‘Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in fruit salad.’
This is one of my favourite quotable quotes and refers to one of the many botanical versus culinary inconsistencies in the world of food. Olives and avocadoes are the other obvious examples of fruits that we usually eat as vegetables. If you’re botanically inclined, tomatoes are a fruit because they form from the flower, and the seeds are inside. But it’s also obvious when you taste a really good one because they taste so deliciously sweet. Much like other fruits, they’re also rich in vitamin C.
‘You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to, let’s call the whole thing off.’
The widely popular ruby fruit also features in this famous song lyric, although unlike Louie Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, everyone agrees tomatoes are great.
The tomato is iconic to Italian cuisine and integral to many other Mediterranean countries as well. The beautiful balance of sweetness, zingy acidity and natural saltiness makes it the perfect partner for just about everything including pasta and pizza. Can’t come at legumes? Try them in a tomato ragu and voila: totally yum. Can’t take to green beans? Cook them up in tomato passata and you’ll be converted. Turn your nose up at eggplant or zucchini (courgette)? You’ll change your tune when they make sweet music with tomato in a ratatouille (great kids movie too). And don’t fret about the cooking or processing of tomatoes because their antioxidants including the red pigment lycopene actually become more available to the body when pureed and cooked with oil; what a bonus! And this enhanced absorption also applies to tomato juice found in Bloody Marys (although Virgin Marys sans alcohol are healthier of course). You might have heard that lycopene may reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men but studies have also shown benefits for cholesterol and protecting skin against UV damage.
Most commercially produced tomatoes have compromised flavour for hardness that allows them to be transported more easily but tomatoes are fairly easy to grow yourself either in the garden or in a pot, and the itty-bitty cherry varieties are both hardy and prolific. I’d go as far as to say they’re better for flavour as well. There is now a trend toward old fashioned heirloom varieties however these are still hard to find in the shops so grow your own: once you’ve tasted a really good tomato it’s hard to go back. And for any tomato it’s always better to eat them at room temperature. For a truly gorgeous feast for the eyes as well as the mouth, simply roast a whole sprig of cherry tomatoes drizzled in olive oil and bejewel your plate with culinary treasure. If your harvest cup runneth over, preserve your delights for later by making your own passata (which can be bottled or frozen) or slow roast them and store under oil in the fridge. Slow roasted tomatoes look a shadow of their former selves but beautiful on the inside with concentrated flavour. Use them on sandwiches, wraps, pizza, salads or stirred through pasta (but ensure you enjoy some hot with a dash of balsamic vinegar).
Speaking of harvest cups running over, you will no doubt have heard of the mad Spaniards in the town of La Tomatina and their annual organised mega food-fight where they throw 90,000 pounds of squashed, inedible tomatoes at each other. Now we can add ammunition and entertainment to an already bulging list of talents for this ever-versatile fruit/vegetable. That’s what I call tomato magic.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist, author, speaker, consultant, and commentator with an interest in how we can learn to love good food that's good for us.