Tomatoes

Tomato – the edible, often red, veg of the plant Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The plant belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae (potatoes, auberinges/ eggplants). The species originated in western South America.

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Wild versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red. A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous by Europeans who were suspicious. This was exacerbated by the interaction of the tomato’s acidic juice with pewter plates. The leaves and immature fruit in fact contain trace amounts of solanine which in larger quantity would be toxic, although the ripe fruit does not. Aztecs used the fruit in their cooking. The Nahuatl (Aztec language) word tomatl gave rise to the Spanish word “tomate”, from which the English word tomato derived. The exact date of domestication is unknown, but by 500 BC it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico. The Pueblo people are thought to have believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521. Christopher Columbus may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in a herbal written in 1544 by an Italian physician and botanist who suggested that a new type of aubergine/ eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden color when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant – cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. It was not until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or “golden apples”. Taken to Europe, the tomato grew easily in Mediterranean climates and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, and was certainly being used as food by the early 17th century in Spain.

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Tomatoes were grown mainly as ornamentals early on after their arrival in Italy. For example, the Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote how they “were to be sought only for their beauty”, and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. The tomato’s ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to its success and spread throughout Italy. However, even in areas where the climate supported growing tomatoes, their habit of growing to the ground suggested low status. They were not adopted as a staple of the peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits already available. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692.

 

Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. However, by the mid-18th century, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated the tomato was “in daily use” in soups and broths. They were not part of the average person’s diet, and though by 1820 they were described as “to be seen in great abundance in all our vegetable markets” and to be “used by all our best cooks”, reference was made to their cultivation in gardens still “for the singularity of their appearance”, while their use in cooking was associated with exotic Italian cuisine.

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit, a berry, consisting of the ovary together with its seeds, of a flowering plant. However, the tomato has a much lower sugar content than other edible fruits, and is therefore not as sweet. Typically served as part of a salad or main course, rather than at dessert, it is considered a culinary vegetable. One exception is that tomatoes are treated as a fruit in home canning practices: they are acidic enough to process in a water bath rather than a pressure cooker as vegetables require.

Tomato plants are vines, initially decumbent, typically growing 180 cm (6 ft) or more above the ground if supported, although erect bush varieties have been bred, generally 100 cm (3 ft) tall or shorter. Tomato plants are dicots and grow as a series of branching stems, with a terminal bud at the tip that does the actual growing. When that tip eventually stops growing, whether because of pruning or flowering, lateral buds take over and grow into other, fully functional, vines. Tomato vines are covered with fine short hairs. These hairs facilitate the vining process, turning into roots wherever the plant is in contact with the ground and moisture.

The poor taste and lack of sugar in modern garden and commercial tomato varieties resulted from breeding tomatoes to ripen uniformly red. This change occurred after discovery of a mutant “u” phenotype in the mid 20th century that ripened “u”niformly. This was widely cross-bred to produce red fruit without the typical green ring around the stem on uncross-bred varieties. Prior to general introduction of this trait, most tomatoes produced more sugar during ripening, and were sweeter and more flavorful.

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Here are some to try growing: 

Garden Pearl (Determinate) – Sweet cherry tomatoes, happiest in large pots outdoors.

Marmande (Semi-determinate) – Large irregular fruits with excellent flavour, happiest grown outdoors.

San Marzano 2 (Semi-determinate) – Classic flashy Italian plum tomato, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Golden Sunrise (Indeterminate) – Distinct sweet flavour, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Red Cherry (Indeterminate) – Prolific crops of sweet ‘cherry toms’ happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Tigerella (Indeterminate) – Good flavour and novel stripes on the skin, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Sungold F1 (Cherry) – Attractive golden fruits with a very high sugar content balanced with some acidity, Indeterminate.

Shirley F1 – A much loved variety famed for its heavy yields of well-flavoured fruits – an outstanding hybrid.  Indeterminate.

Loretto F1 – sweet cherry sized fruits with excellent flavour and a good choice for outdoor containers. Resistance to blight is one of the major benefits of this cascading ‘bush’ tomato. Indeterminate.

Alicante F1 – One of the best for flavour and very reliable yielding a good crop of medium sized tomatoes. Indeterminate.

Ferline F1 – A top quality tomato variety producing high yields of large and tasty fruits. Trials have shown that tomato Ferline F1 has excellent resistant to blight. Indeterminate.

Indeterminate – these varieties of tomatoes are the most common and are grown as cordons (single stemmed plants with side shoots removed). They will grow very tall – sometimes taller than 2.5m in very warm conditions.

