As with the humble potato, it's hard to think that such a widely-used food source was once considered deadly poisonous (up until the end of the eighteenth century, physicians warned against eating tomatoes, fearing they caused not only appendicitis but also stomach cancer from tomato skins adhering to the lining of the stomach!)
The tomato, as I see it, is an enormous, shiny berry. And, in fact it is.
Tomatoes belong to the genus Lycopersicon, which is in the same family, Solanaceae, as potatoes. The resemblance betwixt leaves and flowers of potato and tomato plants seems to validate this taxonomic grouping.
The tomato still grows wild in the Peruvian Andes, the land of its origin, but the small, wild tomato does not bear a great deal of resemblance to the red, plump and juicy fruit that we use in so many hot & cold dishes. According to most tomato pundits, Cortez discovered the red devils growing in Montezuma's gardens and brought seeds back to Europe where they were planted as ornamental vines but never eaten.
Most likely the first variety to reach Europe was yellow in color, since in Spain and Italy they were known as pomi d'oro, meaning yellow apples. Italy was the first to embrace and cultivate the tomato outside South America.
We French, because we can, referred to the tomatoes as pommes d'amour, or love apples, as they thought in those days to have some kind of aphrodisiacal properties. How wrong were they! Missed the oyster's zinc content by a mile!
In 1897, some soup mogul named Joseph Campbell came out with condensed tomato soup, a move that set the company on the road to wealth as well as, several decades later, further enhancing Andy Warhol's career to the general public.
So, how did the tomato bug spread to European and American cuisine? First, and most significantly, was the mass immigration from Europe to the New World, the blending of cultures and the ensuing cooking habits. Most Europeans from Mediterranean shores ate tomatoes and brought seeds with them. Equally as important, IMHO, was the invention of pizza. Since there is no pizza without tomato sauce (although, as an alternative, a thin layer of pesto does wonders) it was said to have been invented around Naples in the late 1880's. The story goes that it was created by one restaurateur in Naples to celebrate the visit of Queen Margarite, apparently the first Italian monarch since Napoleon conquered Italy. The restaurateur had a bright idea to make the pizza represent the colors of the new Italian flag: red, white, and green. The red is the cleverly disguised tomato sauce, the white is the mozzarella cheese, and the green is a liberal lashing of basil. Margarite was said to have been ecstatic and the pizza was born, spreading the fame of the tomato to new heights.
French botanist Tournefort provided the Latin botanical name, Lycopersicon esculentum, to the tomato. It translates to "wolfpeach" -- peach because it was round and luscious and wolf because it was erroneously considered poisonous. The botanist mistakenly took the tomato for the wolfpeach referred to by Galen in his third century writings, ie., poison in a palatable package which was used to destroy wolves.
The English word tomato comes from the Spanish tomatl, first appearing in print in 1595. A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous (although the leaves are poisonous) by Europeans who were suspicious of their bright, shiny fruit. Native versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red.
My three favorite recipes for tomato are the soup, tart and sauce. Anyone can make a reasonable tomato salad so I won't go there.
Basic Tomato Sauce for Pasta:
This is liberally flavored with garlic, spices and herbs. It ought to be of reasonable freshness and quality and that said, most people would buy it from a supermarket as there are some very good products like the Paul Newman & Grossman brands. I prefer to make mine, it may not save time but I like to know the amount of sodium and the kind of seasoning that end up in my stomach.
For say two pints, which should be a reasonable amount for either a sauce for your favorite farinaceous dish or cooking meatballs, you will need 3 pounds of ripe tomatoes, 1 pint of dry white wine, 2 celery sticks, finely chopped, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 knob of butter, 2 red onions, finely minced, 12 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced, 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, a handful of fresh basil leaves, a pinch of oregano, celery salt and black pepper to taste and a dash or two of Balsamic vinegar. When in season, I add one finely chopped fennel. Fry all the vegetables in butter and olive oil, add chopped tomatoes, then the concentrate, stir well, then add the white wine, the herbs and the balsamic vinegar, season it and simmer for half an hour to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you like it spicy, just add chili flakes. Some people like to sieve this sauce, I don't bother, it's all good.
Lately, I have been using smoked tomatoes to flavor soups, with great results (you don't need to buy a smoking device, use a large tin or box, or your barbecue if it has a lid, or your oven - oak, hickory, cherry or pecan chips are great choices for smoke-dried tomatoes. The trick is to not over smoke them to the point they become inedible) Here is a site that explains how to do it properly. You can also buy them. Anyway here's my
Smoked Tomato & Garlic Soup:
for 6 to 8 persons (leftovers can be reused in sauces or frozen) you will need 1 pound of cherry tomatoes and half a pound of smoked tomatoes, 24 garlic unpeeled cloves, 1 large leek, cut-up finely, 2 onions, minced, a bunch of lemon thyme, tied with a string, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 pints of chicken or vegetable stock, and I always add a glass of Marsala, it gives it that extra kick. If not available in your neck of the woods, use Port instead. A nice garnish of chives and lemon grass add to the allure of this soup, optional of course...
This is a one-two cooking process ie oven & top stove burners action (yeah, cooking can be sexy too). Preheat oven to 420F (around 220C) Place cherry tomatoes, unpeeled garlic cloves and bunch of thyme in a roasting tin, drizzle generously with olive oil and season to your liking (even chili flakes can add a bit of a bite). Roast for 35 to 40 minutes and add the glass of Marsala. It will deglaze the cooking juices and add a tangy flavor. Next, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep skillet. Add the onion and leek and cook until translucent. Now comes the interesting part: squeeze the roasted garlic from its skin and add to skillet along with the cherry tomatoes, smoked tomatoes and its Marsala juice, the lemon thyme bunch, the stock and bing to a slow boil. Put a lid on and simmer gently for 40 minutes. Serve with chopped chives and lemon grass slivers.
There must be thousands of ways to make a tomato tart, in any shape or form. Being of two minds, I like both the square/rectangular or the traditional round shape....hell, I don't care how it comes as long as it's good. Here's a version with a Mediterranean twist (basil & minced anchovies) that can be eaten as an appetizer or main course, with a salad.
Provencal Tomato Tart:
this can serve up to 8 persons if you use a 12 inch baking circle. Since puff pastry is widely available in all supermarkets, it will cut out the preparation time considerably (besides, let me tell you that making a passable puff pastry takes time and courage), so you will need 1 sheet frozen puff pastry (from a 17 1/4-oz package), thawed (naturally), 2 pounds of plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise, 2 tablespoons of the best virgin oil, a sprinkle of fresh thyme, 4 free range eggs, 1 cup of double cream, fresh basil leaves, 6 anchovy fillets, finely minced up, salt & pepper to taste. Some may be tempted to include grated cheese in the mix, and personally I prefer it without. I like a tomato hit.
Preheat your oven to 340F (180C). Roll out the pastry onto a round flan or quiche dish. Arrange the halved tomatoes tightly around the dish. Drizzle it with the virgin olive oil, and let it rest, during which time you can mix the 4 eggs and the cream into a bowl, and beat the anchovy in with the salt & pepper. Pour over the tomatoes and bake for 50 minutes, remove, spread the basil leaves about and cook further for another 5 minutes.
Next week, I'm going to write about charcuterie, probably in 2 or 3 parts, depending on time, and in the meantime here's a word from our sponsor: