To really figure out if a tomato is a fruit or vegetable, you need to know what makes a fruit a fruit and a vegetable a vegetable. The big question to ask is, does it have seeds? If the answer is yes, then technically (botanically) you have a fruit. This, of course, makes the tomato a fruit. Now don’t go looking for tomatoes next to the oranges in your grocery stores! Fruits like tomatoes are usually (alas, incorrectly) referred to as vegetables in most grocery stores and cookbooks. Most of us use the tomato as we do vegetables, primarily in savory dishes.
What health benefits do tomatoes give? In November 1998, a press release from the Heinz Institute of Nutritional Sciences touted the benefits of lycopene, a dietary carotenoid found in high concentrations in processed tomato products. Lycopene is an antioxidant, which purportedly fights the free radicals that can interfere with normal cell growth and activity. These free radicals can potentially lead to cancer, heart disease and premature aging. Tomatoes are also high in vitamin C (concentrated the most in the juice sacs surrounding the seeds) and contain goodly amounts of potassium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin A and vitamin B.
Unfortunately, the tomato is included in the list of the top ten foods to which most people are allergic. In the United States today, tomatoes are second in consumption only to potatoes.
There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes in an array of shapes, colors and sizes. The most common shapes are round (Beefsteak and Globe), pear-shaped (Roma) and the tiny cherry-sized (Cherry and Grape). Yellow varieties tend to be less acidic and thus less flavorful than their red counterparts.
When selecting tomatoes at the market, use your nose. Smell the blossom (not stem) end. The most flavorful ones will have a rich tomato aroma. Select tomatoes that are round, full and feel heavy for their size, with no bruises or blemishes. The skin should be taut and not shriveled. Store fresh ripe tomatoes in a cool, dark place, stem-side down, and use within a few days.
Refrigeration is the enemy of the tomato as it nullifies flavor and turns the flesh mealy.
When wintering your garden, you can salvage some of those tomatoes that haven’t yet ripened by wrapping them in newspaper and storing in a cool area between 55 and 70 degrees F for two to four weeks. Store them no more than two deep and check them often to use the ones that have begun to ripen. Don’t expect them to be as good as ones you’ve ripened on the vine, but they will probably still be better than store-bought.