Bush/Determinate – these varieties stop growing sooner than indeterminate varieties with the stem ending in a fruit truss. They are referred to as ‘bush’ and ‘dwarf’ types (suitable as hanging basket tomatoes) and don’t require any pruning.

Semi-determinate – these are similar to indeterminate varieties (grown as cordons) only they produce shorter plants.

Types of tomatoes:

  • Beefsteak tomatoes – 10 cm (4 in) or more in diameter. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical.
  • Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a lower water /higher solids content for use in tomato sauce for canning and are usually oblong 7–9 cm (3–4 in) long and 4–5 cm (1.6–2.0 in) diameter; like the Roma-type tomatoes.
  • Cherry tomatoes – small and round, often sweet tomatoes, about the same 1–2 cm (0.4–0.8 in) size as the wild tomato. Probably my personal favourite.
  • Grape tomatoes – are smaller and oblong, a variation on plum tomatoes.
  • Campari – are sweet and noted for their juiciness, low acidity, and lack of mealiness, bigger than cherry tomatoes, and smaller than plum tomatoes.
  • Tomberries –  tiny tomatoes, about 5 mm in diameter.
  • Oxheart tomatoes can range in size up to beefsteaks, and are shaped like large strawberries.
  • Pear tomatoes are pear-shaped and can make a rich gourmet paste.
  • “Slicing” or “globe” tomatoes are the usual tomatoes of commerce, used for a wide variety of processing and fresh eating. The most widely grown commercial tomatoes tend to be in the 5–6 cm (2.0–2.4 in) diameter range.

Heirloom tomatoes are becoming popular amongst home growers as they tend to produce more interesting and flavorful crops at the cost of disease resistance and productivity. The definition of an heirloom tomato is vague, but unlike commercial hybrids, all are self-fertile varieties that have bred true for 40 years or more.

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How to grow tomatoes

In England, we can be kind-of lucky and get some tomatoes off the vines when we grow them outside, but really it is easier to do it in a greenhouse as they will prefer warmer growing conditions.

Tomato seed is normally sown 6-8 weeks before the last frost date (March/April) although they can be sown earlier for greenhouse cultivation. Sprinkle your tomato seed thinly on the surface of good quality seed compost. Cover the seed with about 1.5mm (1/16in) of compost and water lightly with a fine-rose watering can. If only a few plants are required sow two seeds into a 7.5cm (3in) pot and after germination remove the smaller plant. The seeds generally germinate in about 7 to 14 days at a temperature of around 21C (70F). Keep the compost moist. Pot on the tomato seedlings when large enough to handle, taking care not to touch the stem. Handle the plants by the leaves and transplant them carefully into 7.5cm (3in) pots. Take care not to expose the plants to frost, cold winds and draughts as this may kill them. Tomatoes need a lot of water and feed (high potash) to get the best fruit. Water little and often for the best results. If growing outdoors, plant approximately 45cm (18 in) between the plants and 75cm (30in) between the rows. Regularly pinching out of tomato side shoots will concentrate the plant’s energy into producing fruit.

One of the most common problems when growing tomatoes is tomato blight, which spreads quickly throughout the plant in wet weather, causing the plant to die and the fruits to decay. The symptoms are brown patches on all parts of the plant. It is much more common in tomatoes growing outside than tomatoes growing in a greenhouse.

Start picking your tomatoes as the fruits ripen and gain full colour. When frost threatens at the end of the season, lift any plants with unripe fruit on them and hang them upside down under cover.

Tomatoes contain excellent amounts of fiber, vitamins A, C (to resist infections), and K, potassium (controlling heart rate and blood pressure), and manganese. Good amounts of vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), thiamin, niacin, Vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper are other resources. In daily value, tomatoes provide 38% of what is needed in vitamin C, 30% in vitamin A, and 18% in vitamin K. Tests suggest tomatoes may be a preventive factor against prostate cancer. Lycopene flavonoid antioxidant has the ability to protect the cells even as it protects the skin from ultraviolet damage, and as a possible result, skin cancer. Lycopene in tomatoes has been proven to decrease oxidative stress and risk of osteoporosis and prevent serum lipid oxidation, thus exerting a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases. The coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid, in tomatoes, fight against nitrosamines, which are the main carcinogens found in cigarettes. The presence of vitamin A in high quantities has been shown to reduce the effects of carcinogens and can protect you against lung cancer. Tomatoes keep the digestive system healthy by preventing both constipation and diarrhoea. They also prevent jaundice and effectively remove toxins from the body.

