Meatless Monday Featured Fruit: Tomatoes

This Meatless Monday, we feature tomatoes – in hopeful anticipation of summer! – with growing, storage and prep tips, as well as recipes for Tomato-Basil Pizza and Homemade Tomato Soup from Vermont Fresh: A Fruit and Vegetable Handbook.Picture1

Question of the Day: Are tomatoes fruits or vegetables?

Tomatoes are botanically fruits.  However, in the late 1800s, the Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes are vegetables for the purposes of trade and tariffs according to organicgardening.com.

Background

The tomato is native to South America, hence its inseparable connection to Mexican and Latin American cuisine.  The first cultivated tomatoes were probably smaller than the common tomato of today and may not even have been red.  Spanish and Portuguese explorers took tomatoes back to Europe with them in the 15th and 16th centuries.  It didn’t take long for the tomato to gain popularity and spread as a food source.  Despite the tomato’s major role in present-day Italian cuisine, the Italians were some of the last Europeans to fully embrace the fruit in their cooking, using it decoratively for many years instead.  The widespread popularity of the tomato has led to extensive breeding and, in the United States, tomatoes are one of the biggest vegetable crops.  We also import tons of tomatoes to meet year-round demand.  Unfortunately, tomatoes have also become one of the most industrialized crops.  Locally grown, in-season, ripe, heirloom tomatoes can seem an entirely different fruit than what is commonly found on the supermarket shelves.

Growing Tips

Tomatoes require a long growing season, making it necessary to start seeds indoors in mid-April.  Don’t start seeds earlier than that, however, as the plants will become root-bound and leggy if grown inside in small containers for too long.  Keep seedlings warm and, if they seem to be out-growing the cells in which they’re planted, transplant them to larger pots.  Before planting outside, harden off seedlings by gradually reducing temperature and water.  After all danger of frost, plant into rich soil with plenty of room to grow—check your seed packets to see how big each variety will become.  Most varieties will need to be staked to keep from tipping over.  Harvest when fruit is fragrant and richly colored (red for most varieties).  You may wish to choose blight-resistant varieties.  Be vigilant for signs of disease, such as mold.

Storage

Unlike most produce, tomatoes should never be stored in the refrigerator.  Cold temperatures damage their flavor.  Only refrigerate a tomato if it has already been cut open.  Whole tomatoes should be left out until fully ripe (they will continue to ripen off the vine) and then consumed or preserved through canning or freezing.

Nutritional Benefits

Tomatoes are well-known for lycopene, an antioxidant compound that may help battle cancer and heart disease.  Tomatoes also contain Vitamin C, A, and Vitamin E.

Preparation

For use raw, tomatoes simply need to be washed and cut into whatever shape you like.  Using a serrated knife to slice tomatoes will prevent squashing them.  To peel tomatoes for sauce, cut an X and the blossom end and blanch in boiling water until the skin starts to peel away.  Chill slightly and peel.

Cyndi Brandenburg, a volunteer cooking, tasting and testing recipes out of the Vermont Fresh Handbook tested these recipes.  Her comments are in italics after the recipes.

Meatless Monday Recipe: Summer Tomato-Basil Pizza

Serves 8 (Cyndi says 4 is more realistic)
(adapted from Giada De Laurentiis: www.foodnetwork.com)

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal
  • 2 8-ounce blobs of pizza dough, either homemade or store-bought
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups grated mozzarella
  • 2 tomatoes, cut into ¼ inch-thick slices
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 handful basil leaves, roughly chopped
  • ¼  cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoons coarse salt

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.  Stretch the dough according to instructions and set atop baking sheets dusted with cornmeal.   Thinner crusts are better for this recipe!  Make sure dough slides easily atop the cornmeal; if it does not, add more.
  2. Drizzle each crust with ½  tablespoon olive oil, then sprinkle with mozzarella, leaving at least a ½ -inch border.  Arrange the tomato slices atop the mozzarella without overlapping slices.
  3. Scatter the basil and garlic atop the tomatoes, sprinkle with Parmesan, and then drizzle with remaining olive oil.
  4. Sprinkle with salt and bake pizzas until crusts are crisp and cheese is melted.  Cut and serve while hot.

Cook’s Notes:
If you use store-bought pizza dough, this is super easy.  Delicious as written!

Making pizza is fun for the whole family, especially the stretching of the dough part.  The store-bought dough I found came in 16 ounce blobs, so just I just cut one in half and proceeded from there.  An easy way to chop basil leaves is to simply cut them up with a pair of kitchen shears.  

Working at a leisurely pace, the pizzas took about 30 minutes to prep and 10 minutes to bake, so approximately 40 minutes total.  (We used the baking time on the pizza dough packaging as a guideline–they were ready to come out of the oven in about 10 minutes.)

Approximate cost: Less than $10.00

Meatless Monday Recipe: Homemade Tomato Soup

Serves 6
(adapted from Kristina Johnson: www.formerchef.com)

Ingredients

  • 2 medium carrots
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 medium onions
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 5-6 large fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 cups vegetable broth or chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ½  teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, maple syrup, or honey

Instructions

  1. Roughly chop the carrots, celery, and onions into pieces of about the same size.
  2. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the carrots, celery, and onion, and cook until slightly soft.  Add the garlic and cook another 5 minutes.
  3. Add tomatoes and broth, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft and the tomatoes have cooked down, about an hour.
  4. Turn off heat.  Use an immersion blender to puree the mixture.  If you don’t have an immersion blender, you may do it in batches in a conventional blender, taking care not to overfill it with the hot mixture.
  5. Set a sieve over another soup pot and push the pureed mixture through it with a wooden spoon.  The finer the sieve, the more liquid the mixture will end up—the goal is to separate just the tomato seeds and skins, not all of the solids.
  6. Set the pot over medium-low heat, add the salt, pepper, and sugar, and reheat .  Serve warm, garnished with a basil leave or dollop of sour cream if desired.

Note: if fresh tomatoes are not available, this soup can be made with canned tomatoes—simply substitute 2 28-ounce cans of diced tomatoes.  If you do used canned, diced tomatoes, you can skip the straining step as the seeds and skins will already be removed.  For a creamy tomato soup, stir in a few splashes of milk or cream during the final step.

Cook’s Notes:  
This recipe takes a little bit of time because there are multiple steps . . . The prepping of the veggies, simmer time, then blending and straining through a sieve before reheating.  Working at a leisurely pace, it took about 2 hours from start to finish.  

The trickiest part of this recipe involves pressing the blended mixture through the sieve; if a fine mesh one is used, be patient and persistent so that as much of the mixture ends up back in the soup as possible.  During the last reheating step, you can make a creamier soup by adding a cup of whole milk.  This will also yield a larger quantity–closer to 6 good-sized servings compared to the recipe as written.

Approximate cost: $7:00

To receive more recipes and tips on your favorite fruits and vegetables, download Vermont Fresh: A Fruit and Vegetable Handbook.  We also need more volunteer home chefs for this project.

Vermont Foodbank fresh food initiatives would not be possible without your support.  Please consider giving to the Vermont Foodbank today!

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