For two decades now there has been controversy surround the government labeling tomato paste as a vegetable so that it will pass for one on kid's plates in school lunch programs. While I am not one who believes that tomato paste should be labeled a vegetable, a big serving of good quality tomato sauce should probably qualify. Tomatoes are great for you - and what's even more interesting, they appear to be as good for you when they're cooked as when they're raw.
Technically, tomatoes are fruits. OK, it's a small point but, either way, you should eat more tomatoes. Tomatoes are full of flavor, low in calories, have a fair amount of fiber and are chock full of vitamins and antioxidants. One of those antioxidants, lycopene, has been linked to lowering the risk of prostate cancer and having a beneficial effect on LDL cholesterol. Tomatoes are one of the best sources of lycopenes and cooking them actually helps release the antioxidant. A medium raw tomato has about 3.5 milligrams of lycopene, while tomato sauce has almost 20 milligrams in a half a cup and tomato soup about 25 milligrams in a cup.
Buying tomatoes at the supermarket can be a daunting task. The quality is often poor because most are picked green and ripened in big rooms using ethylene gas. The result is a tomato that is too firm with a mealy texture.
Most of those tomatoes have been bred for their hardiness as well as uniform size. Hybrids such as the Heinz 2401, Shasta and Hypeel are also bred to be resistant to insects and other pathogens. Unfortunately, much of the flavor and texture of a great homegrown tomato is bred out in the process. You can, however, make some better choices at the market. While your best bet is growing your own or purchasing from a farmer's market, when you do buy at the grocery look for tomatoes that are fully ripe and feel heavy in the hand.
Plum Tomatoes are sometimes called paste tomatoes. These are slightly elongated, oval tomatoes and are very common year 'round in most markets. Chosen carefully, they are a good all-purpose tomato for salads or cooking.
Plum tomatoes were traditionally bred for sauce and canning purposes. Because they generally have only two seed compartments, there is a higher ratio of solid to liquid, making them excellent for cooking in sauces. Really fresh ones are great in salads, however, because of the fewer seeds.
Growers like them because they travel longer distances better than larger tomatoes. As a result the texture can be slightly mealy. Since they are so hardy you may find them to be fresher tasting during the off season when other tomatoes are simply not edible. They are often labeled in the grocery as Roma Tomatoes, as this is the most common variety (although they might actually be another plum tomato variety, the San Marzano).
Interestingly, the lovely, sweet, succulent grape tomato is actually a small version of the plum tomato. These are often about the same price per pound and make a great choice for sauces, especially in the dead of winter when other tomatoes are just too sad looking to take home.
The round tomato that is most common is usually referred to as the slicing or globe tomato by grocers. There are a wide variety and you'll have to choose carefully in the store. As most are not fully ripe, it's best to plan ahead.
Your grocer thinks of the ripening process as starting with green and then moving to the breaker stage (less than 10% red across the surface). They then advance through turning (10% - 30%), pink (30% +), light red (60% - 90%) and finally red stage(red color over 90% of the surface). Most of what you will find in the grocery is at the light red stage.
Big beefsteak or big boy tomatoes are a couple of my favorites. You're not likely to see these at the supermarket but at farmer's markets or roadside stands. Larger -- up to 3 or 4 inches in diameter -- they make the perfect sandwich tomato.
Cherry tomatoes are usually about an inch in diameter but can be as large as a golf ball. They are a variety of round tomato in their own right and not simply tomatoes picked younger. I like them because, like grape tomatoes, they often have a bright tomato flavor year round and are seldom mealy. They are now cultivated in both red and yellow varieties.
Heirloom Tomatoes have become very popular. These are grown from heirloom or antique seeds and were originally only available at local farmers markets and specialty grocers. Now grown in larger quantities, they are usually superior because the strains are chosen for flavor and not hardiness.
Most growers of heirloom tomatoes are invested in creating a quality product. You won't often find them in regular grocery stores since they generally move directly from grower to market (and are not gassed as most other tomatoes are).
Canned tomatoes are a fantastic product because it means that fairly good tomatoes are available to you year round, for sauces, stews, chilies and such. Experiment with different brands to find a quality product that you like. My favorite brand is Muir Glen Organic tomatoes. They are consistently bright red and flavorful. You can buy whole peeled or not peeled or crushed, etc.. A 15 ounce can of tomatoes is about 1 1/2 cups of chopped tomatoes.
I do prefer to peel my tomatoes when making sauces with fresh tomatoes. The easiest way to peel a tomato is to blanch them. Place about 2 quarts of water in a medium stock-pot and heating it to a slow simmer. When the water is hot, put tomatoes in at about 15 second intervals. Let the tomatoes rest in the water for about one minute each and then transfer to a pot of cold water. After chilling for about a minute, place them on a towel to dry. The skins will peel off easily.
There are a lot of scientific claims that tomatoes do everything from reducing the risk of blood clots, helping cholesterol, fighting cancer and helping reduce high blood pressure. It is one of the most studied of our vegetables (er, fruits). The bottom line is that tomatoes taste great and should be a big part of your diet.
1 medium (4 ounce) tomato = 26 calories, 0.4g fat, <1g sat fat, <1g mono fat, 1g protein, 6g carbohydrates, 11mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol