Biting into the summer's first ripe, luscious tomato still warm from the sun and bursting with juice is the reward every gardener looks forward to. Tomatoes, or Lycopersicon esculentum, are fruits that grow on vines. The fruit is acidic and sweet. It can be eaten raw or cooked. The plant is mildly poisonous; it's in the same genus as hemlock. It's also a relative of the potato plant.
It's not known exactly where tomatoes originated, but the western coast of South America, near Peru, is the likely place of origin. There are eight species of wild tomatoes there, and diversity of wild species in an area is one method of determining origin (see Resource 1 below).
Tomatoes grew northward through Central America and may have been first cultivated by the Aztec Indians in Mexico. It was brought to Europe by Cortez in the 15th century. The earliest record of tomatoes was in an herbal journal written by Matthiolus in 1544 (see Resource 2 below).
Types of Tomatoes
There are several varieties and shapes of tomatoes including pear, cherry, grape, plum and common. Colors range from yellow, orange, green even when ripe, pink, red and striped. The plants are either determinate, which means all the fruit sets and ripens at the same time for one big crop, or indeterminate, which means the plant flowers and fruits throughout the growing season.
A long warm summer with ample rain and rich soil is ideal for tomatoes. However, they have been bred to set fruit in colder climates with shorter summers. The fruit isn't quite as sweet as varieties that prefer warmer areas. Tomatoes can be grown indoors but need to be pollinated by brushing the flowers with a soft paint brush to transfer the pollen to different blossoms.
Fresh tomatoes can be eaten as is, without adding anything. The flavor is intensified by adding a bit of salt. They can be used in salads, stuffed with tuna or chicken, or sliced in sandwiches. A favorite Italian antipasto dish is alternating slices of tomatoes with fresh mozzarella cheese, then drizzled with olive oil and chopped basil.
Tomatoes form the basis of Italian cooking as a rich, cooked sauce. They can be added to casseroles, stews and baked dishes. Tomatoes can be stuffed with cooked meat or rice, then baked. Canned whole, chopped or pureed tomatoes are easily found grocery store. They are also available as a sauce and paste, which is a reduced sauce.