Tomatoes have had a love-me, love-me-not sort of history. Thousands of years ago the fruit grew wild in its native Peru, where no one gave it much notice. It was some time before the Aztecs, in what is now present-day Mexico, tamed the plant, and named it too: tomatl.
Generations later the conquistadors took tomato seeds back home to Spain. The fruit was greeted with enthusiasm by the Spanish (Italians too) but rejected in England and throughout much of the rest of Europe. There was talk that tomatoes were poisonous. The plants were pretty enough, so they were grown for ornamental purposes. But in gardens throughout the continent, the red ripe fruit withered on the vine.
Who could have predicted the love affair the world has with tomatoes today? It is the most popular of all fruits, ahead of bananas and apples. Yes, as a botanical matter the tomato is a fruit, although we eat it with entrees and savory foods. The United States Supreme Court weighed in on the matter, declaring, for trade purposes, that the tomato is a vegetable.
A good tomato is a gift for home cooks. How fortunate we are now, during August, when local farm and garden tomatoes hang heavy on the vine, red, ripe and ready for the kitchen! Juicy ones, firm, but tender. Fragrant ones releasing their musty perfume. Thin-skinned and even ugly, but tasting of sun and summer. What a far cry from the pale anemic, cottony-texture tomatoes of cold winter months, with their too-perfectly rounded shapes and too-thick skins.
There’s so much we can do with a ripe tomato. Eat it out of hand, sprinkled with a hint of kosher salt. Chop it up with fresh basil and a bit of garlic, then spoon it onto garlic toasts, a fine Bruschetta! Slice one and serve it with fresh mozzarella cheese, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. All simple pleasures.
Or make a quick salsa to enhance a burger; all you need is a chopped tomato paired with scallions or some chopped sweet onion and a sprinkling of chopped fresh herbs (oregano, dill, thyme, basil, marjoram). You could add hot chile peppers if you wish.
Or, tuck some chopped tomato and crumbled feta cheese into an omelet or frittata.
Or create a salad: combine chopped tomatoes with chunks of avocado and olives and dress the ingredients with olive oil and lime juice. Or mix chopped tomatoes with diced fresh cucumber and chopped red onion to make an Israeli salad – chick peas, olives or feta cheese would make delicious additions.
None of these needs much preparation or cooking.
If you have a garden or live near a farmer’s market and see baskets of tomatoes on sale, as you’re apt to do at the end of the month, or your neighbor comes by with extras as gifts, and you find yourself almost overloaded with the fruit, there are fabulous recipes for these as well. Prepare a fresh sauce for pasta. Or a potful of ratatouille to serve with fish for dinner. You could even make your own ketchup, an especially fun-filled treat for cooking with children. Try the three recipes here. Included are instructions on how to peel tomatoes (see the recipe for Fresh Tomato Sauce).
Ronnie Fein has been a freelance food and lifestyle writer since 1980. She currently writes regular features for the food and community sections of daily newspapers and has written articles for Newsday, Cook’s Illustrated, Consumer’s Digest, Connecticut magazine, and many other publications. She operates the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, Connecticut and is the author of three cookbooks, the most recent is Hip Kosher (DaCapo, 2008).
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.