Tomatoes are as August as it gets in Vermont. I see them as the prize for suffering through the sometimes stifling heat and humidity of July. After eating some pretty mealy and dry tomatoes over the long winter and spring, who doesn’t long for that first juicy, delightfully ripe, right off-the-vine tomato?
Tomatoes are often associated with Italian cuisine so some are surprised to find out that they are actually native to Central America and Mexico. In fact the word ‘tomato’ was derived from the Aztec word for the fruit, ‘tomalt’. The infiltration of tomatoes into many ethnic cuisines was initiated by the Spanish colonization of the Americas and they are now grown all over the globe.
As a member of the Solanaceae family, tomatoes are in good company with eggplant, potatoes and peppers. In more tropical climates, tomatoes are short-lived perennials, while here we know that they can only survive as annuals — our seasons are too extreme. Maybe their seasonality is part of what makes tomatoes so special to us, not to mention their versatility, nutritional benefits, and amazing taste!
Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, potassium, and also a good source of B vitamins including niacin (B3) and folic acid (B9). They are also an excellent source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that is a member of the carotenoid family and is responsible for the red color of many tomato varieties. Lycopene is also found in red grapefruit, papaya, watermelon, and red carrots. Unlike many other nutrients which may be diminished when processed with heat, lycopene actually becomes more bioavailable when it is heated. This means it can be more readily utilized by the body for its antioxidant properties, which include protecting DNA and other cellular structures from free radicals. For this reason, canning tomatoes to preserve them or consuming them in sauces are excellent ways to enjoy their delicious flavor as well as their nutritional qualities. Because lycopene is fat soluble, consuming your tomatoes with a little bit of healthy fats from avocado, nuts or olive oil can further enhance its absorption.
That brings us to this month’s recipe – tomato and feta salad. This salad is perfect for lycopene absorption as it pairs succulent tomatoes with oil-cured olives and Greek salad dressing, both of which contain healthy fats. Feta cheese provides a briny depth of flavor that balances all of the other fresh ingredients and parsley is the perfect herb to top the salad with its slightly peppery taste that brightens up the finished product. This salad can easily stand alone or be tossed with whole grain pasta, quinoa, or day-old crusty bread to make a heartier side dish. Or, get creative and use some of the salad to top a burger, in a wrap with hummus and arugula, or baked in halved and hollowed-out zucchini or summer squash. However you use it, this salad is sure to enhance the taste and nutrition of any summer meal.
For more information about tomatoes including great recipes, visit the Vermont Harvest of the Month website.
Tomato Feta Salad
- 4ozfeta cheese
- 1/2cupgreek dressing
- 2Tbspfresh parsley, chopped
- 6plum tomatoes, chopped
- 1/2cupoil-cured black olives, sliced
- 1/4cupred onion, chopped
- Break feta cheese into small pieces, but do not crumble.
- Mix dressing and parsley. Add in feta and rest of ingredients.
- Cover and chill for at least 1 hour before serving. Keeps for up to 2 days.
Bridget Shea, RD, is a clinical dietician at The University of Vermont Medical Center.