Tomatoes: Not Just For Pasta Sauces!

When some know-it-all (yeah, just like me) tells you that the tomato is actually a fruit, the correct response is, "So what?" Botanical classification can only tell you so much; tomatoes are better in your soup than in your smoothie, and that's the test that matters.

Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family (as are potatoes and eggplants), and were thought poisonous throughout most of their history. There's some justification for the tenacity of this belief - a tomato plant's leaves are poisonous and therefore occasionally responsible for the deaths of gastronomically curious livestock. The tomato itself, however, is not only not poisonous, it's healthy. In terms of nutrition, a medium tomato has about 35 calories and 40 percent of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C. The tomato is also rich in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant thought to help fight certain kinds of cancer.

When you're tomato shopping, choose specimens that smell like a mixture of tomatoes and dirt. If you can't smell it, don't buy it. That means that they were grown hundreds or thousands of miles away, picked when they were as green as grass and hard as a golf ball, sat in warehouses and trucks for weeks, gassed, and then sold to you. Tasty? Not! And you'll pay up to three or four dollars a pound for these insipid, vapid, pale imitations of what are true tomatoes!

If you end up buying unripe tomatoes anyway and you want them to ripen quickly, keep them in a paper bag at room temperature, ideally with other fruit (ethylene gas, which is released by ripening fruit, speeds along the process). Only tomatoes past their prime should be refrigerated; the low temperature stops ripening and prevents further deterioration. Taking a fresh tomato off the plant and sticking it in a fridge should be a felony.

The best uses of really good tomatoes don't require you to cook them. Which is convenient since it minimizes your labor and also keeps the kitchen cool during the dog days of summer. You may sometimes want to seed or peel them, though.

The easiest way to seed a tomato is to cut out the stem then slice the tomato in half around the equator. This exposes all the chambers that hold the seedy pulp, and you can simply scoop it out with your fingers.

Peeling is a little more complicated, but not much. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Dip the tomatoes in the water - using a long fork or by immersing them in a strainer - for 20 to 30 seconds, (the firmer the tomato, the longer the time required). Run the tomato under cold water until you can handle it and slip off the skin.

Most of what I do with fresh summer tomatoes, however, doesn't require any of that. Here are some salad suggestions:

Chopped: Tomato, cucumber, sliced scallions, hearts of palm and feta cheese, and served with a dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, yogurt and chopped mint.

Tomatoes: Not Just For Pasta Sauces! Part 2

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