Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cheap Food Factfile: Tomatoes

(Fresh) Price per kg- £2
(Tinned Chopped) Price per kg- 88p

Tomatoes originate from Mexico, where the first records of tomatoes being used in cooking was in 500BC by the Aztecs. When the Spanish conquistadors defeated the Aztecs they brought the tomato back with them to Europe in the early 16th century. In many places in Europe, including Italy and Great Britain, the tomato plant/tomatoes were used for decorative purposes first, before being cultivated for consumption. Modern tomatoes are often bred/cultivated so that the tomatoes colour evenly, yet many believe that this has resulted in flavourless, and not very sweet tomatoes. As most everyone these days are aware, the tomato is classed as a fruit, not a vegetable, as it is the ovary of a plant containing it’s seeds.

There are over 7500 different varieties of tomato cultivars, with the most popular being “Heirloom tomato” variety (known in Britain as “Heritage” tomatoes). Tomatoes come in different colours, including red, yellow, green (when fully ripened), dark red/brown, purple, and stripy varieties. Tomato varieties are generally classified into sub-types, including:

·         “Slicing” or “Globe” tomatoes- used in bulk in commerce, for a variety of dishes.
·         “Beefsteak”- often used for sandwiches/burgers. They are not used much commercially, as they have a short shelf-life. They are large, but much squatter.
·         “Plum tomatoes”- often used to make tomato sauces, pastes, or canned in juice, as they have a high solid content.
·         “Cherry tomatoes”- whole, small, circular, sweet, and often consumed in salads.
·         “Grape Tomatoes”- a mini variety of the plum tomato- like cherry but longer. Often used in salads.
·         “Campari tomatoes”- a sweet and juicy tomato, slightly smaller than plum tomatoes.
·         “Tomberries”- I’ve noticed these in the shops recently, but they are horrifically expensive- they are blueberry sized tomatoes, absolutely tincy!

Health Benefits
Tomatoes contain a vitamin called “Lycopene”, which is a proven very effective antioxidant. It has been linked to protecting skin against sunburn, and reducing the risk of getting prostate cancer. Also, whilst many vitamins/minerals are destroyed or leach out during the cooking process, lycopene actually increases in tomatoes once cooked. They are also low in calories and contain no fat.

I haven’t seen this in the shops, but apparently a special type of blue tomato has been cultivated for its nutritional qualities, containing 40x the amount of vitamin A, twice the amount of vitamin C, and a much higher amount of lycopene when compared to a normal tomato.

Nutritional Information (per 100g raw)
Calories- 18kcal
Carbohydrates- 3.9g
(of which sugars)- 2.6g

China is the biggest importer of tomatoes, importing over 48 million tons of them in 2011 (and reportedly over 150 million tonnes in 2009). The two other biggest importers are India and America. Interestingly, 90% of the tomatoes grown in the USA are grown in the state of Calafornia!

Interesting Tomato Facts
Although tomato plants were being grown in England from the 16th century, they were not regularly consumed by the British public until the 18th century because we believed them to be incredibly poisonous . An influential botanist during the 16th century labelled them as poisonous due to the flowers resemble to the flowers of the deadly nightshade.

The deadly nightshade flower resemblance is no mere coincidence, tomatoes, as well as potatoes, peppers and aubergines, are all related to the poisonous deadly nightshade plant. In fact, there are a very small number of people in the world that are allergic to these entire “family” (known as the “Solanaceae” family), and many fad diets involving removing these foods from the diet (including one advocated by Kate Moss) are very popular.

When tomato plants are grown, they are often grown with what gardeners call “companion plants”. These companion plants help stop the numerous pests that love munching on the tomato plants away from them, as well as attracting insects that prey on these pests. Some of these include carrots, parsley, alliums (garlic/onions) and basil. It is said this protective planting together of tomato and basil was where that classic combination originated. Tomato plants areplanted in order to protect asparagus also.

Tomatoes should never be kept in the fridge, as with their permeable skins, the flavour will end up leaching out almost entirely at that temperature. In supermarkets in certain countries (although not UK ones I notice!) they sell tomatoes with a “Never Refrigerate!” label on the packaging.

The tomato’s latin name translates as “wolf peach”. This is based on german folklore, where witches used to use the flowers and fruits of deadly nightshade in potions to turn themselves into werewolves!!

