Nothing quite beats the sweet and juicy flavor of a fresh tomato off the vine, and tomatoes in North Idaho are often ready for harvest from the end of July through early September, with their peak season in August. Although tomatoes are now widely consumed and valued for their nutritional content, the tomato did not have an auspicious start in history, as it was viewed as a poisonous fruit by Europeans.
Although we often associate Italy with tomatoes, the tomato is thought to have originated in Central and South America. It was enjoyed by the Aztecs in Mexico who called it tomati, or “swelling fruit.” The tomato was introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Tomatoes did not gain popularity for eating until the 1800s. A member of the nightshade family, which also includes bell peppers, eggplants and potatoes, the leaves of tomato plants contain powerful alkaloids which are poisonous in high amounts. In addition, food was often served on pewter plates made of lead at the time the tomato was introduced to Europe, and the acid from the tomatoes would leech onto the plate and release lead, essentially poisoning its consumer. Thus, tomatoes were reserved as table decorations in Europe throughout most of its history. Once tomatoes started gaining popularity, they were known as the “love apple” by the French for their aphrodisiac properties, and the “golden apple” by the Italians as they cultivated yellow/gold tomatoes.
Today, tomato production worldwide is made mostly for tomato purees, sauces, and condiments like ketchup. There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes produced in a plethora of different ways. Tomatoes can come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, including red, pink, yellow, orange, green, purple, and even black.
Commercial tomato production results largely from tomatoes that were hybridized, which involves plant breeders cross-pollinating two different varieties of plants within the same species to produce more desirable traits, such as flavor, uniform shape, or pest resistance. Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are made from seeds of tomato plants passed down from generations through natural pollination by insects and wind. By definition, heirloom tomatoes do not involve any human intervention in their pollination. Although heirloom tomatoes can be grown organically, they are not synonymous with the term. Heirloom tomato plants emerge from different eras and even centuries, but they typically are at least 40-50 years old. “Beams yellow pear” are one of the oldest heirloom varieties of tomatoes grown in the U.S., originating from the 1800s. “Golden Jubilee” tomatoes originate from circa 1943, and feature large, yellow, sweet fruit. Heirloom tomatoes are sought after for their unique flavors, textures, shapes, and colors. They are described as having an “old time taste” and help to promote plant biodiversity in the environment. Pick out a plump heirloom tomato or plant start during your next trip to the farmer’s market, which features local heirloom tomato growers.
It’s no secret that tomatoes boast a variety of health benefits. Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, an antioxidant that shows promise in the prevention of prostate cancer. 1 cup of sliced tomatoes contains 33% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin C (important for boosting immunity), and 24% of the DV of biotin for healthy hair, skin and nails, as well as reducing symptoms of neuropathy in diabetics. Tomatoes are also an excellent source of fiber, which aids in weight loss and gut health.
Tomatoes are best eaten when at room temperature. They will keep for about a week on the counter. Tomatoes can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Add to wraps and sandwiches, tossed salads, or dips. Pick up some fun heirloom tomatoes at the farmer’s market and use to make salsa, or try this easy summer salad recipe from Cooking Light Magazine:
Heirloom tomato salad with herbs and capers
Cooking Light Magazine August 2008
Notes: Use a combination of your favorite varieties. We like a mix of red Brandywine, Green Zebra, and Persimmon for the beefsteak tomatoes, and Sungold, Yellow Pear, and Green Grape for the cherry tomatoes.
• 2 cups assorted heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved
• 1/2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled reduced-fat feta cheese
• 1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
• 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
• 1 tablespoon drained capers, chopped
• 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
• 1 tablespoon extravirgin olive oil
• 2 pounds assorted beefsteak heirloom tomatoes, each cut into 6 wedges
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 6 (1/2-ounce) slices sourdough bread, toasted or grilled
Directions: Combine first 9 ingredients in a bowl. Sprinkle tomato mixture with salt and pepper; toss gently. Serve with bread.