The fruit that took over the world. No, it’s not a long-forgotten sci-fi thriller, or even some GMO experiment gone horribly wrong. It is, in fact, something you have likely eaten, in one form or another, within the past week. It’s the tomato.
I’m kind of envious of the world tour undertaken by this humble fruit (and yes, contrary to what you may have been lead to believe, the tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable). Originating in the Andes Mountains in South America, it soon became a domesticated crop that was, by 500 BC, being grown as a food source throughout the Mexican peninsula.
One of the early Spanish explorers — perhaps even the fabled Christopher Columbus — returned to Spain with the seeds of this fruit after a trip to the New World. Although initially suspicious of the fruit of any plant in the deadly nightshade family, Spaniards couldn’t resist the juicy, sweet tomato, likening it to an eggplant. Those same explorers were responsible for introducing tomatoes throughout the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean. Climates in countries like Italy were especially favorable for growing tomatoes, though the Italians in the 1500 and 1600s used them originally as ornamental fruits, believing that they were not edible. That changed, obviously, and thank goodness it did, or we may never have gotten the opportunity to experience pizza in its many forms and permutations.
Tomatoes continued to migrate — north to France and Great Britain, south and east through the Middle East and Africa, and, eventually, made their way back across the ocean…this time to North America.
So the next time you cut one of these beauties into a salad, make a batch of salsa, or serve a simple vegetable soup, think of all the places the tomato has been. And all the passport pages it must have gotten stamped. Now, that’s a trip I want to go on!
Speaking of trips, the Stout Sprouts and I have a simple recipe for baked tomatoes that could take you no further than your garden, or just the produce aisle of your local grocery or farmer’s market (can’t WAIT for Jersey tomatoes to come into season here). If you’re having a big barbecue this weekend — ’tis the season, after all — this is an easy side that is a great complement to steaks or baked chicken or a hearty rice dish and takes absolutely no time at all to make.
This side itself is vegetarian and is one of the few dishes in which we’ve been able to get both Daughter 1 and Daughter 2 (she’s the harder sell) to eat parsley, which is one of the few things coming up in the garden right now. You could also try either oregano or basil in this recipe if you prefer.
This is the kind of dish with which kids of all ages can help. Daughter 2 scooped out the seeds from the tomatoes using a small spoon and crushed the garlic cloves, Daughter 1 helped measure breadcrumbs, and both girls helped to mix together the breadcrumb/cheese/herb filling. And even more importantly, both girls ate their baked tomatoes.
Though I think of this as a supper dish, it would be great at lunch or even with breakfast, which is when I enjoyed our leftovers. Easy to reheat, and just as tasty.
If you’re ready to take a world tour without leaving home, give this recipe a try. Tomatoes have traveled a long way since they first appeared in Mesoamerica, and boy, am I glad they eventually made it to New Jersey!
5 medium ripe tomatoes (choose a variety that is somewhat firm and fleshy…save those delicate heirloom varieties for salads and other raw preparations)
One cup unseasoned breadcrumbs (homemade would be great — just process stale good-quality bread in the food processor, and dry in a 200 degree F oven for about 30 minutes)
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated cheddar/Monterey Jack cheese blend (or stick to just one of these cheeses)
1 garlic clove, finely minced or run through a garlic press
1 tablespoon finely-minced fresh parsley (or oregano, or basil, or a combination of herbs)
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter
Additional minced parsley for serving, optional
Place a baking rack in the middle-upper position in your oven. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Cut the tops off of the tomatoes and core them to remove any seeds and tomato liquid. Salt lightly and place the tomato cups, upside down, on a towel-lined plate to drain for 10 minutes.
Mix together the breadcrumbs, grated cheeses, garlic clove, parsley, and a pinch of Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste.
Blot any liquid off the tomatoes and stuff each one with some of the breadcrumb mixture, distributing it equally. Do not compact the breadcrumbs too much when you stuff them into the cavity of the tomatoes or they won’t bake properly.
Place the tomatoes into a small baking dish and dot the tops of each with the butter, 1/2 teaspoon per tomato.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the breadcrumbs on top are nicely toasted and the tomato is soft but not falling apart. Allow to cool slightly before serving, sprinkling with additional parsley if you wish.
Kid rating: four stars. Our Stout Sprouts cleaned their plates the night I made this. Daughter 2 is a huge cherry tomato fan, and I was a little concerned that she’d be upset about me baking tomatoes, vs. serving them raw. And while I think she still prefers her raw cherry tomatoes, she liked this version too.
Parent rating: four stars. Baked tomatoes have always been a comfort food for me, and this version with breadcrumbs and herbs is both easy and satisfying. If you can get fresh organic tomatoes and herbs, and use some good-quality breadcrumbs that you’ve toasted yourself, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic side dish. The garlic really amps up the flavor here and brings out the Mediterranean flavors that make this such a special dish.