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Heirloom Tomatoes Contain Health Benefits and Taste Best Fresh from the Garden

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Armed with a salt shaker, I head out to the garden to perform one of the most luscious and exciting acts of the growing season: eating the first warm, ripe red tomato.

The tomato, called tomatl by the Aztecs, was grown by the Inca and Aztec people as early as 700 a.d. The Spanish introduced it to Europe in the 1500s. A member of the nightshade family, it is rich in alkaloids, which are potent, plant-based compounds that can aid in the digestion of fatty, dense proteins. Alkaloids are, however, potentially toxic to susceptible people, sometimes aggravating arthritis and causing calcium depletion and stiff joints. For this reason, tomatoes used to be thought poisonous.

Of course, they aren’t. Among other virtues, they are juicy, satisfying and quite easy to grow. Tomatoes are low in calories and contain vitamin C and several vitamin B varieties, fiber, potassium, biotin, chromium, alpha- and beta-carotene, and the antioxidant lycopene. This last substance may help fight cancers, improve heart health and protect against skin damage.

In fact, the only real debate over the tomato these days is whether it is a fruit (it has seeds) or a vegetable. For what it is worth, a late 19th century Supreme Court case that involved taxes established its botanic status as a “vegetable.”

Like potatoes, tomatoes come in various sizes, shapes and colors. To start your own tomato garden, carefully select the right variety for your climate. In the Northeast, my husband and I have had luck with Big Boy, Beefsteak and Jet Star in our outdoor garden. We have also experimented with heirloom (e.g. non-hybrid) varieties such as Cherokee Purple and Brandywine in container gardens in pots on our patio.

I enjoy them fresh or processed in homemade salsas, as a pizza or lasagna sauce, blended into a fresh-tasting ketchup, or cooked down into a hearty soup. In many recipes, tomatoes work well with the Three Sisters: squash, corn and beans.

Many tomato-based recipes make me nostalgic about memorable meals, whether due to the company or the beautifully fresh ingredients. This simple recipe for tomato soup recalls a warm memory for both reasons. One time, good friends of mine were going through difficult financial times. Still, they maintained an incredible garden. A visit at their rural home carried into lunchtime, and they invited all six of us to stay for a light lunch.

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This tomato soup was served with crusty bread and sweet unsalted butter.

Best Tomato Soup Ever
8 ripe tomatoes, just picked, cored and cut up
2 quarts chicken broth
6 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh picked basil, fine chopped

Simmer all ingredients except the basil in a large soup pot and simmer until tomatoes are soft, then add basil and serve.

Sun-Dry Your Own Tomatoes

Use the sun or a low oven (200 to 225 degrees). Wash and slice any amount of almost any variety of fresh, ripe tomatoes (not cherry tomatoes, though) as thin as possible. Remove seeds if desired. Place flat on a rack on a cookie sheet, turning once, after about two hours. Roast another two hours, or four hours total.

If you are using the sun, be sure to bring the tomatoes in at night so they do not accumulate moisture. The whole process may take three to four days outside, depending on weather and climate.

When the tomatoes are dry, place them in a clean, sterilized jar and cover with olive oil before putting on the lid and refrigerating. If you wish, add a peeled clove or two of garlic and/or some fresh washed and dried basil leaves.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American CookingNative New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with them and her husband in Madison, Connecticut.