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Tomatoes: Fruit or vegetable? The anytime-kind-of-food that can be prepared in multiple ways

By ALETHEA PRICE

The Kitchen Agent

How many dishes can you list with tomato or tomato products in them? Soups, stews and sauces barely scrape the surface of options available. This vegetable is so versatile it is used in many cultural dishes and can be served with any meal. Summertime affords us plenty of this delicious vegetable for any recipe you can come up with.

Since tomatoes are technically a fruit, you can eat them at breakfast. We typically use them as a vegetable, so you can eat them at lunch or dinner. Because we are in Kentucky, and it’s summer, tomatoes are really an anytime-kind-of-food.

Selection, preserving and storing 

When making your selection, choose plump tomatoes with smooth skins that are free from bruises, cracks, or blemishes. Depending on the variety, ripe tomatoes should be completely red or reddish-orange. Heirloom tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes and colors. They can also have cracks in them but those are just common characteristics of that type of tomato. Cold temperatures damage tomatoes, so never buy tomatoes that are stored in a cold area. Tomatoes are best if stored at room temperature.

Tomatoes can be preserved by freezing, canning, and drying. Before using any of these methods of preservation, be sure to wash, blanch and peel the tomato before packaging or processing. Always use good quality products and research based recipes for preserving. Dehydrating is a common way to preserve tomatoes and concentrate their flavor. Dried tomato peel can be crushed and added to soups, stews and sauces to give a hearty tomato flavor. I recommend using a food dehydrator for drying tomatoes because it is more energy efficient. Oven and microwave drying are options that take much more energy because they aren’t made for that type of process.

In Kentucky, it isn’t recommended to dry tomatoes, or any food, outside due to the high humidity levels here. It also isn’t a safe practice because animals can contaminate the product.

The purpose of dehydrating is to remove the moisture from the food product. If there isn’t proper ventilation to remove the moisture from the air surrounding the product, the product will not dehydrate. You can find food dehydrators at most stores, check in the camping section.

Getting them into your diet

Introducing vegetables into your daily diet can sometimes be a struggle. Some vegetables may not have much appeal. Maybe the flavor is too intense, or maybe the texture is off. You can always find an excuse to avoid a food you don’t like, but you shouldn’t.

For me, tomatoes were and still are my least favorite vegetable. But I didn’t let it stop me from giving tomatoes the good’ole college try. I’ve found that I like tomatoes cooked in things instead of raw. After a year of open-minded attempts to eat raw tomatoes, I can safely say that I like raw tomatoes in some things. Sometimes, you just have to take some time to figure out how to make a veggie work for you.

Locally, tomatoes are in season from July to September. They may be available more months out of the year if they’re grown in high tunnels or green houses. This sometimes sweet and juicy fruit, yes fruit, is a staple in our food culture.

Cooking the fruit-veggies

A tomato is another one of those vegetables that can be considered a fruit because the seeds grow on the inside. Clearly there’s something about tomatoes worth giving a chance. For starters, they are high in an antioxidant called lycopene that can help prevent chronic disease. That should be reason enough for anyone to try tomatoes.

Cooking methods can make or break your opinion of a new food. Fortunately, tomatoes can be prepared in such a wide variety of ways you’re sure to find one that works best for you. Lycopene is more concentrated in cooked tomatoes, so let’s start there.

Try roasting cherry or roma tomatoes after tossing them in a little olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper. Add grape tomatoes to skewers on the grill with other vegetables you enjoy. Marinate them with some garlic and balsamic vinegar for a tangy twist. Use tomatoes in sauces, soups, and stews for great flavor.

Tomatoes can be served more ways than just sliced on top of a salad. You might be surprised at some of the ways you can enjoy tomatoes. Personally, I like my tomatoes cooked and paired with other things.

If you have questions or comments about the column, or if you’d like more information feel free to contact me by email at a.price@uky.edu.