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Almost nothing captures the essence of summer better than a glowing, ripe tomato. The tomato doesn’t whisper of summer’s sweetness, it proclaims it from the rooftops. To many, summer just isn’t summer without bushels of tomatoes bursting with flavor and goodness.
And we’re not talking about the pallid blobs that you’ve seen all winter in your local supermarket; we’re talking about a riotous display of forms and colors—from tiny and round to heart-shaped giants, from creamy white to scarlet, orange, yellow, and purple, and even rainbow stripes. You’ll find them prominently displayed at your local farmers’ markets and health food stores. Heirloom varieties range from the well-known Brandywine and Mortgage Lifter to the more obscure (and intriguingly named) Box Car Willie. And they’re incredibly good for you. So grab your canvas shopping bag and rush out to sample these powerhouses of health.
Tomatoes: Vegetable or Fruit?
Although we always think of this member of the nightshade family as a vegetable, botanically the tomato is a fruit, though nutritionally it is characterized as a vegetable.
First found growing wild a millennium ago on the western side of South America, tomatoes made their way north into Central America and Mexico. The Spanish Conquistadores carried them back home, which prompted tomatoes’ conquest of the Old World.
Let Us Count the Ways …
The tomato is so chock-full of beneficial compounds that it’s hard to know where to begin. But that premier position should undoubtedly be given to lycopene, a cancer-preventing carotenoid that makes the tomato a flaming sword in cancer prevention. Lycopene has been extensively studied in humans, and has been shown to provide an effective defense against a long list of cancers, including colorectal, prostate, breast, endometrial, lung and pancreatic cancers.
Further studies have indicated that it is not just the lycopene, but its synergistic interaction with other nutrients in the tomato that makes lycopene so effective. Recent studies have proven that lycopene confers cardiovascular benefits as well, contributing to a significantly reduced risk of heart disease, especially in women. Evidence suggests that cooking tomatoes increases the availability of lycopene, concentrating its powers—think pasta sauce and ketchup. And adding olive oil significantly increases the body’s absorption of the lycopene, helping to explain the heart-healthy reputation of the Mediterranean diet.
But the benefits only begin there. Tomatoes contain large amounts of vitamin C and vitamin K, which help reduce the risks of inflammatory diseases and maintain bone health. There’s also an extensive array of B vitamins and minerals to help lower high blood pressure, and tomatoes’ high-fiber content helps to lower cholesterol levels.
And one more interesting point: A study published in Cancer Research clearly indicates that combining tomatoes and broccoli, especially when cooked, greatly enhances the antitumor properties of both, creating a powerful one-two punch of antioxidant power.
The Best of the Bunch
You want to look for deep, rich color, be it red, orange, purple or striped—intense color is an indicator of lycopene content, as well as flavor. Choose tomatoes that are heavy for their size and smooth-skinned, with no wrinkles, cracks, bruises, or soft spots.
Store them at room temperature to maintain nutrition and flavor and to allow those that need it the chance to ripen. Tomatoes can be refrigerated for short periods, but will cease to ripen. If you need to ripen them quickly, put them in a closed paper bag with a banana (the ethylene gas given off by the banana will help). Tomatoes taste best at room temperature.
Never use aluminum pots for cooking tomatoes; the acid in the fruit will interact with the metal to negative effect.
The following recipes are just a few of the ways tomatoes can become a main attraction at mealtime. So strap on your apron, break out your knives, and go!
make it! Tomato Recipes
Tangy Tomato Trout—Pan roasting gives this moist, flaky fish a nice crispy skin.
Super-Fast Fusilli with White Beans, Cherry Tomatoes, and Fresh Mozzarella—This sauce-free version of corkscrew noodles adds beans and spinach for extra nutrition.
Quickie Gazpacho—Summer-fresh heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers shine in this refreshing warm-weather soup.