Smaller than a grape or larger than a grapefruit, these fruits (not vegetables) are yellow, red, purple, or green – and anywhere in between! Slice them, dice them, eat them fresh, can or pickle them! Solanum lycopersicum might be their scientific name but Variety is their middle name.
There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes. Known as the “love apples”, tomatoes were once feared to be poisonous, then thought of as having aphrodisiac powers, then, finally concluded to have cancer fighting antioxidants and lots of vitamin C.
We’ve all heard about Heirloom tomatoes but what exactly are they? They are “old-fashioned” tomato varieties that are not suited for “big box” commercial growth, either because they have a short shelf-life, or because they are thin-skinned and thus prone to being damaged in transport, or because their taste is not “main stream.” Heirloom tomatoes come in all colors of the color wheel (well, maybe not in blue) and they can also be stripped. They can be as small as a blueberry or as large as 2 pounds. The main categories by shape and in order of their size are: currant, cherry, plum, globe, oxheart and beefsteak. The texture varies from very soft and juicy to meaty and firm, while their taste is sweet and sour.
The best resources of Heirloom tomatoes are the local farms. Not only are they conveniently located and delivering to a farmers’ market close to you but they also provide extra health points because they grow whatever is naturally thriving on the type of soil in your area. Local farms are usually family-owned and their love and dedication shows in their crops. “Local is more important than organic,” says Kristina McLean, a former producer and self-declared tomato addict. “Produce doesn’t have to be certified in order to be healthy. Getting certified may be too expensive for small family-owned farms and it’s understandable that they would rather spend their money otherwise. As long as I know who the farmer is, I can find out how they grow their crops,” advises Kristina.
Kristina’s summer favorite? “It will never not be tomatoes, especially Heirloom tomatoes.” She used to raise about 60 types of tomatoes. “How could I not want to grow them when I see names like Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Moonglow, Cherokee Chocolate, Hillbilly, White Queen, Furry Yellow Hog, Depp’s Pink Firefly, Bloody Butcher and Thai Red Turtle Egg?”
For Shannon Meadows of Mountain Meadows Farm, growing tomatoes is a family tradition. She grows about 12 varieties each year and she chooses the types of tomatoes based on what her dad used to grow when she was young. Cherokee Purple is one of her favorites because of its history, beauty and resilience. Color is another great factor influencing her choice: “the stripped tomatoes are such fun and every year I must have at least one green tomato – it always throws everyone for a loop when I tell them that’s a ripe tomato,” says Shannon.
Summer is a quilt of flavors and colors and you can easily find fresh fruits and vegetables, many times grown locally. Summer is always a good time to pick foods that are light and brightly colored – chances are you will eat right because the elements that give the fruits and vegetables their bright colors are likely to be antioxidants.
Tomatoes are powerful fruits, containing all the major types of carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants:
Alpha-carotene: converts into vitamin A and is a powerful antioxidant; provides orange and red colors
Beta-carotene: converts into vitamin A and is an anti-aging agent; it also benefits skin and bones; it contains flavonoids, which are antioxidant substances providing orange and red colors
Gamma-carotene: an antioxidant, also found in apricots
Lutein: helps protect eyes and skin from ultraviolet rays damage; its yellow color blocks blue UV light from absorption; lutein can be found in the macula in the retina, which not only provides the eyes with protection from UV rays, but also seems to lower the risk of developing Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), a major cause of blindness in the elderly.
Lycopene: gives tomatoes their red color is believed to reduce the risk of several types of cancer, including prostate cancer. Lycopene is believed to have the highest amount of antioxidants of all carotenoids.
Adding to the tomato’s disease fighting power is its high content of potassium and vitamin C. Also called ascorbic acid, vitamin C helps to maintain healthy collagen in the skin, repair damaged tissue, promote healthy teeth and bones, and boost the immune system. Rich in vitamins and antioxidants, tomatoes maintain and even increase their health beneficial powers through any type of cooking. Grilling tomatoes (cut side down) will not only intensify the flavor, but it will also boost its antioxidant power by converting lycopene into a form more easily used in the body. The same is true for flavonoids, antioxidants found in the fruit’s skin. Studies suggest that even processed tomato products such as juice, paste or sauce can increase the body’s cancer-fighting potential. So, if you are looking for a summer-friendly and tomato intensive diet, go with a Mediterranean diet. It is balanced and it contains lots of delicious recipes that include tomatoes, in addition to many other healthy fruits, grains and vegetables.
Summer time is a time to kick back, relax and enjoy being a kid again. Dining “al fresco” with family and friends or relaxing by the pool are all time summer favorites. After a day in the sun, there’s nothing better than a nice, fresh salad or something off the grill and an iced drink (umbrella optional). So what can you get into this summer? Here are some healthy options:
Pool Side Story
Create unique memories by hosting a summer pool side party. Ask your guests to create a tomato-based dish and use the color variety of tomatoes to create beautiful center pieces and table displays.
Summer Fresh, Farm Fresh
Take your family to visit a local farm. You can usually call ahead and schedule something, based on if you want to pick your own produce, volunteer, or simply look around. If you are ready to commit to buying fresh local produce on a regular basis, one good choice is to buy into the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) option. CSAs provide fresh produce for you weekly or monthly, based on what’s in season. Many farms will have your “basket” of goodies available for pick up at a farmers’ market. Not only will you be eating healthy but you will be supporting a social model that connects you to your food, the land, and with those that tend the soil. It is an opportunity to place your food dollars directly in the hands of a family farm you know, a farm that adopts sustainable practices and caters to the health and nutritional value of your food.
There is pride and joy in growing your own garden. You feel self-sufficient and can create beautiful landscapes using the different colors and textures tomatoes. Throw in some herbs and you’re guaranteed a fresh salad pronto! Ask the local farms if you can purchase either seeds or plants to jump start your back yard garden and start playing in the dirt!
Anyone Can Cook
As Chef Gusteau said in Ratatouille, “Anyone can cook.” So put on your (imaginary) Toque (chef’s hat) and start cooking with tomatoes. If you don’t know how, try a cooking class, such as the non-credit courses offered by [your local schools and universities] on baking, canning and international cuisine.
Yes, You Can
There are only that many tomatoes you can eat during one summer. Save some goodness for later by canning. Read up on easy ways of how to do so on expert blogs like cook book writer and food blogger Marisa McClellan’s: www.foodinjars.com.
When looking at tomatoes and other fresh fruits and veggies, take Kristina McLean’s advice: “Learn how to free style cook: it’s difficult but possible. It’s summer – be creative and have fun with it!”
Get tomato recipes.
Article was first published in Cityview Magazine – Jun/Jul 2013