Nothing says summer quite like the sight of homegrown tomatoes ripening in the windowsill. This image brings to mind Granny's kitchen, romping in the woods, and days spent riding bikes and drinking straight from the water hose (or "hose pipe" as we called it in Springfield, TN). A burger devoid of a thick slice of in-season, locally grown tomato (not some pinkish, gritty ball plucked from the Florida sand) is merely an average substitute for the perfection that could be. Simply put, I love real tomatoes. And the beauty is that this delicious vegetable (or is it a fruit?) is one of the best things for you that one can eat.
Tomatoes are rich in helpful nutrients such as vitamin C, folate, and certain phytochemicals linked to a reduced risk of prostate cancer. Tomatoes are considered a high-potassium fruit (or is it a vegetable?), and benefits of a high-potassium diet range from increased bone density to lower blood pressure to improved bowel health. In the healthy-bones department, tomatoes also contain vitamin K, calcium, and that phytonutrient rockstar, lycopene. Strong bones, however, is far from where the health benefits of lycopene end. According to FW Resident Dietitian, Amy Fenzel, this plant-derived compound reduces the risk of life-threatening chronic diseases as well. "Tomatoes pack a powerful punch in the lycopene department. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant -- technically a phytonutrient, which helps fight inflammation and is linked to boosting immunity, heart health, and cancer-risk reduction."
Tomatoes are deliciously versatile for summer cooking, making for a wonderful base for soups and sauces, as well as a succulent main ingredient for hors d'oeuvres and light veggie fair. And for my money, garden-to-table, ripe tomatoes are best served raw with not a thing added. However, Amy points out that, when it comes to lycopene, it is actually better to cook them:
Delicious as a fresh, raw vine-ripened tomato is when eaten right out of the garden, cooking tomatoes will actually increase our body's ability to absorb all that wonderful lycopene. My favorite way to prepare tomatoes? Gently slice and chop 1-2 large tomatoes with a serrated knife (because ripe tomatoes are so delicate, be careful not to squish them!) and place in a skillet on the stove. Add some chopped onions, fresh garlic, salt and pepper. Sauté in 1 teaspoon of high-heat cooking oil (such as avocado oil or sunflower oil) over medium heat until the tomatoes, onions, and garlic cook down. Remove from heat and add in a generous amount of freshly chopped basil. Serve over top of fresh bread, grilled chicken, or any dish of your choice! Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil for the perfect seasonal appetizer or meal.
But cooked or raw, either way is good for you. As Amy goes on to add, raw tomatoes are rich in vitamin C, alpha- and beta-carotene, and vitamin A, nutrients that get lost with high-heat cooking. So, a combination is best. One could lean more toward the cooked, processed varieties in the winter and early spring and more toward pluck-and-eat in the summertime and early fall.
And as for the whole "fruit or vegetable" controversy, believe it or not, in the 19th century this argument actually made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court! What was the impetus for the court case? Well, money of course. Highlighted in a 2013 NPR Planet Money follow-up story on how the Supreme Court often defines things for legalistic purposes, the case involved an argument between the Port Authority of New York and a fruit importer. At the time, vegetables were subject to a 10-percent import tax; fruits were not. The opposing sides both brought out dictionaries and horticulture experts, and in the end, although technically a fruit, it was decided that tomatoes served the role of a typical vegetable at the dinner table, and therefore should be classified as such. The debate rages on.
However you like them--sautéed, in soups, on a burger, or on its own--make sure you enjoy plenty of these nutritional wonders while they are fresh and local. And, tomato lovers, do not miss the fabulous Tomato Art Fest this August 11 and 12 in East Nashville. There will be plenty of beautiful Nashville tomatoes on display along with people in costume, live music, a tomato-themed parade, and, of course, wonderful, red, tomato-themed art. Like the famous fruit/vegetable, Tomato Art is to be enjoyed while it's here, so be sure to get on that costume, head over to East Nashville and have fun!