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! 

Recipe: Mushroom Tomato Risotto

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Mushroom Tomato Risotto 

Serves 4

-Large knob of salted butter -1 large onion, finely sliced -2 garlic cloves, diced -450g chopped tomatoes -300g basmati/ risotto rice -200g shiitake or button mushrooms, cut into tiny pieces -2 handfuls of pak choi or spinach, shredded and de-stalked -Snap peas, to serve

  1. Melt the butter in a large frying pan on the hob. Add the onion and fry until golden brown. Add the diced garlic followed by the chopped tomatoes (you ca use fresh or tinned, whatever you have on offer) and rice.
  2. Bring the mixture to a high heat so that it is bubbling, stirring in the rice as it cooks. If the tomatoes start to dry out, boil some water in a kettle and add to the frying pan. Continue to stir until the rice has absorbed the liquid.
  3. Stir in the chopped mushrooms. Leave until they have cooked a little in the mixture before stirring in the green pak choi or spinach leaves. Allow them to wilt.
  4. Remove from the heat and serve onto plates with pea pods on the side. Enjoy.

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Carrots

Not to try and scare fellow gardeners but hey, its not far off till March – the biggest sowing month of the year!

This is when my sowing indoors becomes nuts, but because of the frosts there is little you can sow directly outdoors at this time of year still.

What you can sow are the hardy things like Broad Beans, winter Salad – Lettuce, Meteor Peas … but they all need to be sown under horticultural fleece and, ideally, a cold frame.

But do you know what is a good idea to sow directly outdoors first thing in the season, that has to remain under the cover of fleece the whole year round thanks to pesky flies? Carrots.

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Carrots don’t like to be transplanted, they need a lot of time to develop, and need covering from carrot flies anyway so why not make a little bed and sow some seeds?

To make you want to grow your own carrots, here is a recipe to get you enthusiastic. Do you know what carrots go great in? Bolognese.

*To make it vegetarian, omit the meat. You can put pre-soaked or canned kidney beans in instead, but you don’t need to add more protein if you are serving it with grated cheese.*

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Veggie version – with kidney beans instead of mince

Spaghetti Bolognese 

Serves 4-6

-Olive oil, for frying -1 large onion, finely sliced -4-6 giant carrots, or the equivalent as small ones -2 garlic cloves, finely diced -x2 450g cans of tinned tomatoes -500g beef mince (optional) -Dash of soy sauce -Dash of Lea and Perrins Worcester sauce -Pinch of salt -Pinch of pepper -Spaghetti, to serve (about 500g) -Peas, runner beans or broccoli, to serve -400g grated cheddar cheese, to serve

  1. Warm the olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry the onion and the grated carrot together, stirring the contents. You want the carrot to lose some of its orange colour, to cook, but you don’t want it all to burn.
  2. Once the carrot is cooked, add the tinned tomatoes and the diced garlic. Mix in well.
  3. In a separate frying pan, fry the mince meat if using. Once cooked, add to the sauce, or if using kidney beans, drain if from a can and add to the sauce straight away instead. Mix well.
  4. Add the flavourings and stir. Leave it to come to the boil and then turn the flame down and allow it to simmer.
  5. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in boiling hot water until cooked through. Bring another pan to the boil and cook the greens.
  6. Serve with a helping of spaghetti and greens, the bolognese on top, and a good helping of grated cheddar.
  7. Left overs can be used for chilli con carne (just add diced chilli) or for lasagne.

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Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

This is a really nice, warming, simple dish to make. Depending on what you have growing in your garden, most of the ingredients can be sourced from there too!

You can vary this vegetarian meal entirely. You could add other greens like spinach, kale, swiss chard, pak choi to the gloop. You could add soy sauce, Lea and Perrins, salt and pepper, maple syrup or other seasonings. You could add chilli. You could add some melted cheese to the final plate or find some meat for a meat-eater. Add some herbs from the garden too? This is just a simple, basic recipe which apart from baking the potatoes which takes time, is really quick to make and very nutritious too.