Ways we like them
Tomatoes are eaten worldwide. Unripe or green tomatoes can be breaded and deep-fried (a popular dish in the southern states of the USA) or can be made into chutney. Tomatoes can be stewed and canned at home just as they are commercially. Tomato can be used to make ketchup, as well as many other sauces. Blended tomatoes (sold as either tomato juice or passata) is a popular drink, and is popular in the “Bloody Mary” cocktail (a mix of vodka, tomato juice, lemon, celery salt, Worcestershire sauce, tabasco and port). In America, they sell something called “Clamato juice”, which is a mix of clam juice and tomato juice, which sounds horrifically revolting.

Tomato can be concentrated and blended into a paste (sold as tomato puree in UK), and they can be dried (and often served in oil- sun-dried tomatoes being very popular in Italy).

In Italy it is the base of many traditional dishes, particularly famous ones being pizza, tomato bruschetta, and spaghetti napolitana. Tomato, mozzarella and basil salad is popular in Italian restaurants, and is also supposed to mimic the colours of the Italian flag.

Tomatoes  are very popular in Spain, and are used as the main ingredient in one of their famous national dishes “Gazpacho”- a tomato and vegetable soup traditionally served ice cold (sometimes also with ice in it!). In Spain, it is also traditional to consume finely chopped raw tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic on toast for breakfast.

In Greece they are often hollowed out, stuffed with a rice/mincemeat mixture and baked. Another popular in Greece is “Dakos”, which is toasted stale rusk, topped with fresh minced tomatoes, mizithra (kinda like feta) cheese, fresh oregano and olive oil.

In India they are added to  many different variety of curries.

In turkey there is a popular dish known as “Ezme”, a tomato and red pepper salad which is eaten in large quantities as a side dish for numerous types of meal.

In Egypt, tomatoes are popular in a spiced tomato soup, and also on top of their national dish “Koshari”- Egyptian rice, lentils and pasta with a tomato and chilli sauce. Recently (in 2012), there was a very large and influential Islamic group that banned Muslims from eating tomatoes because “they were Christian fruits” because they looked like a cross when you cut into them. How rather odd.

In Iran fresh tomatoes are used far less than tomato paste/puree, which is used liberally in many of their traditional dishes.

In South America, they are popularly made into fresh salsas, dips, and base sauces for other dishes. In Brazil, despite the tomato being a very popular ingredient, there has recently (April 2013) been a major increase in the price of tomatoes in Brazil, with the prices sky-rocketing them to being more expensive than meat and chicken in many areas.

Tomatoes are one of my favourite fruits/vegetables- in fact my mum said if she could choose two ingredients to live on for the rest of her life it would be potatoes and tomatoes! I think they positively amazing just consumed raw with a pinch of good flaky sea salt on top. I love  them diced up with red onions, herbs and olives on top of grilled garlicky bread- a traditional bruschetta. I  love them in soups and sauces- and I don’t think I should be ashamed in saying I love Heinz cream of tomato soup (I like adding fresh basil and loads of black pepper to this!). Heinz ketchup of course, it also a must.

The way I most often end up using tomatoes is for a pasta sauce, I often chuck a tin of chopped tomatoes, a handful of chopped olives, a stock cube, some dried herbs, salt sugar and pepper in a pan, heat up and mix into spaghetti- cheap and heavenly! I love fresh salsa- chopped fresh tomatoes, green pepper, loads of fresh coriander, chilli, lemon and lime, either served on the side of a chicken breast as a side dish, or with nachos as a dip.

I love myself a Virgin Mary (a Bloody Mary without vodka), which I have without the tabasco as I am a wimp. I could drink pints of the stuff though. Many individuals (my boyfriend amongst them) believe a cocktail incorporating tomato juice (similar to a Bloody Mary I guess), with a cracked raw egg mixed into it, is the perfect hangover cure. Bleugh no thanks!!

I also love tomato based curries- like roghan josh’s, bhunas, dopiazas etc. As long as they ain’t too spicy!!I have never tried making tomato chutney, nor have I tried green tomatoes, so I will have to put these firmly on my “Bucket list” of things to try before I die. Maybe a culinary bucket list ought to be called a “bowl list” or something, lol!

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