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Tomatoes: The Golden Apples of Cooking

Tomatoes
by Lori Grossman

Love apples. Pomi d’oro. These are other names for one of our favorite vegetables. Or should it be favorite fruits? (More about this later.) In either case, our subject is the tomato.

Sidney Carlisle’s article Tomatoes: Making the Most of the Summer Crop will fill you in on the basics. I'll provide some tomato history, trivia, and recipes.

Tomato History
Most culinary historians believe that tomatoes are native to the Andes region of Peru and Northern Chile. In time, the plant migrated to Central America and on to Mexico. The word tomato is thought to have come from the Aztec word xitomatl, meaning large tomato.

Europe discovered tomatoes courtesy of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés, who conquered Mexico in 1519. Tomatoes then spread into Spain, Italy, the Philippines and Asia. The road to Britain and North America, however, would prove a bit bumpy.

Tomatoes belong to a plant family called Solanaceae, which includes poisonous as well as edible plants. Many people believed that tomatoes were toxic members of the family, and they were partly correct. The stems and leaves of the plant are poisonous. But inevitably, tomatoes became popular in Britain and then the American colonies. By the early 1800s, tomatoes were common in the southern states. An avid gardener himself, Thomas Jefferson is known to have grown tomatoes in 1809 in his Monticello garden.

Vegetable or Fruit?

Nowadays, there are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes to enjoy. Are they vegetables or fruits? Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits because fruit forms from flowers and has seeds. A vegetable is defined as the plant itself – such as the leaves or roots. This dispute actually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883. The ruling: The tomato is not a fruit and should be classified as a vegetable. The debate, however, rages on.

Trivia

  • Tomatoes were once thought to be an aphrodisiac.
  • Artist Andy Warhol painted tomato soup cans because he'd eaten tomato soup for lunch every day for twenty years.
  • If you're ever the victim of a startled skunk, bathe in tomato juice.
  • There is a variety of tomato named "Boxcar Willie." Country music fans, rejoice!
  • A Spaniard who was in Mexico in 1519 claimed that "the Aztecs ate the limbs of their sacrificed people with a sauce made with chili peppers, tomatoes, wild onions, and salt." No, I don"t have the recipe, but try these:

Fried Green Tomatoes

I couldn't write about tomatoes and leave out this one.
  • 1 pound (4 medium-sized) green (unripe) tomatoes
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 4 slices bacon
  • 3 - 4 parsley sprigs (for garnish, if desired)
Wash tomatoes and remove the stem ends. Slice 1/4-inch thick and set aside for 10 minutes. Pat dry and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Pour milk into a shallow dish. To its right, put the flour into another shallow dish, and, next to that, put the cornmeal into another shallow dish. First, dip the tomato slices into the milk, turning to coat both sides. Then, dip the slices in the flour, again turning to coat both sides. Now quickly dip both sides into the milk again. Last, let the slices sit in the cornmeal, first one side, then the other, for about 30 seconds.

Remove the cornmeal-coated tomato slices to a cutting board. Repeat previous steps with remaining slices. When all the slices are ready, scatter any leftover cornmeal over them, cover with a clean dishtowel, and let rest for 10 or 15 minutes.

When ready to cook, fry bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until the bacon is golden. Remove bacon to paper towels, leaving the bacon fat in the skillet.

Add the tomato slices to the hot bacon fat. Cook gently, 4 to 5 minutes per side, turning when they are golden. Reduce heat, if necessary, to prevent browning. Drain on paper towels to remove excess fat.

To serve, place the tomato slices on a warmed plate. Garnish with the reserved bacon (crumbled if you like), and garnish with parsley sprigs, if desired. Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Eggplant Parmesan

I'll bet this one becomes a family favorite.

Tomato Sauce

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cans (28 ounces each) whole tomatoes in purée
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, chopped (optional)

Eggplant
  • 3 medium eggplants (about 3-1/4 pounds)
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Topping
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 2 slices firm white bread, coarsely grated
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 ounces part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded (1/2 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Cheese Filling
  • 1 container (15 ounces) part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 2 ounces part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded (1/2 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Prepare tomato sauce: In 4-quart saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat until hot. Add onion and cook until tender, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and cook 1 minute longer, stirring frequently.

Stir in tomatoes with their purée, tomato paste, salt, and pepper, breaking up tomatoes with the side of the spoon; heat to boiling over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 25 minutes, or until sauce thickens slightly. Stir in basil, if desired. Makes about 6 cups (remove, cover, and refrigerate 2 cups of sauce for another use).

While sauce is simmering, prepare eggplant: Preheat oven to 450°F. Grease two large cookie sheets. Cut ends from eggplant and discard. Cut eggplants lengthwise into 1/2 - inch thick slices. Arrange slices in a single layer on cookie sheets. Brush surface of slices with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

Bake eggplant slices 25 to 30 minutes or until tender and golden, rotating sheets and turning slices over halfway through cooking. Remove eggplant from oven and reduce oven temperature to 350°F.

Prepare topping: In a nonstick 10-inch skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add grated bread and garlic, and cook about 7 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Transfer to small bowl. Add mozzarella and Parmesan; toss until evenly mixed.

Prepare cheese filling: In medium bowl, mix ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, and pepper until blended.

Assemble casserole: Into a 9x13-inch Pyrex baking dish, evenly spoon 1 cup tomato sauce. Arrange half of the eggplant slices, overlapping slightly, in dish. Top with 1 cup tomato sauce. Spoon cheese filling in an even layer. Top cheese with 1 cup tomato sauce, remaining eggplant, and remaining tomato sauce (about 1 cup). Sprinkle with topping.

Cover baking dish with foil and bake 15 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 minutes longer or until hot and bubbly. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. Makes 6 main-dish servings.



By the way, if you're contemplating an August vacation in Spain, head for Buñol (a small town west of Valencia). On the last Wednesday of the month, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., people assemble to throw ripe tomatoes at each other. Really! Check it out at La Tomatina.

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