The first tomato of the season is a treasure that all of us impatient tomato worshippers yearn for, that first taste of a vine-ripened tomato, not from a greenhouse but from plants grown in the great big outdoors! It is a true marker of the arrival of the glorious Vermont summer. Juicy and sweet as candy, we all hope that they will grow in abundance each summer. Nothing compares to the locally grown tomato and it complements many foods so well! Tomatoes are very versatile. Some of my favorite ways to consume them are sliced with fresh basil and chives, and fresh mozzarella cheese (preferably from Vermont too), or in a salad with a small amount of greens, and last but not least, fresh salsa—all mouth-watering delicacies! Fresh tomato soup on a cool fall day is very tasty too—with plenty of fresh garlic, basil, and parsley, you couldn’t ask for more!
Botanically, tomatoes are not a vegetable but a fruit. They have a subtle sweetness unlike other fruits. In 1893 the Supreme Court of the United States declared it a vegetable for the sake of the import tax but they did not take away its botanical classification. Unlike many popular foods that come from the other side of the globe, tomatoes are native to this part of the world, Central and South America. Europeans took a while to use it as a food since they initially considered it to be poisonous due to its strong odor and its status as a nightshade plant. Italians were the first to consume it. There are over a thousand different varieties of tomatoes and they come in many colors, shapes, and sizes, and since each has a different flavor, everyone has their favorite.
Tomatoes contain a bounty of nutrients. They supply us with good amounts of vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and manganese, and they provide a multitude of health benefits. They are off the chart in their beneficial plant compound composition, containing too many of these to name. Lycopene (in the carotenoid family) is one of the outstanding compounds in the tomato and it plays a role in heart health, cancer prevention, and even strong bones. The association of tomatoes with bone health is more recent but the research shows that with the removal of tomatoes and other dietary sources of lycopene, bones showed signs of stress and changes that put the participants at increased risk for osteoporosis. Tomatoes are mainly known for their prevention of prostate cancer but they have also been shown to assist with both pancreatic and breast cancer. Recent new studies are showing that tomatoes do not have to be deep red to be a source of lycopene. There are many different kinds of lycopenes and new evidence has shown that the orange and yellow tomatoes contain a form that is more efficiently absorbed than the classic red tomato. Cardiovascular health is another major benefit from tomato consumption, and their many plant compounds (not just the lycopenes) have been shown to assist in the prevention of excessive clumping of platelet cells, thus preventing blockages and unwanted clotting of the blood, which is crucial for optimal heart health. Tomato consumption has also showed promising results in the prevention of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Enjoy the tomato at its peak. Mix and match all the colors of tomatoes that are out there since they each have something nutritionally unique to offer. The heirloom varieties of tomatoes are works of art by Mother Nature that are so beautiful after being sliced, you may not want to eat them. Keep tomatoes at room temperature if still ripening and if soft, store them in the refrigerator and use them as soon as possible. Use tomatoes mostly in salads, salsa, vegetable kebabs, cold soups such as gazpacho, or hot soups. There is no shortage of ways to use fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes. Here is a favorite easy recipe that I enjoy making when tomatoes are plentiful, especially appealing and refreshing on a hot summer night: the famous Gazpacho. This recipe was the one my mother always made for our family throughout the summer and one I continue to love to make and eat!!
by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist