In Yugoslavia, where I lived for a couple years, tomatoes are known as paradisa. Aptly so, nothing compares to the taste of a tomato eaten straight off the vine — fragrant, juicy, and warm from the heat of the late afternoon sun. Indeed, I fantasize that the tomato, rather than the apple, was the true fruit of paradise, picked by Eve in the Garden of Eden. In French, it is known as pomme d’amour or “the apple of love” and in Italian, pomid’oro, or “golden apple.”
The English, however, considered this member of the nightshade family poisonous and stayed away for many years. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the tomato became popular in the United States and in Britain.
Botanically speaking, tomatoes truly are a fruit. However, they’re not native to Yugoslavia, but to South America, where the Indians of the Andes treated it as a weed. The Aztecs, however, cultivated them, and when Cortez discovered them in Montezuma’s garden, he brought some seeds back with him. They quickly became indispensable to Mediterranean cuisines in countries like Italy, Yugoslavia, Portugal, and Spain.
Tomatoes are high in vitamin C and in the antioxidant lycopene, which is known to reduce the risk of macular degeneration, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. Low in calories (35 in a medium tomato), they also provide fiber, vitamins A and B, potassium, iron, and phosphorus.
Because tomatoes are highly perishable, most varieties found in your local supermarket have been picked green, ripened with ethylene gas, and transported in refrigerated trucks. Tomatoes grown this way don’t even come close to the taste and texture of their sun- and vine-ripened counterparts, and greenhouse varieties have only half the vitamin C of tomatoes ripened outdoors. This is why tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables for home gardens.
Today, tomatoes come in many colors, sizes, and shapes. When buying fresh tomatoes at the market, look for ones that smell fresh and are firm, bright, and unblemished. When you bring them home, never refrigerate them — they keep best at about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Colder temperatures kill the flavor and make the flesh mushy.
Entire cookbooks have been written about tomatoes, but vine-ripened tomatoes in season are so delicious, they need little tampering. We often eat them with bread, sprinkled with a little salt and perhaps some sliced sweet onion. Toasted whole-wheat bread with bacon, mayonnaise, lettuce, and sliced tomato is the classic BLT. Add them to a variety of salads or pasta dishes. If you have an abundance, freeze them or make sauce for winter use. YVONA FAST