Your guide to terrific tomatoes

In Medieval Britain, squashy rotting tomatoes were a favourite missile for hurling at miscreants held in the pillories or stocks on village greens. This gives some indication of how long ago European explorers found the tomato (later named Lycopersicon esculentum by scientists) in South America and discovered how readily it would grow in other climates and locations. Today, as it has been for many centuries, the tomato is cultivated all over the world for its multifarious red, yellow or purple and apple-large, cherry-small, plum-shaped or spherical fruits.

Antioxidant lycopene

Scientists have long wondered why the rates of many forms of cancer are relatively low in Mediterranean countries, given that alcohol consumption (particularly wine, grappa, cognac and raki) and smoking tend to be high in these regions. The answer, according to a study recently published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that looked closely at 72 past studies, seems to lie in the consumption of tomatoes.

The tomato, like pink grapefruit and watermelon, contains high levels of lycopene, a carotenoid and close chemical relative of the better-known beta-carotene. It works in the body as an exceptionally powerful antioxidant. Evidence is building that lycopene may help protect against prostate, lung and stomach cancers. There also seems to be a link between a tomato-rich diet and low incidence of pancreatic, colorectal, oesophageal, oral, breast and cervical cancers.

Some doctors also believe lycopene can help prevent heart disease. Cholesterol is dangerous as a potential artery clogger only when it is oxidised (that is, damaged) by free radical molecules, and lycopene has been shown to protect cholesterol from oxidation.

Tomato source

Reaping the health benefits of tomatoes isn’t just a matter of eating a lot more of them, because the form in which they are consumed makes a difference. Although raw tomatoes and juice are a fine way of obtaining vitamin C, the body does not absorb much lycopene from tomatoes in their natural state. This is because lycopene is lipid soluble, which means it dissolves better in oil than in water. Therefore, tomato soups, baked beans, bottled sauces, commercial purees and anything else that contains cooked tomatoes and some oil (for example, Mediterranean-style olive oil-based tomato sauces) are likely to be a valuable health food. (Remember to keep an eye on the sugar and salt content of some of these products.)

What if you don’t want to resort to convenience foods but prefer to make your own tomato dishes? When you assemble a simple tomato salad (sliced tomatoes, a few crushed basil leaves, a tiny pinch of salt and a drizzle of honey with a splash of balsamic vinegar), add a dash of your favourite oil as well.

When preparing tomatoes for a casserole or other dish (and a tin often works well for this and is fine in terms of lycopene), always pre-cook the tomatoes in a little oil. If you are working with fresh (preferably organic) tomatoes, you usually need to skin them, as stringy skin isn’t very appealing in cooked dishes. Do this either by immersing the tomato in a cup of boiling water for a few seconds or by holding it, impaled on a fork, briefly in a gas flame. The skin will then slide off.


Don’t forget sundried tomatoes (which you can buy in packets and then soak), a tasty source of extra lycopene, flavour and interest in dishes. Treat yourself to some fried tomatoes occasionally, but note that the calorie content is increased five-fold, so don’t prepare them this way too often.

Tomatoes taste better if they are fresh from the plant, so ideally you could grow your own. The new-ish patio varieties, which you can cultivate as trailing plants in pots, are very easy. Beyond watering, they require almost no attention. Failing that, look out in shops for tomatoes, often organically grown, still attached to their stalks. It’s worth the extra cost for the flavour.

The accompanying tomato recipes are adapted from various cuisines around the world and will serve two to four people.

Susan Elkin can be contacted by email:

Tomato curry


25ml olive oil
3 onions, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
12-15 large tomatoes, whole but skinned (or 2 x 400g tins)
chopped flesh of half a coconut
20g garam masala
handful of chopped coriander leaves
3cm stick of cinnamon
2cm piece green ginger
10g cardamom seeds
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Heat the oil in a saucepan. Cook the onion and garlic until golden. Add the tomatoes and coconut. Cook for a few minutes. Add all remaining ingredients and stir well. Cover and leave to simmer over gentle heat for about 10 minutes. Serve with rice, plain yoghurt and mango chutney.

