Let’s make one thing clear. A tomato, despite its uses, is botanically a fruit — specifically an ovary, together with its seeds, of a flowering plant.
However, a tomato has far less sugar than any other fruit, making it less suitable for all those tasty usages to which fruit is put. Yes, there are green tomato pies, but would you ever dollop chopped tomato over vanilla ice cream?
Still, tomato — or “tomahto,” if you prefer the British pronunciation — is one of the botanical and culinary joys of late summer. Our garden is ready to burst with this year’s heirloom varieties, and we can’t wait to get them on our plates.
We’re waiting patiently for our Big Rainbow heirloom beefsteak variety, its yellow flesh mottled with red, to be sliced and served drizzled with olive oil and fresh basil as a succulent appetizer. Our Lemon Boys will be quartered and chunked into salads, adding their delightful flavor and colorful contrast to succulent Bibb lettuce and peppery arugula.
As to the remaining heirloom cultivars — Chocolate Cherry, Cherokee Purple and Black Krim — their colors and flavor variations will also delight us. Our garden also is home to cantaloupe, cucumber, eggplant, and both black and pimento peppers; but it’s clear that our rubyfruit jungle of tomato varieties will always be the anchor tenant.
Tomatoes, like potatoes, originated in South America’s Andes Mountains. The plant takes its name from the Nahuatl word tomatotl, and records show that by 500 B.C. tomatoes were being cultivated in Mexico.
Although European colonists first thought tomatoes, a member of the deadly nightshade family, to be poisonous, conquistador Hernán Cortés was recorded to have taken some small yellow tomatoes to Europe in 1521. There is also evidence that Christopher Columbus may have introduced tomatoes to Spain as early as 1499.
Tomatoes are considered among the world’s healthiest foods. They’re an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene, vitamins C and K, and a host of minerals and other nutrients.
Our dish of sliced Big Rainbow tomatoes is, in fact, one of the healthier serving options, because olive oil helps increase the body’s absorbance of lycopene, a naturally occurring compound that has been linked to a reduced risk for cancer, heart disease and age-related eye disorders. Add a little oregano, some buffalo mozzarella cheese and dashes of pepper and sea salt and you have an insalata Caprese, one of the most popular summer salads.
Tomatoes offer nutrition and flavor without a lot of calories: A cup of chopped raw tomatoes contains only 32.
Tomatoes are delightful both raw and cooked. Here are several tasty ways to use your summer harvest.
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Watermelon-peach salsa and tomatoes
If you like your summer dishes sweet and hot and your tomatoes raw, this salsa may be just the thing to get your taste buds tingling. You’ll need:
½ cup hot pepper jelly
1 tbsp. lime zest
¼ cup fresh lime juice
2 cups seeded and diced fresh watermelon
1 cup peeled and diced fresh peaches
1 cup chopped fresh basil
¼ cup chopped fresh chives
3 cups baby heirloom tomatoes, halved
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Garnish: fresh basil sprigs
Whisk together pepper jelly, lime zest and lime juice in a bowl, then stir in watermelon, peaches, basil and chives. Season halved baby tomatoes with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and spoon into cocktail glasses. Top with salsa and garnish with basil sprigs.
Grilled tomatoes with basil vinaigrette
Many foods are grillable, but few fare as well as tomatoes. Here’s how to make the most of those lovely little orbs over red-hot coals. You’ll need:
3 yellow tomatoes
3 red tomatoes
3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper
2 tsps. white balsamic vinegar
2 tbsps. chopped fresh basil
Garnish: fresh basil sprigs
Cut tomatoes in half and thread onto skewers, alternating colors. Brush with 1 tablespoon oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill over medium heat (300 degrees to 350 degrees) for 10 minutes, turning skewers often. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons oil, vinegar and basil and drizzle over kabobs. Garnish, if desired.
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Michael Muckian is an award-winning Madison-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in multiple local, national and international publications. In addition to business and finance topics, he also writes about food, wine, travel, theater, music and visual arts.