In the RED Tomatoes: The first few are precious, but the next thousand challenge the culinary imagination.

August 28, 1996|By Kathleen Purvis | Kathleen Purvis,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

You've waited all year for this moment.

Through the winter, while your garden patch slumbered under a quilt of pine straw. Through the spring, when it finally got warm enough to plant a feathery sprout that would surely never get big enough to hold up a butterfly, much less a full-grown Best Boy.

You tapped your knife and loosened the lid on the mayonnaise jar while the yellow blooms appeared and slowly swelled into green Ping-Pong balls.

And then -- is that a patch of red, peeking from the tangle of summer growth? The tomatoes are here, the tomatoes are here!

So you have your few weeks of bliss. The cholesterol splurge, when you allow yourself one perfect tomato sandwich smeared so heavily with mayonnaise that you have to lean over the sink to eat it. The forget-fat weekend when you buy a package of bacon just to revel in a few real BLTs.

But once the initial thrill is gone, tomatoes begin hanging around like weekend guests on a Monday, pressuring you, piling up in the windowsills and along the counters until you've eaten so many salads you can hear lettuce shredding in your sleep.

But before you start hurling tomatoes over the hedges to cope with the bounty, take a moment to reflect on that red water balloon in your hand. That's what it is, you know. About 94 percent of that tomato is water. That's why it cooks down so nicely into sauces and juices.

As to the rest, there's a little bit of sugar in there -- about 5 percent to 6 percent, in the form of glucose and fructose -- and plenty of acid. That means there's a lot of vitamin C -- about 21.6 milligrams in a 4-ounce tomato, or about 40 percent of the recommended daily allowance. There are about 2 grams of fiber, about the same as a slice of whole wheat bread. There's some calcium -- 9 milligrams -- and some potassium -- 255 milligrams. And you get all that for only about 25 calories.

All in all, that's a nice deal, nutritionally speaking.

But how many fruits/vegetables/berries (pick one -- the argument over how to classify a tomato has been going on more than a century) can boast of a whole chapter in history? To reach its comfortable niche in today's cooking, the tomato traveled all around the world.

It originated in South America as a member of the nightshade family, where it was a cousin of eggplants, Irish potatoes and peppers from sweet to hot. Spanish explorers may have picked it up there and taken it home, where it spread to other countries around the Mediterranean.

In those days, according to legend, the tomato wasn't even eaten in Europe. Because of its relation to the deadly nightshade, people thought tomatoes were poison and just grew them as pretty shrubs. But a few adventurous souls gave the tomato a nibble and lived. Then the French got in the act, decided anything that red and voluptuous must surely be an aphrodisiac and dubbed it "pomme d'amour" -- the love apple.

Then the Spanish jumped back in, took the tomato with them to their colonies in the Caribbean, Florida, California and Texas, and the whole thing started working its way back into the New World again.

All of which really just leaves one question: Why is a tomato red? We asked a few scientists and botanists and got lots of long mumbling about a color compound called lycopene and words like antioxidants and chlorophyll. But we finally got the real answer from Colen Wyatt, a tomato breeder with the Petoseed Co. of Woodlawn, Calif.:

"Because they knew spaghetti was going to be white."

There you have it.

This recipe is from "The Kitchen Garden Cookbook," by Sylvia Thompson (Bantam, 1995).

Scalloped tomatoes and corn

Makes about 8 servings

nonstick cooking spray

3 large ears white corn

1 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced

2 cups fresh whole wheat bread crumbs (4 to 8 slices bread)

2 medium onions, chopped

1/2 green pepper, seeded and diced

1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

4 to 6 medium tomatoes (2 pounds), sliced 1/4 inch thick

2 tablespoons mild olive oil

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray 9- or 10-inch square baking dish with cooking spray. Cut kernels from corn; set aside. Stir rosemary into bread crumbs; set aside.

Over medium-high heat, saute onions and pepper in hot, dry nonstick skillet until softened, stirring frequently, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in parsley, corn, salt and pepper.

Spread 1/3 of bread crumbs in baking dish. Top with layer of tomato slices, trimming to fit as needed, then top tomatoes with half of vegetable mixture. Repeat layers, using remainder of vegetable mixture. Finish with final layer of bread crumbs and top with remaining tomato slices. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until heated through. Serve hot or warm.

If you've never tried green tomatoes, this rich quiche, from "Tomato Imperative!" by Sharon Nimtz and Ruth Cousineau (Little, Brown and Co., 1994), is a revelation: They are tart and crispy, a perfect match with smooth cheese and earthy leeks.

Green tomato quiche

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