The tomato is probably the most symbolic of foods associated with Italian cuisine; more tomatoes are eaten in Italy than any other vegetable. In reality the tomato did not enter the Italian pantry until the late 16th century when the Spanish brought it into the country. It was then described as a magical and medicinal plant to be used as a cure for various ailments as well as in the preparation of magical potions and aphrodisiacs. The first tomatoes introduced to Europe were yellow; hence the Italians called the fruit pomodoro or ‘golden apple’. The first red tomato arrived in Europe in the 18th century, brought to Italy by two Jesuit priests. Early literature of the tomato is rather scanty and it shows how slowly and with what difficulty the fruit was introduced into everyday Italian cooking. It didn’t become a common food until the 19th century when tomatoes were cultivated for large scale processing. The cultivation, processing and canning of tomatoes, mostly based in the region of Campania, has become one of Italy’s largest agriculture-based industries. However, it is interesting to note that in 1835, it was William Underwood of Boston, who opened the first factory for the canning of tomatoes.
Tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes and colors and were the first genetically engineered food approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These pristine looking but virtually flavorless tomatoes ripen on the vine longer and remain firm enough to ship cross-country. China is the largest producer of tomatoes (125 million tons in 2005) followed by the US and Turkey.
In summer, it’s hard not to eat tomatoes every day. Markets are now rich with countless varieties varying in size from the 5 inch across scarlet beefsteaks to the tiny dainty currant size, no larger than your baby fingernail. The popular huge lumpy heirlooms such as the mild yellow (lower in acid than red) to mauve-hued Brandywines, and Cuore di Bue, Green Zebras, and Prudence Purples are favored for cooking and salads. Small cherry and grape tomatoes are particularly sweet and wonderful for snacks, salads and sauces. The plum varieties are meatier with fewer seeds, less watery and more suitable for tomato sauce. It’s interesting to note that in Italy, a slightly green and underripe tomato is preferred for salads.
Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C, E and carotene known as lycopene, which gives them their red color. Cooking tomatoes releases the carotene, one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants, making it more readily available to the body. In general, a good tomato with distinct aroma and true freshness is the best bet, no matter what its shape. They should never be bought from a refrigerated case or stored in the refrigerator, which makes them tasteless and mealy. Keep them in a cool corner of the kitchen, stem end down. Because this is the last part of the tomato to ripen, it can support the weight of the ripe tomato without collapsing.
You don’t have to do much to prepare a tomato. You don’t have to peel thin skinned round tomatoes, but plum tomatoes have a thick skin which can turn harsh and bitter when cooked. To peel, cut a cross into the base of the tomato and plunge it into boiling water for a minute, drain and the peel will lift right off. Cut the peeled tomato in half crosswise and with your fingers lift out the seeds, whose bitterness can affect your final dish.
Tomatoes are extensively used raw in salads, sandwiches, soups and pasta dishes. In salads their flavor is intensified and sweetened when allowed to marinate for no more than 30 minutes with a sprinkle of salt and a pinch of sugar to remove their excess water content. When cooked, their acidic properties will enhance other savory flavors. They can be made into a tomato juice, sauce, and soup, as well as baked, broiled, stewed, fried and added to a myriad of dishes, savory and sweet. If you find yourself with an overabundance of tomatoes without the time to preserve them as sauce in jars or bottles, as most Italians families do, simply peel and seed them as described above and pack them in plastic freezer bags to store in the freezer for use when tomatoes are not in season.
In 1705, Francesco Gaudentio provided the first and still most classic Italian recipe for cooked tomatoes in his ‘Panunto Toscano’: “These fruits are similar to apples. They are cultivated in gardens and are cooked in the following way: pick the tomatoes, cut them in pieces and put the pieces in a pan with oil, salt, chopped garlic and wild mint. Stew them, frequently turning the mixture. The dish will be even better if you add a bit of tender molignane (eggplant) or white cucuzze (squash).”