Tomato soup (chilled)


4 tbsp olive oil
8 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tbsp dry oregano, crushed
2 tbsp sea salt
4 large ripe tomatoes
½ white onion
2-4 tbsp white vinegar
800ml water
2 large crusty bread rolls


Crush the oil and garlic together so the oil becomes infused. Add the oregano and salt. Peel some of the skin from the tomatoes, remove the seeds and cores and chop them coarsely. Add to the bowl. Peel and slice the onion into fine half-moons and add. Sprinkle over the vinegar and water and stir well. Five minutes before serving, stir through the coarsely chopped bread rolls. Toss in some ice cubes to chill further if necessary.


Tomato soup (hot)


2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
1 medium leek, sliced, washed and drained
1 small parsnip, peeled and sliced
½ cup barley, soaked in 4 cups cold water overnight
2 cups vegetable stock
2 tsp sea salt
6 large ripe tomatoes, diced
zest 2 lemons
¼ bunch parsley, chopped roughly
black pepper to taste


Heat a pot, add the oil and saute the onions until soft and browning. Add the garlic, leeks and parsnips, stir and cook for 15 minutes over a medium heat. Stir in the tomatoes, barley, stock and salt; bring to a simmer and cook gently for 1 hour. Add the pepper, lemon zest and chopped parsley, then serve hot.

Tomates farcies (stuffed tomato shells)


8 very large tomatoes
sea salt
200g soft wholewheat breadcrumbs
50g chopped nuts, lightly toasted
50g chopped fresh parsley
10g dried mixed herbs
1 clove garlic, crushed
50g olive oil
freshly ground black pepper


Set the oven to 190º Celsius (375º F) and oil an ovenproof dish. Slice the tops off the tomatoes and retain. Scoop out the insides carefully with a spoon or sharp knife, retaining the pulp. Arrange the empty tomato shells in the ovenproof dish. Sprinkle the inside of the each shell with a little salt. Mix together the breadcrumbs, nuts, parsley, mixed herbs, most of the garlic and most of the olive oil. Pile the stuffing into the shells with a teaspoon. Blend together the sliced tomato tops and pulp with the remaining garlic and a little oil. Spoon this into the dish around the stuffed tomatoes. Bake for about 20 minutes. Serve with rice and a cooked green vegetable (such as leek or spinach).

Tomato and mozzarella salad


25g olive oil
15g wine vinegar
200g mozzarella, cut into 2cm cubes
10 large (or 15 small) tomatoes, quartered or halved
half clove garlic, crushed
10g dried oregano
drizzle of liquid honey
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper


To make the dressing, shake the oil and vinegar together in a jar. Mix the mozzarella cubes, tomatoes and garlic in a serving dish and add the oregano, honey, sea salt and pepper. Mix well and pour the dressing over the top. This dish is best made several hours in advance and kept refrigerated. Given time, the tomatoes make more liquid and it all blends deliciously. Serve with boiled new potatoes and a green salad.


Tomato and eggplant pasta sauce


30ml olive oil
1 eggplant, cut into 2cm cubes
40ml red wine (or vegetable stock)
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 x 400g tins of tomatoes
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
handful of fresh marjoram (or large pinch of dried)
30g double cream (or fromage frais)


Divide the oil between two pans (one larger than the other) and heat. Sauté the eggplant cubes in the larger pan, then add wine (or vegetable stock) and simmer for 15 minutes. In the smaller pan cook the onion and garlic until transparent. Add the onion mixture to the eggplant, then add the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 10 minutes over gentle heat. Remove from heat and add marjoram and cream. Serve with tagliatelle and freshly grated parmesan cheese, accompanied by a green salad.

Stirfried tomatoes with tofu


40ml sesame oil
4 large tomatoes, skinned and quartered
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic
400g tofu, cut into 2cm cubes
3 cups chopped vegetables (carrots, broccoli, red capsicum, snowpeas)
300ml vegetable stock (optional)
splash of soy sauce, tamari or shoyu
1 tbsp honey
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper


Heat the oil in a frying pan or wok. Stirfry the tomatoes, onion and garlic for 2 minutes. Add the tofu, vegetables, stock, soy sauce, honey and a little salt and pepper. Mix well. Cook for a further 5 minutes. Serve with noodle

Find out everything you need to know about
growing tomatoes and fresh produce in your garden on Complete Home

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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