by Bellevue Club Registered Dietician Cindy Farricker
Nothing says summer like the sweet juiciness of a vine-ripened tomato. There are hundreds of varieties and even more ways to use tomatoes in cooking, making it one of the most useful and beloved ingredients in the kitchen. Bellevue Club’s Executive Chef Paul Marks describes working with vine-ripened tomatoes as a seasonal celebration.
But besides their unmatched flavor, they’re a fantastic source of nutrients. Tomatoes are packed with Vitamin C and Vitamin A in the form of health-promoting beta-carotene, potassium, fiber and lycopene, another potent anti-oxidant carotenoid like beta-carotene that may decrease the risk of cancer and heart disease.
The story of the tomato has roots in geography, ethnicity, economic disparity and the supernatural. It all started somewhere in the area that is now Peru. The Aztecs were cultivating the primitive tomato from about 700AD. Spanish explorers brought seeds back to Europe in the 1500s and tomatoes made their way to tables in Spain and Italy during the 17th century.
The tomato was assumed to be poisonous through the 16th and 17th centuries. Because it is a member of the nightshade family, it was thought to be associated with witchcraft. During a food shortage in Italy and Spain, the peasant class discovered that the tomato was safe to eat; and so the tomato made its way to European tables.
The initial negativity surrounding the tomato halted acceptance across Europe and America until the 18th century. Since then, the tomato has been cultivated in gardens all over the world. Gardeners here in America saved seeds from their most flavorful and productive plants, and over the years, many heirloom (open-pollinated) tomato varieties emerged. Since heirloom tomatoes have a soft texture, they are difficult to harvest and transport to markets. So seed selection for uniform size, firmness and ease of harvesting took precedence—at the expense of flavor. The “supermarket” tomato was born.
But heirloom tomatoes have made their way back onto our tables and into our hearts. “Chefs love using them because of their superior flavor and their beautiful eye appeal,” says Chef Paul. “We purchase the very best vine-ripened tomatoes we can get our hands on during the season and feature them on our menu at the Bellevue Club.”
It’s hard to beat the amount of nutrition a tomato packs into each calorie. If you haven’t tried different varieties of tomatoes, I would encourage you to do so. Each color brings a different complement of potent, health promoting carotenoids and subtle flavor differences.
Enjoy what the remaining season has to offer. There’s a tomato for everyone; from the tiny grape tomato to the giant beefsteak—from yellow to purple and everything in-between.