Ode to the Tomato

There’s a color, tomato red.  Intense, it is the color tomatoes turn when ripening on the vine during a hot dry summer, but never the color of the tomatoes my mother purchased at the supermarket during my childhood. Those tomatoes, lined up in a plastic container and wrapped in cellophane, those tomatoes were a pale anemic orange straining towards red. They were mushy and tasteless.  Probably made more tasteless by being stored in the refrigerator.

Rule number one, if you must buy tomatoes out of season, do not refrigerate because by setting them out on a counter or putting them inside a brown bag—they may have the opportunity to naturally ripen.

Rule number two, when purchasing tomatoes try to buy ones that are organically grown, not inundated with pesticides. Commercially produced tomatoes have been selectively bred to have thick skins, not easily cracked or bruised. They are picked while still green and unripe, and then gassed with ethylene to turn “red” while in the warehouse or in the truck. Not actually ripe, it is no wonder they lack flavor.

In May, my husband Peter purchased eight tomato plants and installed them around our patio.  He trimmed, fertilized, and watered them. I harvested. The crop has been so bountiful I’ve flavored omelets, stews and sauces with cherry tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes and  made many batches of gazpacho. Guests never left our house without a tomato or two. This week my flash piece, “Tomato Harvest Management” was published in the Literary Magazine The Birdseed—a tribute to my tomato summer. You can read it here.

Now our crop is fading. A few cherry tomatoes continue their cycle of turning from green to orange to red. The larger tomatoes are staying green. Green tomatoes dipped in egg, flour and cornmeal and then fried, are delicious. But it is possible to naturally coax green tomatoes to produce their own ethylene by placing them in a brown paper bag or box and adding a ripe banana (bananas release the most ethylene gas of any fruit).

Before the crop slowed down, I made several batches of stewed tomatoes to stash in the freezer. The stewed tomatoes can be part of a homemade pasta sauce, spread over chicken to create chicken cacciatore or used as a sauce over baked or grilled fish. ( My recipe is provided at the end of this blog.)

So what’s the fuss about homegrown tomatoes, besides the incomparable taste? Although the stem and leaves of the tomato plant can be toxic, as it is a close relative of the deadly nightshade plant, tomatoes contain a substance called lycopene that helps protect them from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  An antioxidant, lycopene fights “free radicals” that can damage your cells and affect your immune system and may also help lower blood pressure as well as bad cholesterol.  Tomatoes are thought to be rich in antioxidants, flavonoids and are rich in vitamins A and E. Lutein and zeaxanthin in tomatoes are good for eye health and may also help fight asthma.

Tomatoes come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes, but it is the fully ripened tomato that  contains the most beneficial amount of lycopene, flavonoids and other nutrients. Raw  tomatoes have their health benefits, but nutritionists have found that the properties of cooked tomatoes can be easier for your body to absorb particularly if a small amount of olive oil is added. So enjoy tomatoes both in salads, sandwiches and in sauces. Here’s my recipe for delicious stewed tomatoes.

Recipe for Nadja’s Stewed Tomatoes

You’ll need:

  • 6 large tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 stalk of celery, chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove pressed and chopped
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/8 pepper to taste
  • Two sprigs of fresh oregano chopped or 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • A small posy (At least six large leaves) of fresh basil chopped

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Wash your tomatoes and make an incision with a sharp knife on the bottom of each one.

Prepare an ice bath by filling a bowl with water and ice and set it in the sink.

Using large tongs or a meat fork, drop the tomatoes one by one into the boiling water and leave each tomato in for approximately two minutes. The skin should begin the pull away from the flesh slightly. Then drop the tomato into the ice bath to finish the process that will enable you to easily pull away the skin from the tomato. 

On a nearby chopping board, quarter the tomatoes and try to remove as much of the seeds and the tough parts of the stem, which in some heirloom varieties can be white in color and very stiff, but expect a little to “slip into the bowl”. What you are removing, add to your compost heap. Cut them into smaller pieces if desired.

In a large skillet, pour enough olive oil to coat the bottom and prevent your vegetable from initially sticking. Start sautéing the garlic and onion. Add the celery, peppers, herbs, spices and tomatoes. Cook at a simmer until the vegetables are soft and the textures and tastes have blended.

Use immediately or keep your stewed tomatoes in a sealed container in the refrigerator for a few days or freeze them to use in a few weeks. Add sautéed mushrooms and green olives for a wonderful sauce for fish. Add a little chili pepper for creole shrimp.

Published by Nadja Maril

Nadja Maril is a communications professional who has over 10 years experience as a magazine editor. A writer and journalist, Maril is the author of several books including: "American Lighting 1840-1940", "Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide", "Me, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat", and "Runaway, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat". Her short stories and essays have been published in several small online journals including Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Scarlet Leaf Review and Defunkt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Former Editor-in-Chief of What's Up ? Publishing, former Editor of Chesapeake Taste Magazine a regional lifestyle magazine based in Annapolis, and former Lighting Editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, Maril has written hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles on a variety of subjects..

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