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Home grown potato, runner beans, onion and garlic (not tomatoes or kidney beans this year…)

Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

(Serves 2-4)

-1 baking potato per person -Olive oil -1 onion -2 garlic cloves -450g tomatoes (tinned or prepared to be cooked like tinned ones) -400g kidney beans (tinned or ready cooked) -Butter -Runner beans or peas

  1. Preheat your oven to 200C. Wash and poke holes in your potatoes and bake in the oven for about 1-2 hours.
  2. To make the kidney bean dish, slice the onion up thinly. Fry gently in a pan of olive oil. Dice the garlic and add it to the pan before tipping in the tomatoes. Bring to the boil and stir the ingredients together. Add the kidney beans to warm them through.
  3. Boil a pan of water and cook sliced runner beans or peas. Drain.
  4. Remove the potatoes from the oven and cut in half. Mash each half with a generous amount of butter. Add the greens to the side of the plate along with the kidney bean dish. Enjoy. Store the left over kidney bean gloop in the fridge for up to three days in a sealed container.

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Salad – Rocket

 

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‘Buzz’ Rocket

Rocket, or Arugula has a sharp, peppery taste. It is high in vitamins A and C. Rocket is popular in Italian cuisine because of its aromatic flavour. In Roman times, this green was grown for both its leaves and seeds. The seeds were used for flavouring oils which is still practiced today.

Rocket is quite easy to grow: it germinates efficiently and quickly. It can be sown all year round if you start them off in containers indoors during the colder months and plant them out under the cover of horticultural fleece, cloches or cold frames. Their only real pest concern are slugs and snails.

However, rocket does tend to bolt and flower before you are ready for it to do so. Once this happens the delicate, tender leaves you were once eating become a bit stronger and the tougher. This is fine for some people but displeasing for others. When this happens, you can included these leaves in cooking instead of eating them raw if you do not like the taste – the leaves will just be a little hotter than the new, younger ones.

To avoid this, sow little and often, successional sowings. I am on my third sowing this year since February. I started the first batch off indoors and they germinated really quickly, in a couple of days. I am still picking them but they are starting to flower (you can eat these flowers, include them in salads or a stir fry). My second sowing I made outdoors under the cover of fleece when temperatures were still low in March. These took about a week or two to germinate because of the cold. My third sowing I did a couple of weeks ago indoors just before the temperatures rocketed to 20C daytime and an average 12C at night. These I will plant out shortly when they are big enough, perhaps in a couple of weeks.

Types of rocket I am growing this year are ‘Buzz’, ‘Monza’ and ‘Tirizia’. These can be grown indoors nearly all year round and then sown outdoors from March until the end of August, perhaps under the cover of a cold frame or fleece in the early months when frost is still about. These have all been delicious and easy to grow and transplant.

Rocket, spinach and watercress is a green salad made in heaven. Try adding this mix to your sandwich at lunch.

Another way I love eating rocket is with one of our ‘lazy family suppers’ when the idea of cooking anything extravagant is just exhausting: Pasta and Tinned Tomatoes. The rocket adds an extra classy flavour and makes it oh-so Italian – and it could take you no longer than half an hour to prepare on your own, tops.

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Pasta and Tinned Tomatoes

(Serves 6)

– 250g pasta – Olive oil – 800g tinned tomatoes – 300g cheddar cheese – 400g peas – 80g pine nuts – 6 large handfuls of rocket

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the pasta and turn the heat down to simmer for ten minutes or until the pasta is cooked. Drain and drizzle olive oil over the top, stirring it in. Set aside.
  2. Put the tinned tomatoes in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove when hot. Meanwhile, grate the cheddar cheese.
  3. Bring another pan of water to the boil. Add the peas and leave to cook until heated and ready.
  4. Place a frying pan over a high heat. Add the pine nuts and stir in the dry dish. Once they start to brown, remove from the heat immediately and continue to stir the nuts over the very hot dish for a couple of minutes.
  5. Serve: place pasta on a plate, scrape tinned tomatoes over the top, scatter cheddar cheese on top followed by the toasted pine nuts and fresh rocket before adding lots of peas on the side.

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