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Foods

Tomatoes

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Fresh tomatoes are a delicious source of vitamin C, but recent findings attribute an even more important nutritional asset to this favorite vegetable: It is one of the best sources of lycopene, a carotenoid with cancer-fighting properties. Preliminary research suggests that lycopene may fight heart disease as well. Americans eat a lot of tomatoes in processed form--as sauce on pasta or pizza, in soups, stews, and chilies, and as tomato juice--and as it turns out, this is one case where a vegetable is more healthful cooked than it is raw: Tomatoes contain a lot of water, so they become more concentrated as the water evaporates during cooking. The result is that a half cup of cooked tomatoes, in the form of sauce or paste, for instance, is a far more concentrated source of lycopene than a half cup of fresh tomatoes. And your body absorbs more lycopene from cooked or processed tomatoes, especially when the tomatoes are cooked with a little oil, as they often are. (Serving raw tomatoes with oil--a drizzle of olive oil, for instance--also enhances lycopene absorption).

Varieties

There are thousands of tomato varieties, but those usually available in stores fall into one of three distinct categories:

Cherry tomatoes: Round and bite-sized, these tomatoes are often served in salads and as garnishes. Their skin may be red or yellow.

Pear tomatoes: Small, pear-shaped tomatoes (about the size of cherry tomatoes) with an intense, sweet-tomato flavor. There are red and yellow versions of these tomatoes.

Plum tomatoes: Also known as Italian or Roma tomatoes, these are small and egg-shaped. In general, they are meatier and less juicy than slicing tomatoes, and so are ideal for making sauces and adding to other cooked foods.

Slicing (round) tomatoes: These large, rounded varieties include round globe types commonly found in most supermarkets as well as the flatter beefsteak tomatoes prized by home gardeners.

Yellow or orange tomatoes: These are sometimes advertised as "low-acid" tomatoes. They are in fact not lower in acid than other tomatoes, but higher in sugar, which produces a very mild, sweet flavor. Like red tomatoes, these have plenty of vitamin C and potassium, but they don't have any lycopene.

"Heirloom" tomatoes: Some growers are now raising old varieties of tomatoes with intriguing shapes, variegated colors, and unusual flavors. Look for them at farmer's markets and gourmet shops during tomato season.

Sun-dried tomatoes: These are plum tomatoes that have been dehydrated to preserve them and intensify their flavor. They are sold packed in oil or dry. The tomatoes that are not packed in oil are usually reconstituted by soaking them in hot water before using them in cooking.

Availability

During the last hundred years, tomatoes have been bred for hardiness in a variety of climates, and today commercial crops are cultivated in every state. Local growers supply tomatoes to every region of the country in season, mainly summer to fall. Of course, many of the tomatoes Americans eat are home-grown, or purchased at farmstands and farmers' markets. In terms of ripeness, flavor and texture, locally grown tomatoes in season are far superior to those shipped across the country during the winter and spring.

Out of season, most tomatoes in the United States are shipped from Florida or California, with the bulk of the crop harvested between October and June. A large proportion are also imported from Mexico, primarily from January to May.

Shopping

From a nutritional point of view, the redder, the better. Ripe, in season tomatoes have as much lycopene ounce for ounce as canned products (although you won't absorb as much if you eat them raw.) Pale winter specimens have little lycopene.

Never buy tomatoes from a refrigerated case; the cold damages them. Tomatoes displayed loose are easier to evaluate than those that are packed in boxes. Look for plump, heavy tomatoes with smooth skins. They should be free of bruises, blemishes, or deep cracks, although fine cracks at the stem ends of ripe tomatoes do not affect flavor. If greenhouse tomatoes still have their leaves, check that they are fresh and green.

Ripe tomatoes are fragrant, but even mature green ones should have a mild fragrance that promises future ripeness. If they have no aroma at all, the tomatoes were probably picked when immature, and will never ripen. Fully ripe tomatoes are soft and yielding to the touch; buy them only if you plan to use them immediately. Overripe tomatoes, provided they are not moldy or rotting, are perfect for making sauce and even briefly cooking fresh tomatoes releases their lycopene.

Choose whatever size tomatoes are appropriate for your intended use; size has no bearing on the vegetable's flavor, texture, or quality. Large tomatoes weigh about 1/2 pound each; there are three to four medium-size tomatoes to a pound.

