It’s that time of year again. The days are (already) getting shorter. Gardens and farms across Vermont are cranking out the best of the summer’s produce. It’s the dog days of summer. That means tomato season is in full swing.
Tomatoes – The World’s Favorite Crop
This month we travel to the birth place of one of the world’s favorite and most widely used crops: tomatoes. Most people think of Italy and Italian cuisine when it comes to tomatoes. Thus, they are surprised to learn that tomatoes are native to Central America and Mexico. The word ‘tomato’ is derived from the Aztec word for the fruit, ‘tomatl’. So, off we go to Mexico, where tomatoes existed first, before the Spanish colonized and spread them the world over.
In Vermont, tomatoes are annuals. In Mexico, they are perennials and can survive through the winter due to the more stable and tropical climate. For this reason, there is year-round supply to fulfill cuisine needs. Tomatoes offer a fresh flavor when raw and help build a foundation of flavor when cooked. Their easily-achievable growing conditions, delicious and complex flavor, combined with their versatility make tomatoes a staple in traditional Mexican dishes.
Tomatoes in Mexican Cuisine
The most common use for tomatoes in Mexican cooking is in salsa. Cooked red sauce with tomatoes is known as salsa roja. Many dishes depend upon salsa to provide the full depth of flavor and vibrancy that we expect from Mexican food. Another common type of cooked tomato-based sauce is enchiladas rojas which is used to top enchiladas. It is rich with flavors of toasted chilies, tomatoes, and herbs. In both types, the tomatoes are often charred, resulting in a slightly smoky and sweet flavor.
The most common uncooked tomato salsa is pico de gallo, a refreshing blend of finely chopped tomatoes, chilies, onions, cilantro, and freshly squeezed lime juice. In some cases, variations are common and additions may include avocado and even shrimp – especially in coastal regions.
Those are just three examples of the countless Mexican salsas and sauces that use tomatoes. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of variations.
Another common use for tomatoes in Mexican cooking is in soups and stews, such as Sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup), which is traditionally made with a tomato broth. They are also used in many dishes with fish and other seafood which are common in the coastal regions. This includes a type of Veracruz-style preparation which contains tomatoes, olives, and capers.
This Month’s Recipe
This month’s recipe gets some Italian flare from the parmesan and oregano (an herb which is used often in Mexican cooking, too, thanks to the Spanish conquistadors). It tastes great as is, but to give it a Mexican twist, add a little chili powder and cumin and substitute cojita, a soft and crumbly Mexican cheese, for the parmesan.
In this recipe the delicious flavor of the tomatoes is intensified by roasting them. This makes them both sweeter and more nutritious as the phytochemical lycopene becomes more bioavailable when heated. It works as a side dish, but may also be used as an addition to other dishes like roasted chicken, soups, or homemade pizza.
For more on tomatoes including recipes, book recommendations, and fun activities for kids, check out the Vermont Harvest of the Month website.
Parmesan Roasted Campari Tomatoes
- 8Campari tomatoes, halved
- 2Tbspgrated parmesan cheese
- 1/2tspdried oregano
- 1/8tspblack pepper
- 2tspextra virgin olive oil
- 1/4tspcrushed red pepper flakes
- Preheat oven to 400° F.
- Place tomatoes cut side up on baking sheet covered with nonstick foil, or aluminum foil sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.
- Sprinkle parmesan cheese, oregano, and pepper evenly over tomatoes.
- Carefully drizzle olive oil, and add red pepper flakes if desired.
- Roast in the oven for 10-15 minutes, long enough for cheese to get melted and lightly browned, but before tomatoes get mushy.
Get more recipes from the UVM Medical Center. View our Recipe Collection by clicking here.
Bridget Shea, RD, is a clinical dietician at The University of Vermont Medical Center.