By Mike Pound
WEBB CITY, Mo. —
Talk to a tomato lover about the number of culinary options surrounding the red fruit (yes, a tomato is a fruit) and you might experience a brief “Forrest Gump” flashback.
“Well, you have your tomato and cucumber salad, there are stuffed tomatoes, sliced tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, tomato pies, tomato soups, tomato sauce and tomato juice. There are salsas and sliced tomatoes on cheeseburgers, there are tomatoes on pizza and tomatoes in spaghetti and chili and ...”
Well, you get the picture.
And as it is with almost all produce, the best time to really enjoy tomatoes are when they are available fresh from the field; and in these parts, now is the time to stock up on tomatoes.
Farmers markets around the area have been overflowing with fresh tomatoes for several weeks now and -- weather permitting -- the trend should continue for several more weeks. Technically, fresh tomatoes have been available at most markets for most of the spring, thanks to the newfound popularity of the “high tunnel” growing method, which allows growers to raise tomatoes in colder weather. But with the warmer weather, the more traditional vine-grown tomatoes are now coming into their own.
Like most of the produce harvested locally this season, tomatoes have been coming in ahead of schedule because of the mild winter. Eileen Nichols, director of the Webb City Farmers Market, said the market will hold its annual tomato contest on Saturday. Contestants need to enter their tomatoes between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. and the winning entries will be announced at 10:30 a.m.
While this has been a productive tomato season so far, Nichols cautioned that the current hot, dry weather could lead to a shorter growing season. So it may be wise to -- almost quite literally -- get your fresh tomatoes while they are hot.
The fact that tomatoes are quite tasty, of course, is the main reason for their popularity, but what can sometimes be overlooked are the health benefits associated with them. Andrea McGrew, clinical nutrition manager for Freeman Health Systems, says that tomatoes are one of the healthiest fruits around.
“They contain lycopene, which is an antioxidant that helps prevent cancer,” McGrew said.
The bright red color of most tomatoes has long been associated with high lycopene content, which has shown to be particularly effective in helping to prevent prostate cancer in men as well as protecting against lung and stomach cancers, she said.
Unlike many fruits and vegetables, cooking tomatoes does not weaken their health benefits. In fact, when it comes to lycopene, cooking tomatoes actually increases their effectiveness by breaking down its cell walls, McGrew said.
However, there are many health benefits to be derived from fresh tomatoes, such high levels of vitamin A and vitamin C. Fresh tomatoes are also high in potassium, iron and phosphorus.
Fresh tomatoes are also available at the Freeman Hospital Farmers Market. The market is open from 7 to 11 a.m. (or until the produce is gone) every Wednesday through October at Freeman Hospital West, 1102 W. 32nd St., and from 7 to 11 a.m. every Thursday through October at Freeman Hospital East, 932 E. 34th St.. There is also a farmers market at Freeman Hospital in Neosho, 113 W. Hickory St. The Neosho market is open every Thursday through September from 8 a.m. until noon.
Oh, and about that whole “is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable” question, McGrew comes down firmly on the fruit side.
“They are fruits because they have seeds,” she said.
Fresh tomato pie
1 (9-inch) pie shell
7 ripe tomatoes, sliced
1 yellow onion
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Ground black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons fresh basil
2 teaspoons fresh oregano
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the pastry shell for 8 to 10 minutes or until browned. Slice onion and place in the bottom of pastry shell. Slice tomatoes and arrange over onions. Add black pepper to taste. In a medium bowl, combine mozzarella, Parmesan cheese and mayonnaise. Spread this mixture evenly over tomatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Once cooked, garnish with fresh herbs.
2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cut into bite-size pieces
1 tablespoon chili powder, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 jalape–o peppers, seeded and minced
1 large tomato, cut into chunks
10 drops hot pepper sauce
Season chicken with 1/2 tablespoon chili powder, salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and sautŽ seasoned chicken for 3 to 4 minutes, or until no longer pink. Remove from skillet with a slotted spoon and keep warm. In same skillet, stir fry bell pepper and onion until soft. Add jalape–o peppers, tomatoes, remaining 1/2 tablespoon chili powder and hot pepper sauce. Cook, stirring, for an additional 3 to 5 minutes; add chicken and stir fry for 2 minutes more.
1 pound lean ground beef
1 (1.25-ounce) package taco seasoning mix
1 (16-ounce) can chili beans
1 (16-ounce) bottle French dressing
1 head iceberg lettuce
1 (14.5-ounce) package tortilla chips
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup chopped tomatoes
4 tablespoons sour cream
1/2 cup prepared salsa
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the ground beef and drain excess fat. Stir in the taco seasoning, chili beans and French-style dressing. Fill the dressing bottle 2/3 full of water and add to the skillet. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Crush the bag of chips, open the bag, and toss the broken chips into a large bowl with the lettuce, cheese and tomatoes. When the meat mixture is done, combine it with the lettuce, tomatoes, chips and mix well. Then, add salsa and sour cream.