Storage

Room temperature (above 55°F) is best for storing tomatoes; don't refrigerate them. Place less-than-ripe tomatoes in a paper bag with an apple or banana; the ethylene gas given off by the fruit will hasten the ripening process. Keep the tomatoes out of sunlight--they will overheat and ripen unevenly--and arrange them in the bag stem-side up to prevent bruising. Once the tomatoes are red and yield to the touch, they will keep for a day or two at room temperature. Should you need to hold them longer, refrigerate them; if they'll fit, place them in the butter compartment, which is the warmest part of the refrigerator. For full flavor, let the tomatoes come back to room temperature before you serve them.

Chopped tomatoes may be frozen for use in sauces or other cooked dishes. Tomato sauce also freezes well. When you have a plentiful supply of perfectly ripe or overripe tomatoes, cook a batch of a basic sauce and freeze it for later use; use individual containers that hold the right amount of sauce for one meal.

Preparation

Wash tomatoes gently in cold water before serving them. To cut tomato slices for a salad or sandwich, stand the tomato upright and cut from top to bottom--the slices will retain their juices better than slices cut from side to side. Add sliced tomatoes to salads and sandwiches at the last minute because they begin to release their juices as soon as they are cut; contact with salty condiments or dressings will draw out more juice.

To remove excessive seeds or juice, cut the tomato in half crosswise, then hold each half cut-side down and squeeze it gently (you can sieve the juice and drink it). If you need very well drained tomato halves (for a stuffed tomato recipe, for instance), salt them lightly, then place them, with the cut-side down, on several layers of paper towel.

When a recipe calls for peeled tomatoes, drop them into a pot of boiling water and blanch for 15 to 30 seconds (the harder the tomato, the more time it requires). Remove the tomatoes from the pot with a slotted spoon and cool them briefly under cold running water. The skin can then be pulled off easily, using a paring knife. You can also spear tomatoes individually on a cooking fork and turn them slowly over a gas flame until the skin splits and can be pulled off. Or, you can loosen the peel in a microwave oven by heating it for 15 seconds on high power.

For cooked dishes, you can prepare tomatoes in a variety of quick, easy ways:

Baking: Prepare tomatoes as for broiling, then bake instead. For stuffed tomatoes, halve firm tomatoes, drain them, and scoop out the pulp (reserve it for use in the stuffing, if you wish). Salt and drain the halves, then fill them with a stuffing, such as cooked rice, pasta, grains, cooked corn, peas or other vegetables, or a bread or breadcrumb stuffing. Do not overcook the tomatoes, or they will split and fall apart. Cooking time: eight to 15 minutes in a 400°F oven.

Broiling: Broiled tomato halves are delicious served on their own or as an accompaniment to meat or poultry. Halve firm tomatoes and place, cut-side up, on a broiler pan. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, herbs, grated cheese, and a little olive oil, and broil. Cooking time: five minutes.

Sauteing: Use sauteed cherry tomatoes to lend color to a simple main dish. Pierce each tomato with a pin (to prevent bursting) and saute them in hot oil (with chopped garlic, if you like) until hot and tender. Toss with chopped fresh herbs. Halved plum tomatoes can be cooked the same way. Cooking time: one to two minutes.

Stewing: Skin and seed tomatoes, then place them in a pan with a little water, broth, or tomato juice. Cover and cook until the tomatoes are softened. Season to taste with salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar, if necessary, and fresh or dried herbs, such as basil, oregano, tarragon, or dill. Cooking time: 10 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Tomatoes/1 cup raw chopped

38
Total fat (g)
0.6
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.2
Dietary fiber (g)
2
2
Carbohydrate (g)
8
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
16
Vitamin C (mg)
34

Sun-Dried Tomatoes/2 ounces

146
Total fat (g)
1.7
Saturated fat (g)
0.2
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.3
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.6
Dietary fiber (g)
7
8
Carbohydrate (g)
32
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
1188
Thiamin (mg)
0.3
Niacin (mg)
5.1
Vitamin C (mg)
22
Copper (mg)
0.8
Iron (mg)
5.2
Magnesium (mg)
110
Manganese (mg)
1.1
Phosphorus (mg)
202
Potassium (mg)
1943
Riboflavin (mg)
0.3

Tomato Juice/1 cup canned unsalted

41
Total fat (g)
0.2
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
1.9
2
Carbohydrate (g)
10
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
24
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.3
Vitamin C (mg)
45
Vitamin E (mg)
2.2
Folate (mcg)
48
Potassium (mg)
535


Date Published: 04/21/2005
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