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There are so many ways of using tomatoes and they are such a valuable crop to grow yourself. You can eat them raw, as part of a salad or cheese sandwich, cheese toasty, stuff them, cook with them to make a sauce for any dish, fry them to go with your English breakfast, sun dry them, bottle or can to make your own tinned tomatoes, always a handy thing to have at hand for a quick meal… 

Here are some recipes that use tomatoes. Plenty more on the site!

Recipe: Mushroom Tomato Risotto

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

 

Recipe: Fried courgette-tomato sauce with spaghetti

Updated recipe: homemade pizza

Quinoa – Chicken Casserole

Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

Salad – Rocket – Pasta and tinned tomatoes and rocket

Keep searching for more recipes! 

Cucumbers

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‘Passandra’

Cucumbers (Cucurbitaceae family, or gourd) originated from Asia where it spread over its borders around 4000 years ago, becoming eventually the fourth most widely cultivated vegetable in the world. Long, green cylinders that are on every shop shelf around the country, the cucumber is a strangely popular vegetable – strange because it is more fruit-like in its appearance and watery, cooling taste. It is the ultimate ingredient for a summer salad or a glass of pimms.

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‘Marketmore’

They originated in the wild in India. Around 2-3 millennia BC they started to be cultivated and infused into the rich Indian cuisine. It spread through trading with Middle Eastern and European countries.

The Romans embraced cucumbers heartily. Their ease at producing them made them popular amongst the nobility and lower classes alike – Emperor Tiberius declared he would eat a cucumber every day and during the summer months his gardens were tended just for vegetables and in the winter cucumbers were grown in moveable bed frames that were moved to expose the sun or illuminated with mirror-stones. In Rome, cucumbers were also used in the medical profession, over 40 various remedies included them. They were used to treat everything, from bad eyesight, scorpion bites, infertile women who wished for children were encouraged to carry them around their waists.

After the end of the Roman Empire, cucumbers decreased in popularity and it was not until the court of Charlemagne in the 8th or 9th century that cucumbers resurfaced. Cucumbers arrived in England during the 14th century where they were not popular until the mid-17th century. During the 18th century, the expansion of cucumbers across North America halted when several medicinal journals claimed that uncooked cucumbers and similar vegetables produced serious health risks. Discouraged by this theory, cucumbers were abandoned on the continent until the 19th century when their safety and nutrition was confirmed. In 2010, worldwide production of cucumbers was 57.5 million tonnes.

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‘Crystal Apple’

The cucumber is a creeping vine that bears cylindrical fruits. There are three types of cucumber: slicing, pickling and burpless. Cucumbers enclose seeds and develop from a flower and are botanically speaking classified as pepoes (a type of botanical berry, like courgettes I posted about previously). In this way they are very much like tomatoes and squashes (same family) as they are often also treated as vegetables.

Cucumbers are usually more than 90% water. This high water content means that they are low in most essential nutrients, the only notable one really being vitamin K, 16% of our daily recommended value.

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Cucumber sandwich means summer

Cucumbers can be difficult to keep healthy. They are fussy about temperature changes and like to be kept in a humid environment, watered well but not too much and they really do hate being potted on, they don’t like to be disturbed. They are also quite hungry little plants so remember to feed them every fortnight if possible. Common diseases include powdery mildew and cucumber mosaic virus (see Courgettes for more information about these two diseases). The worst pest is the sap-sucking red spider mite that attacks the foilage on the cucumber plants (and other greenhouse plants) which eventually causes a mottled look followed by death of the plant. Biological control is the only remedy as the mite is immune to most pesticides.

Cucumbers have been bred to remove their natural bitterness and most supermarket varieties have a watery, diluted taste and consistency. They can be pickled, cooked and eaten raw. They are perfect for salads or as side dishes, such as combining them with yoghurt alongside curries where their cooling taste takes the heat off spicy dishes. Once pickled they can be kept in the fridge for a few days but are recommended best eaten fresh (‘Letith’s Vegetable Bible’). You cannot freeze cucumbers successfully due to the high water content. If you have a glut and cannot eat them all, pickling or including them in a chutney is your best way of using them up and preserving them that little bit longer. If you ever do produce a bitter cucumber, try peeling the skin off, the inside should be fine.

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‘Crystal Apple’

Varieties I have tried: ‘Marketmore’ – Sow: February-April. Traditional, cylinder shaped, dark green produce with bumpy skin that smooths during growing. The skin has a stronger taste than shop bought ones but I quite like it; I find it more flavoursome. The taste is not bitter unless the watering is inconsistent. Do not remove the male flowers on this plant. Suitable for outdoor and indoor growing.

‘Crystal Apple’ – Sow: April-June. Suitable for indoor and outdoor growing, this plant produces yellow coloured balls – literally apple-shaped cucumbers. They have a lighter, crisper taste than ‘Marketmore’. They are gorgeous and quite small too if you want to eat a whole cucumber in one meal.

