Tomatoes and LycopeneNutritionally, tomatoes are a low calorie, low fat food. They are an excellent source of vitamins A, C and K. They also contain potassium, which helps control blood pressure, maintain nerve function and help muscle control. Tomatoes are also an excellent source of lycopene, the pigment that gives the tomato its color. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant associated with reducing our risk of certain cancers and other diseases, including macular degeneration.
The redder the tomato, the more lycopene it contains. There’s actually more lycopene in cooked or processed tomatoes than raw tomatoes, so we should keep making our spaghetti sauces and squeezing the ketchup. Since lycopene is fat soluble, we should use a little heart-healthy olive oil in our tomato recipes to boost our absorption of this disease-fighting carotenoid.
Fresh TomatoesTomatoes are available all year round but it’s not until the summer that they really come into their own. The hothouse tomatoes that we see at the grocery store are almost never ripe when they are picked. Instead these tomatoes are artificially ripened by exposure to ethylene gas. You’re better off using canned tomatoes for most of your cooking needs—one of the few instances where a canned vegetable is more desirable than its fresh counterpart. Wait for summer to make a fresh tomato sauce or gazpacho. But for salads and fresh salsa, which you may want year round, finding good, flavorful, ripe tomatoes is undoubtedly a challenge.
Choosing TomatoesFully ripe summer tomatoes can be sublime. Plump, heavy, red and aromatic, summer tomatoes are completely different from their rest-of-year relatives. If you can’t grow your own tomatoes, buy them at your local farmer’s market whenever possible. Look for the reddest, ripest tomatoes you can, but watch for bruises and blemishes. The tomatoes should be soft, heavy and yield to the touch. Apart from the tomato’s physical appearance, smell is the best indicator of ripeness. Remember, size is not an indicator of quality. Large tomatoes can be just as sweet and juicy as the small ones. When you do buy tomatoes from the grocery store, never pick them from the refrigerated section: the cold kills their flavor.
Storing TomatoesYou have to treat your tomatoes right to enjoy them at their best. Just as you shouldn’t choose tomatoes from the refrigerated section at the store, you shouldn’t refrigerate them at home either. Temperatures below 55 degrees will destroy the flavor of your tomatoes and make them mealy. If some of your tomatoes need ripening, place them in a paper bag with a banana or an apple for a day or two. The gases from the fruit will help ripen them.
Preparing TomatoesHere are some tips on preparing your tomatoes:
- Wash tomatoes in cold water before use.
- Slice tomatoes vertically for salads and sandwiches to prevent the juice and seeds spilling out.
- For stuffed tomatoes, cut them horizontally to remove the seeds and juice.
- To peel your tomatoes, mark an X on the bottom of each one and place them in boiling water for about 20 seconds. Remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon, then plunge them into cold water. The skins should come off easily.