33fbb0d8543144cbec820073a1293006-2As winter gives way to spring, the local nurseries carry a big selec-tion of tomato seedlings. It is the perfect time to plant tomatoes and enjoy a bountiful harvest in the hot summer months.

I vividly remember, last year my local nursery had a big sale and I enthusiastically purchased a dozen tomato seedlings. Thanks to California’s sunny weather and fertile soil, and the tender loving care I bestowed on my tomato plants, I had a unique problem on hand. Tomatoes, tomatoes everywhere! In the hot sunny months I harvested about 20-25 vine-ripened tomatoes every day. The important gardening lesson I learned last year was never to go overboard with tomato planting. Even one healthy plant produces enough tomatoes for the needs of a family. Unless you love to can food or have a gigantic refrigerator to freeze tomatoes, it is best to grow just enough for your consumption.

Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of vitamin A. Most of the vitamin C is in the jelly-like material that clings to the seeds. Plus, tomatoes are full of lycopene, a potent antioxidant. Tomato sauces, soups, and juices can contain five times more lycopene than raw tomatoes because cooking makes it easier for your body to absorb this nutrient. Cook tomatoes with a little fat, like olive oil, to boost absorption.

The year 1893 was a turning point in the history of the tomato. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court had the difficult task of classifying tomato as a fruit or a vegetable. A tomato importer claimed that tomato was a fruit, and thus duty-free, and a U.S. Customs agent at the port of New York considered it as a vegetable, and hence subject to tariff. The Supreme Court Associate Justice Gray wrote the opinion, “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people … all these are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and … are usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats … and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

Thus, after that, tomato has always been considered a vegetable, not a fruit.

Botanically speaking, tomato is a fruit. Generally, a fruit is the edible part of the plant that contains the seeds, while vegetables are edible stems, leaves, or roots of plants.

Usually, fresh tomatoes sold in supermarkets are firm, but not ripe. This is because soft, ripe fruit is easily bruised, even under today’s advanced shipping conditions. A tomato ripens properly and develops good flavor and aroma if kept at room temperature, between 55-75 degrees F.

To maintain their delicate flavor, do not refrigerate tomatoes. Cold temperatures cause tomatoes to lose their flavor and change in texture. Store them at room temperature, just like bananas.

Amazingly versatile, tomatoes can be enjoyed stuffed, baked, stewed, or grilled in dishes from soups and salads to salsas and omelets. They add unrivaled flavor, color, and texture to dals, vegetables, and raita. Sandwiches, hamburgers, and pasta dishes are incomplete without them.

Here are some interesting ways to enjoy tomatoes.

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TOMATO CHUTNEY

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
10-12 curry leaves
5-6 garlic cloves
2-3 dried red chilies
1-2 green chilies
2 onions
6 tomatoes
½ teaspoon tamarind paste
salt to taste

Heat oil in a pan. Add mustard seeds and wait till they splutter. Add curry leaves, garlic cloves, and red and green chilies. Stir for 1-2 minutes. Then add onions and tomatoes, tamarind paste, and salt. Cook on low heat for 8-10 minutes.

Hema’s Hints:

1. Add 2-3 baked cubed potatoes to a cup of tomato chutney to make a quick stir-fry vegetable.

2. Add a tablespoon of this chutney to any pasta or stew to add zing to the recipe.

Here is a recipe, which goes well with any Western meal.

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GRILLED TOMATOES

4 medium-size tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese to garnish

Chop tomatoes into halves. Lay them on a baking tray. Mix garam masala into the olive oil, and brush it on the chopped tomatoes. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese and broil for 10 minutes in the oven.

Serve piping hot with garlic bread.

Hema’s Gardening Hints: If you plan to plant tomatoes, (the season to plant tomatoes is April-May) here are some helpful hints for getting a good yield from your tomato plant. When you purchase the tomato seedling from the nursery, remove the leaves from the lower half of the plant.

Dig a hole three times bigger than the container in which you purchased the tomato plants. Remove the tomato plant from the container and place half the plant (from which the leaves have been scraped off) beneath the soil. Cover the hole with organic compost and make a big basin around it.

Water daily for first two weeks. After the plant is established, ease the watering to twice a week.

Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of a television show “Indian Vegetarian Gourmet.”

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