Colombian exchange — the tomato – The Denver Post

Before the year 1600, no recipes existed — anywhere — for these: spaghetti with tomato sauce, Caprese salad, red gazpacho, tabbouleh, Israeli salad, chicken tikka masala, fried green tomatoes, cream of tomato soup, ketchup, pico de gallo, chicken paprikash or, alas, the tomato sandwich.

When I give talks on the history of Italian cuisine and mention that there were eons in the kitchens of Rome before the Italians figured out what to do with the tomato, few believe me.

‘Twas the Maya who first figured out what to do with the tomato 2,000 years before the year 1600, but that seems harder to swallow than anything from Chef Boyardee.

In truth, the tomato is the great American vegetable. (Botanically it is a fruit, a berry, though culinarily we consider it a vegetable.)

The tomato got to Europe (and then to the Levant) in the holds of ships sailing East after Columbus, and then to the Pacific and into Asia and India via the Philippines and the Spanish conquering westerly from the New World. It is part of the Colombian Exchange, that vast interchange of foods that the globe experienced only after 1492.

The North American colonies didn’t even obtain the tomato from its native (what we now call) Mexico; it came to us from British settlers here. And from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who planted tomatoes at Monticello in 1781.

The first cookbook from the Italian peninsula to mention tomatoes as an ingredient dates to 1692 and was from the so-called Kingdom of Naples, for all intents and purposes a Spanish territory. Long into the 19th century, for many Europeans including Italians, the tomato was an ornamental bush, often grown
indoors for its aromatic leaves. It was not food.

But, mamma mia, did that change when people got over their fear of it (it’s a member of the oft-poisonous nightshade family) and started eating it. Globally, it is now the second most popular “vegetable” after the potato, and a foodstuff extraordinarily high in glutamate for that umami,
savory-juicy taste that keeps us baptizing other foods with ketchup. (It also is very high in vitamin C and in the antioxidant carotenoid lycopene.)

This isn’t really the time of the year to think about it, but it’s just so dang delicious when plucked off its aromatic bush or vine come August or September, bitten into, and its sweet-tart jelly run down your chin. Few fruits of the garden contain so much sugar or electrifying acidity; they’re magic.

Cooking tips for tomatoes:

• Removing the skin, seeds and jelly, a common practice, before cooking raw tomatoes results in concentrating the fruit’s sugars. Keep that in mind when balancing tastes; perhaps putting some of the jelly into the pot might be a wise idea.

• It’s long been known that adding a tad of both sugar and acid (say, a squeeze of lemon) to a tomato-based dish ratchets up the intensity of overall tomato flavor.