Tomato myths still abound

Any way you slice it, the tomato is one confusing comestible. There’s the whole identity crisis thing — is it a fruit or a vegetable? And don’t get us started on the tuh-MAY-to, tuh-MAH-to thing. It’s enough to drive anyone ba-NAY-nas.

This photo shows stuffed tomatoes. Tomatoes are best picked absolutely ripe

This photo shows stuffed tomatoes. Tomatoes are best picked absolutely ripe

Any way you slice it, the tomato is one confusing comestible.

There’s the whole identity crisis thing — is it a fruit or a vegetable? And don’t get us started on the tuh-MAY-to, tuh-MAH-to thing. It’s enough to drive anyone ba-NAY-nas.

Here are what tomato lovers and experts have to say about some common misconceptions about this vine product.

— FRUIT OR VEGETABLE?

This is the kind of thing that can spark quite the argument, with both sides passionately supporting their claims. Oddly enough, both are right, at least according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Yes, botanically speaking the tomato is a fruit, but horticulturally and legally it is considered a vegetable.

This debate has been adjudicated by none other than the U.S. Supreme Court. It happened in the late 19th century in connection with a challenge to tariffs on imported produce. The high court ruled in Nix vs. Hedden that despite the botanical definition, tomatoes are a vegetable, in part because at the tables of the time they were served as “the principal part of the repast” and not as dessert.

No telling what the justices would have done in today’s envelope-pushing culinary world of tomato jams and gelatos.

A side note: Today’s tomatoes are mainly tariff-free since those that aren’t grown domestically are mostly imported from Mexico and Canada, which are covered by the NAFTA free trade zone.

— THE BIG CHILL

A lot of people pick out the freshest, juiciest tomatoes they can find, take them home and bundle them into the fridge, thereby killing all that wonderful aroma and flavour.

Instead, tomatoes should be stored at room temperature, says chef Matthew Lowe of the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate in Fulton, Calif., which hosts an annual Heirloom Tomato Festival. Put the tomatoes in the fridge and “you lose that smell, that taste you get from the aroma, and you never get it back.”

That means that tomatoes are not like cheese, which should be refrigerated for storage and then allowed to come to room temperature before serving. With tomatoes, once chilled, there’s no going back.

— TOXIC TOMATOES?

Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family, just like peppers and eggplants, which have led some in the past to believe the fruit is poisonous. In fact, the tomato is harmless. However, Lowe notes, you don’t want to eat the leaves or other parts of the plant.

On the other hand, your parents were correct. If you eat lots of tomato seeds, one is likely to grow in your stomach. Not.

— RED EQUALS RIPE

Tomatoes come in all shapes and colours, from white to mahogany. “I am fascinated by the sheer variety of tomatoes available — black ones, yellow ones, stripy ones and white ones in all sorts of shapes and sizes,” says Gail Harland, author of “Tomato: A guide to the pleasures of choosing, growing and cooking.”

Lowe likes to use colour as a wine-pairing tool, matching lighter wines with paler varieties of tomato and more robust reds with their colour counterparts.

Tomatoes are best picked absolutely ripe, so if you have access to a farmers market selling freshly picked tomatoes, grow your own or are lucky enough to have a generous and green-thumbed friend, you’re getting tomatoes at their best and juiciest. “Some of the best tomatoes don’t actually make it out of the garden,” says Lowe.

Tomatoes intended for shipping to the food service industry — to be served on hamburgers, etc. — often are picked before they are ripe, when they are firmer and can stand up to the journey better, and are then ripened by exposure to ethylene, a naturally occurring gas. You can do the same thing at home by putting unripe tomatoes in a paper bag with bananas or apples, which emit ethylene gas.

Supermarket tomatoes come in for some pretty harsh criticism, though in recent years products have improved with many being grown hydroponically in huge greenhouses, allowing for a year-round supply.

