over time, the red tomato prevailed (however, a variety of colors, shapes and sizes remains).

Tomato varieties and recipes

At fruit and vegetable stores, in supermarkets and at the street markets with growers who sell their own produce (more and more popular these days), very many tomato varieties are available (more than 300). Each variety has its special taste and size and consistency, as an ideal ingredient in any number of dishes.

The most famous type is the small round Pachino, which is excellent for rice salads and toasted bread pieces seasoned with garlic, olive oil and salt; the large juicy Beefsteak Tomato is ideal for salads; the Piccadilly is oval and excellent for cold summer meals; the San Marzano is an elongated variety, with a very sweet flesh (it has always been used in the form of peeled tomatoes, for sauces); then comes the smooth Insalataro (or salad) tomato, which is perfect, raw, for Capri-style salads as well as oven baked and stuffed.

Let us turn to the very many colors. For example, the yellow cherry tomatoes, with a sourish taste, to green tomatoes, not to be mistaken for unripe tomatoes (this rather special variety is often used in compote dishes); then we have the very sweet datterini arancioni (a date-like orange-ish variety) and even a black tomato with an abundance of vegetable pigments, endowed with marked anti-tumoral actions.

Very low on calories, but with a wealth of other properties

Slimmers will be aware that fresh tomatoes are more than 90% water. Fresh tomatoes are also markedly endowed with diuretic action (good for tackling water retention), and the calorie content is very low (barely 17 calories in 100 grams).

Conversely, the mineral salts and vitamins content is very high indeed. Tomatoes will give you all the vitamin C you will ever need! Vitamin C ensures correct functioning of the immune system. Not to mention B group vitamins, vitamins D and E (alpha-tocopherol), potassium and phosphorus.

Tomatoes are beneficial not only in terms of the vitamins and minerals they bring with them. They are also endowed with antioxidant actions (thanks to exceptionally high levels of lycopene). The carotenoid, seen in the bright red of tomatoes, acts as an extremely potent naturally occurring antioxidant, capable of combatting cellular aging and blocking formation of free radicals. In human health terms, we may note a lower risk of degenerative diseases and tumors (particularly of the prostate gland and lungs).

Fresh tomatoes in the summer… and when else?

The tomato is a seasonal specialty. While it ripens during the summer, this does not mean that, as the fall draws in, we have to do without tomatoes! What would we do without the tomato’s unique taste and its key properties?
Tomatoes are also grown in greenhouses. These are less flavorsome than seasonal tomatoes. Another solution is tomato sauce, a hallmark ingredient of Italy’s traditional cuisine. Not to mention dried tomatoes.
“Sugo rosso” (red sauce) is the par excellence accompaniment for Italia pasta dishes. Red sauce is also a key ingredient of the pizza napoletana, as well as parmigiana (a Parma-style tomato and cheese dish), polpette al sugo (meatballs in tomato sauce), ragù (Bolognese meat sauce) and any number of other tasty, nutrient Italian dishes passed down with loving care from one generation to the next.

People don’t generally realize that the bioavailability of the lycopene in tomatoes increases with cooking. Surprisingly, tomato sauces are endowed with more marked antioxidant actions than fresh tomatoes!

Another way we can enjoy tomatoes in the winter is in their dried form: dried tomatoes in olive oil can be enjoyed throughout the year, alone or as a special ingredient in any number of dishes.

Find out what we cook with our dried tomatoes, Dried Tomatoes , and our Tomato Sauces (as good as the sauces you prepare at home!).