‘Passandra’ – Sow: February-April. A new type I am trying out this year. Cylinder shaped, light green, smooth skin. They are advertised as being disease resistant. They taste delicious and are my little brother’s favourite. They look a little more like the ones we have bought from Sainsbury’s and are a safe option for starting to grow your own cucumbers, especially if you are growing for a family. The ‘Passandra’ variety have been our most productive so far this year.

Sow indoors, 0.5cm (1/4 inch) deep, on edge, in pots of compost. I like to sow mine in tall yoghurt pots (think Yeo Valley yoghurt styled containers, tall ones that give the roots lots of space to grow). Puncture a hole in the bottom to let the water drip out so that the plant is not drowning). Water the plant well and place in a temperature of 21-24C (70-75F). When mine have germinated, I like to place them on a warm, sunny windowsill during the day time and keeping them on the floor at night-time when the temperatures dip. When the plants have grown 3-4 leaves, harden them off in slightly cooler conditions (I move mine to a cooler room in the house to begin with). Some varieties can be planted outside by the brave (I have tried and failed with ‘Marketmore’ last year, never again, I will stick to indoor growing after losing 11 plants over various months…) at 60cm (2 inches) apart. Otherwise, pot them on inside a greenhouse in large containers up to their lower leaves. Water well and stake them with canes to give the tendrils something to cling onto as they grow and climb. Give them a weak, liquid comfrey feed every couple of weeks to encourage the growth of new flowers and to keep them healthy. Once they start producing, don’t be tempted to leave all of the cucumbers on the plants to become ginormous. Keep picking them at a medium size and they will be encouraged to produce more fruit so that you get a constant supply over the harvest season. With any luck, you may be picking them from July to October.

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There are plenty of ways to use a cucumber: add to any dish that requires a salad in circular discs, make cucumber sandwiches, cucumber and tuna and mayonnaise sandwiches, cheese and cucumber sandwiches, shred them and serve it in Chinese pancakes along with crispy duck and plum sauce, shred them and put them in a stir fry, the classic Greek salad, or as, I said earlier, add to yoghurt and eat alongside a curry – cucumber raita.

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Matte Paneer Curry
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Cucumber Raita

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Matte Paneer Curry with Cucumber Raita

Paneer is an Indian cheese with a sort of rubbery texture that can be bought it most supermarkets. Do not be put of by its look, it tastes amazing and is my favourite curry. ‘Matte’ translates as ‘peas’. To make ‘Saage Paneer curry’, replace the peas with spinach (‘saage’ means ‘spinach’). For meat eaters, replace the paneer with some freid chicken and for a vegan replace with some cooked chickpeas. You can also replace the coconut cream or milk with about 100-200g ground cashew nuts – it just thickens the curry a little.

(Serves 6)

For the curry: – 1 large onion, finely sliced – Olive oil or ghee, to fry in – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1 tsp fenugreek seeds – Handful of curry leaves (if available) – 2 large garlic cloves, finely diced – 1/4 tsp ground cumin – 1/4 tsp ground coriander – 1/2 tsp Garam masala – 1tsp ground turmeric – 2x 400g can of tinned tomatoes  – 225g paneer cheese – 250ml can/packet coconut milk or cream – 100g peas

For the cucumber raita: -1/2 cucumber – 200g Greek or natural plain yoghurt

To serve: – 300g brown or white basmati rice – Popadoms, chapatis, naan bread, or a mixture of all three – Mango, lime or tomato chutney – Shredded lettuce and other salad like chopped up tomatoes or plain cucumber, optional

  1. Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
  2. Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Stir in and leave to simmer for a few minutes to combine flavours.
  3. Add the tinned tomatoes, stir in and turn the heat up to high. Add the coconut milk or cream and stir in again – this thickens the curry a little.
  4. Cut the paneer cheese into small cubes. Add to the curry followed by the peas.
  5. Once the curry has thickened slightly and the peas have cooked, turn it down to a simmer until you are ready to serve.
  6. To make the cucumber raita: cut the cucumber into discs and then cut crosses through those discs to make 4 triangles. Put them into a large bowl and stir in the yoghurt until it is combined. Set aside until ready to serve.
  7. Serve the Matte Paneer curry along with the cucumber raita and rice, any Indian bread, chutney, side curries and salad you like. Try my Red Lentil, Carrot and Courgette Dahl Courgettes and my Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan Bread.

Happy Indian banquet!

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Mix the Matte Paneer curry with other side dishes
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Top with the cucumber raita for a crispy, cooling accompaniment for the spicy curry