“What you can buy at the supermarket now is probably superior to the choices that you had 15 to 20 years ago,” says Tim Hartz, co-operative extension specialist in the University of California, Davis, plant sciences department. “For the life of me I don’t understand all the consternation that some people have about the quality of the tomatoes at the supermarket.”

Winter tomatoes aren’t the best, he agrees, which is not so surprising since it’s the off-season. Even a greenhouse tomato, once out of the greenhouse, may be exposed to cold that will impinge on taste.

What about those “on the vine” tomatoes marketed as being superior to stem-less tomatoes?

That, says the USDA diplomatically, is a subjective decision that only the consumer can make. Physiologically, tomatoes with or without stems shouldn’t be different if they’re handled properly.

“It’s a presentation issue,” says Hartz.

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More online:

Kendall-Jackson festival: http://www.kj.com/events/tomato-festival/

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Stuffed Tomatoes

Start to finish: 35 minutes

4 large tomatoes

125 g (4 oz) loose sausage meat

30 ml (2 tbsp) butter

1 small yellow onion, diced

1 stalk celery, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

15 ml (1 tbsp) minced fresh rosemary

15 ml (1 tbsp) minced fresh oregano

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) torn stale bread

150 ml (2/3 cup) chicken broth

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

250 ml (1 cup) shredded mozzarella cheese

Heat oven to 200 C (400 F). Coat a 23-by-33-cm (9-by-13-inch) baking dish with cooking spray.

Slice top off each tomato, being careful to remove only enough to create a wide opening at the top of each. Use a spoon or melon baller to carefully scoop out innards of each tomato, much as you would a pumpkin. Arrange tomatoes in prepared baking dish. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, cook sausage until browned, about 5 minutes. Add butter, onion, celery and garlic, then cook until onion is soft and beginning to brown. Add rosemary, oregano and bread and cook for another 2 minutes.

Stir in broth and season with salt and black pepper. Scoop filling into hollowed-out tomatoes. Bake for 20 minutes or until tomatoes are softened and the top of the stuffing is toasted. Sprinkle with cheese and cook for another 5 minutes or until cheese is melted and starting to brown.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 240 calories; 110 calories from fat (46 per cent of total calories); 12 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 40 mg cholesterol; 19 g carbohydrate; 14 g protein; 3 g fibre; 650 mg sodium).

Source: Recipe by Alison Ladman.

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Grilled Tomato Tart

Start to finish: 45 minutes

30 ml (2 tbsp) sour cream

15 ml (1 tbsp) Dijon mustard

10 ml (2 tsp) white balsamic vinegar

2 ml (1/2 tsp) smoked paprika

1 ear corn, husk removed

15 ml (1 tbsp) vegetable or canola oil

1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed but cold

500 ml (2 cups) cherry tomatoes, halved

3 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

50 ml (1/4 cup) grated Parmesan cheese

2 scallions, sliced

Heat a grill to medium-low.

In a small bowl, whisk together sour cream, mustard, vinegar and paprika. Set aside.

Brush ear of corn with oil. Cook ear of corn on grill, turning occasionally, until lightly charred and speckled, about 5 minutes per side. Leave grill on. Let corn cool enough to handle, then cut kernels from it. To do this, stand ear on its wide end, then use a serrated knife to cut down length of it.

Unfold puff pastry. Using the back (dull) side of a knife (to mark without slicing), gently score pastry in a cross-hatch pattern all over the middle, leaving a 2.5-cm (1-inch) border unscored around edge. Place puff pastry on grill and close lid. Cook for 10 minutes or until bottom is nicely browned and top is puffed.

Scatter corn kernels over pastry, along with cherry tomato halves, bacon and Parmesan. Cook for another 6 minutes or until pastry is golden brown and tomatoes are softened.

Place tart on a serving platter and drizzle with sour cream and mustard mixture. Sprinkle with scallions.

Makes 6 starters.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 130 calories; 70 calories from fat (57 per cent of total calories); 8 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 9 g carbohydrate; 5 g protein; 1 g fibre; 270 mg sodium.

Source: Recipe by Alison Ladman.