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You Say Tomato

Jul
9
2007

Last week I mentioned that my first BLT of the year is what I regard as the true arrival of summer. At this time of year I eat at least one, and sometimes two or three tomatoes a day. I make a variation of the Italian insalata caprese using feta instead of mozzarella. This Greek take on the Italian specialty is my most-common lunch during the summer. Then there’s that wonderful Southern treat, fried green tomatoes.
Click to view larger versionI dip slices of green tomato in buttermilk, dredge them in seasoned cornmeal, and pan-fry to a golden brown. They’re crisp on the outside, and silky on the inside. You may know that tomatoes are botanically a fruit, not a vegetable, but the flavor of fried green tomatoes makes it obvious that tomotoes are a fruit. The nature of their sweetness and acidity is closer to a green apple than a green bean. Gazpacho, the tomato-based cold soup, is another must-make summer dish. I also like to broil tomatoes topped with shredded Parmigiano Reggiano — a supremely easy and mouth-watering preparation.
One reason these tomatoes are so mouth-watering is the presence of monosodium glutamate. Yes, that roundly derided Chinese-restaurant additive known as MSG occurs naturally in both tomatoes and parmesan cheese (as well as beef, oysters and a lot of other foods), so parmesan-broiled tomatoes pack a double wallop.
From the 19th century we knew our tongues had receptors (taste buds) particularly sensitive to sweet, salty, bitter and sour. These are the basic tastes. But research begun by a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, found we have a fifth set of taste buds. These receptors detect something Ikeda named umami — think of it as “savory.” The interesting thing is that we’ve evolved taste buds for only five types of chemicals and glutamate is one of them. It must be important.


“How to Pick
a Peach”

Traditionally, the pulp and seeds are removed from tomatoes when cooking with them; the conventional wisdom was that this part of the fruit was tasteless. But Heston Blumenthal, a noted London chef, noticed that this pulp was far from tasteless and, because he has long been involved in exploring the chemistry behind food, he asked Donald Mottram of the University of Reading to run some tests. It turns out that the seeds contain as much as eight times more umami than the flesh. It also turns out that vine-ripened tomatoes have more MSG than force-ripened tomatoes — no wonder local tomatoes are so much better tasting.
In other tomato research, a ten-year study conducted by Dr Alyson Mitchell at the University of California, Davis, has found that organically-grown tomatoes have higher levels of flavonoids than conventionally grown tomatoes. Flavanoids are anti-oxidants that are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Although the evidence appears clear that organic tomatoes do contain greater amounts of flavonoids, it’s still unclear that flavonoids (also found in chocolate and wine, by the way) actually do reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. In fact, it’s still unclear that organic vegetables offer any health benefits, although eating them certainly can’t hurt.
Irrespective of any health claims, even the proven ones, about tomatoes, they are one of the great flavors. Were there a pantheon of flavors, just-picked tomatoes would enjoy godhead. Me? I’m just enjoying what Russ Parsons, author of How to Pick a Peach, calls a “delicate and temperamental” fruit at the only time of the year that fruit can be truly enjoyed. And if I’m healthier as a result, I’m willing to pay that price.
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