INGREDIENT OF THE MONTH - Tomatoes

History

Originating in South America, tomatoes were first cultivated as early as 500BC, but the fruits weren’t brought to Europe until the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés first discovered them in what’s now known as Mexico City in 1521. Though now synonymous with Italian cuisine, they were used only ornamentally there until the early eighteenth century. However, their ability to grow in temperate climates means there were soon hundreds of varieties being produced and eaten all over Europe. Tomatoes finally arrived in Britain in 1590, when the surgeon John Gerard first started growing them. There are now over 7500 varieties that are eaten all over the world.

Biology

As a member of the nightshade family, tomatoes count aubergines, courgettes, peppers, cayenne and paprika as their relatives. The fruits will grow easily in warm climates but in colder weather a non-heated greenhouse would have the same effect. Tomatoes contain extremely high levels of lycopene, one of the world’s most powerful antioxidants, which is said to protect against sunburn, help to keep skin youthful and lower cholesterol. Technically classed as a berry, there are thousands of varieties of the fruit, from the tiny tomberry, just 1cm in diameter, to the larger plum and beef varieties. Although they’re commonly red, other varieties can be yellow, orange, green, purple, black and even striped.

Buying & storing

As the flavour and texture of tomatoes will vary widely based on region, choose authentic varieties such as the prized Italian San Marzano, Kent sunburst or Isle of Wight. Buying towards the end of the summer means they’ve had plenty of time to ripen, and should feel heavy for their size to ensure maximum juiciness! Of course, the tinned and sun-dried versions are an essential store cupboard staple. Store fresh tomatoes in a sunny spot to allow their flavour to intensify, and keep them out of the fridge – it can affect their flavour and texture. If you’re lucky enough to have a glut, cook in a very low oven with a little seasoning then store in a jar of olive oil for up to a year.

Uses

Perhaps because they’re enjoyed all over the world, the uses for this juicy fruit are endless. They have a freshness and acidity that goes brilliantly with chilli, so try finely dicing and adding to a fiery salsa or guacamole. Their natural sweetness is released when they’re roasted with a little garlic, thyme and oregano – gorgeous with scrambled eggs. Of course, they’ll form the base of many a classic sauce – soak beef tomatoes in boiling water for a few minutes to easily remove their skins first, then add these to sliced garlic with a glug of red wine and a little sugar for a velvety tomato sauce. Just don’t forget to throw in a handful of their classic bedfellow, some fresh basil – its subtle fragrance is the perfect foil for the tomato’s acid-sweetness. They’re great simply eaten raw in salads, and are essential for a classic Bloody Mary – the possibilities are endless!

WHAT'S GOOD AT THE MOMENT?

There are ripe treats aplenty at this time of year

Plums

Late summer eating wouldn’t be complete without the humble plum. There are lots of varieties, from the tart greengage to the juicy Victoria and deep purple Damson. Whatever your favourite, they’re wonderful when cooked to release vibrant purple juices. They work brilliantly in crumbles and tarts, especially when paired with warming spices like cinnamon, star anise and nutmeg. Damsons are brilliant when steeped in gin with sugar and left to transform into the most amazing liqueur (if you can wait until Christmas). Plums also work really well for jams and chutneys – try them combined with grated apple and chilli for a spicy version that’s great with cold meats.

Figs

There’s nothing quite like the juicy, crunchy sweetness of a fig. Originating in the Middle East, the teardrop shaped fruits are packed full of antioxidants, calcium and fibre (your granny was right when she said they’d keep you regular!). Their high sugar content means figs will compliment salty blue cheeses or prosciutto. Add a few walnuts, a handful of rocket and a drizzle of honeyed dressing and you’ve got a near perfect salad. Dessert wise, they’ll work brilliantly with Middle Eastern flavours – try baking with honey then adding a scattering of pistachios and mascarpone. Figs will hold their distinctive shape really well when cooked, so work in a sweet or savoury tart. Ripening in mid to late August, don’t miss these heady late summer treats.


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