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Tomatoes: The Most Versatile Food of Mankind

posted on: Sep 6, 2022

Tomatoes: The Most Versatile Food of Mankind

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

At one time, the most reviled fruit in the vegetable world, tomatoes are now a much sought-after garden produce. Among the vegetables grown in North America, they rank second to potatoes in popularity.  This once despised pulpy red or yellow fruit, eaten as a vegetable, is one of the top three garden produce consumed by mankind. No other fruit or vegetable is cultivated more widely or has its mass appeal. Yet, for centuries in Europe and the USA, the tomato was believed to be a poisonous plant. 

Tomatoes originated in the Highlands of Peru where they still grow wild and from there spread, before Columbus, to all South and Central America. Called by the Aztec/Mexicana peoples in the Nahuatl language of Mexico tomatl, from which we derive the name tomato, they were one of the first plants brought to Europe after the discovery of the ‘New World’.  However, it was not until the mid-19th century that they were widely accepted as a food.

For some 300 years most Europeans and North Americans believed that tomatoes were poisonous. Hence, for centuries they were only cultivated as floral ornaments. In the U.S., it took until about the middle of the 1800s before they were used in cooking. 

Reputedly, the first person to eat a tomato was Robert Gibbson Johnson who ate it in public on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey, dumbfounding the thousands who were waiting to see him drop dead.  Since that episode, Americans have become the world’s largest consumers of tomatoes.

In Europe, before being accepted as a food, they had a somewhat bizarre history. The Spaniards who first introduced them into the neighbouring countries were known in the 16th century to a good number of Europeans, as Moors. According to one story this led the Italians to label them ‘pomi dei Moro’ (apple of the Moors). Another version of this anecdote is that the first tomatoes seen in Italy were probably yellow and were called pomo d’oro (apples of gold). When it reached the French, both names sounded like ‘pomo d’amore’ (apples of love), leading to their reputation as having aphrodisiac qualities. 

Known for decades as ‘scarlet love apples’ or ‘golden love apples’, they became the favorite of sweethearts and a symbol of passion. Their reputation as a wicked, sensuous, and powerful sexual stimulant made them feared by virtuous maidens. The expression ‘hot tomato’ for a willing woman is common in many languages.

Botanically a fruit, but in reality a vegetable, tomatoes belong to the nightshade family of plants which include some deadly types – no doubt, the root of the belief held for centuries that they were poisonous. A rapid-growing short-lived sun-loving annual, they come in hundreds of varieties. It is said that every year a new type of tomato is developed. Very prolific, they are easy to grow in fields, gardens, patios, or pots on windowsills. 

When allowed to mature on the vine, they are at the epitome of taste and color.  The sun develops the choicest flavor and texture.   Nothing can match the sweet lusciousness of sun-ripened tomatoes.

However, for market, most are harvested green or partially ripe and then matured by ethylene gas before being retailed.  This deprives them of much of their vitamin content and delectable taste.  Millions of North Americans who buy their tomatoes in supermarkets never know what the vine-ripened ones taste like.

On the other hand, householders who grow their own can enjoy brilliantly colored delicious tomatoes during the summer months, then pick the last firm green ones just before frost and store them in dry cellars.  They last for weeks and can be eaten as they ripen.

Fresh tomatoes are available year-round, but May to September is their peak season.  At this period of the year, when purchased firm and red, they can be stored at room temperature for about a week or refrigerated three days without losing their vitamin C content or taste.  When they become totally ripe, they should be used immediately, or they will quickly spoil.

Tomatoes provide North Americans with a greater percentage of their nutrition than any other vegetable. This is not to say that they contain more nourishment than other garden products, but they are more widely consumed. The dieter’s delight – a medium tomato has about 30 calories – they contain no cholesterol and are low in carbohydrates. When sun ripened, tomatoes are rich in vitamins A and C have minerals, especially potassium. In addition, they have some calcium, chlorine, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and traces of fat, protein, sodium and vitamins B, E and G. 

Unlike green vegetables, they lose few of their vitamins in cooking. Canned tomatoes, as good as fresh fruit, are the most widely of all canned garden products. 

The whole fruit is edible: flesh, skin, and seed. More versatile than any other vegetable, tomatoes can be canned, dried, frozen, pickled, pureed, or made into paste. They can be eaten raw, baked, broiled, fried, and stewed; or used as the main component in catchups, relishes, sauces, soups and as garnish for all types of dishes.

These few examples point to the wide-ranging use of tomatoes as a tasty ingredient in foods. 

Tomato and Eggplant Appetizer

Tomatoes: The Most Versatile Food of Mankind

Serves 4 to 6

1 eggplant (about 1-pound)

2 medium firm ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne 

  1. Place the eggplant in the oven and bake until the skin turns dark and crisp, then remove and allow to cool.
  2. Peel and cut into small pieces, then place in a mixing bowl and stir in the tomatoes.
  3. Make a dressing with the remaining ingredients, then pour over the vegetables and toss.
  4. Transfer to a platter serve as an appetizer, for snacks or as a side dish. 

Garlic-Lentil and Tomato Soup

Tomatoes: The Most Versatile Food of Mankind

Serves 6 to 8

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1 head garlic, peeled and crushed

1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

5 medium tomatoes, chopped or one can stewed tomatoes (28 oz. 796 mL) 

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

3/4 cup lentils, rinsed

6 cups water 

  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan, then sauté the garlic, hot pepper and coriander leaves over medium heat for 5 minutes.
  2. Add the tomatoes and sauté for further 5 minutes, then stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.
  3. Cover and cook over medium heat for 40 minutes, then serve hot. 

Baked Tomato and Pepper Salad

Tomatoes: The Most Versatile Food of Mankind

Serves 6 to 8

3 large firm ripe tomatoes

3 large bell peppers

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne 

  1. Place the tomatoes and sweet peppers in the oven and bake until the skins darken, then remove, plunge into cold water and peel.
  2. Chop into small pieces and place in a mixing bowl, then stir in the remaining ingredients and thoroughly mix.
  3. Transfer to a serving platter and let stand for about 30 minutes before serving. 

Stuffed Tomatoes

Tomatoes: The Most Versatile Food of Mankind

Serves 4

8 million firm ripe tomatoes

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 small avocado, peeled, pitted, and finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1/2 cup small pieces of feta cheese

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt 

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon oregano

1/4 cup water 

  1. Cut off the stem ends up the tomatoes and reserve, then scoop out the pulp, leaving the flesh on the walls and bottom, and reserve.
  2. Make a stuffing by mixing the remaining ingredients, except the olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, and water, then arrange the tomato shells side by side in a casserole.
  3. Fill with the stuffing, then replace the stem ends.
  4. Puree the tomato pulp, then stir in the remaining ingredients and pour over the tomatoes.
  5. Bake in a 350o F preheated oven for 20 minutes, then serve the tomatoes with their sauce. 

Vegetarian Casserole

Tomatoes: The Most Versatile Food of Mankind

Serves 8 to 10

1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight in 3 1/2 cups water into which 1/4 teaspoon of

baking soda has been stirred

1 eggplant (about 1-pound)

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cooking oil

3 medium onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 can stewed tomatoes (28 oz. 796 mL)

4 medium potatoes (about 1-pound), peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon ginger

  1. Place the chickpeas with their water in a pot and bring to a boil, then cover and cook over medium heat for 1 hour. 
  2. Peel the eggplant and dice into 1/2-inch cubes, then place in a strainer and sprinkle with salt.
  3. Place a heavy object on top and allow to drain in the sink for 1 hour.
  4. In the meantime, heat the oil in a frying pan and sauté the onions over medium heat for 8 minutes, then add the garlic, parsley and hot pepper and stir-fry for another 5 minutes. 
  5. Add the eggplant cubes and stir-fry for a further 5 minutes, adding a little more oil if necessary, then transfer the frying pan content into a casserole.
  6. Stir in the chickpeas with their water and the remaining ingredients, then bake in a 350oF preheated oven for 1 hour.
  7. Serve hot or cold as the main course, side dish or for snacks.

Steak Cooked North African Style

Tomatoes: The Most Versatile Food of Mankind

Serves 6

2 tablespoons cooking oil

2-pounds steak cut into large pieces

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1/2 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

2 large tomatoes, thinly sliced

1 medium onion, thinly sliced new

1 medium potato, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 1/4 cups water  

  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan and sauté the steaks over low heat for 10 minutes, then add the garlic, coriander and hot pepper and stir-fry for 3 minutes.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, then cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes.
  3. Serve hot with cooked rice.