Prairie fare: Be inspired by bountiful tomatoes

Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist
North Dakota State University Extension
Old-world style pizza can be made in an oven or on the grill.

“I don’t like tomatoes!” my older daughter exclaimed.

I didn’t comment. I know she eats pizza, spaghetti, salsa, ketchup, tomato soup and a wide range of foods that contain tomatoes.

She didn’t want to help harvest our bountiful tomatoes, mainly because of the scent of the vines.

She reluctantly agreed when I used some of my motherly techniques.

The ripe tomatoes and their vines left a scent on my hands, too. My hands turned an orangey red.

“People thought tomatoes were poisonous for many years,” she commented as she put tomato after tomato in our large bowls.

“They actually are really good for us,” I noted.

Tomatoes have a long history dating back to the Aztecs in Mexico in 700 A.D., according to some accounts. The Aztecs were famous for many things, including agriculture and early irrigation.

Humans have had a bit of a love-hate relationship with tomatoes. Early people were afraid to eat tomatoes and considered them poisonous.

Historical accounts vary, but the reputation of tomatoes as poisonous can be traced back to a couple of potential issues.

According to one account, people in the 1500s with few resources ate tomatoes on wooden plates. They did not get sick. Their wealthier counterparts used pewter plates containing lead. The combination of acidic tomatoes and metal may have caused lead poisoning among the wealthy.

On the other hand, tomatoes resembled the nightshade plant, which was potentially deadly.

By the way, tomatoes are in the Solanaceae family, which also includes sweet and hot peppers, potatoes, eggplant, petunias and tobacco.

On average, Americans eat at least 20 pounds of tomatoes in various forms every year.

Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Botanically, a tomato is the mature ovary of a flowering plant. We in nutrition consider tomatoes to be vegetables, along with cucumbers and peppers. Fruits also contain seeds.

A botanist would consider tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers to be fruits. Interestingly, Arkansas considers the tomato the state fruit and the state vegetable.

Regardless of what you call them, enjoy more tomatoes. They are, indeed, good for you. Tomatoes are an excellent source of antioxidants, including lycopene, which gives ripe tomatoes their color.

Lycopene is a natural antioxidant that helps protect us from several types of cancer. Antioxidants are like “boxing gloves” for the cells of your body. They fight free radicals that try to damage our cells.

Eating foods rich in lycopene may help protect us from heart disease. Tomatoes also are an excellent source of potassium, which helps maintain our blood pressure at a normal level.

Tomatoes provide bountiful vitamin C, too.

Try canning whole tomatoes or making tomato juice or salsa using safe, tested recipes. Be sure to add bottled lemon juice or citric acid to acidify tomatoes to the level where they are safe to be canned. You do not need to add acid when you freeze tomatoes.

See our food preservation resources at and find “Canning and Freezing Tomatoes and Making Salsa” and three additional salsa-making guides.

Get inventive with tomatoes. Try a caprese salad or bruschetta. Try roasting tomatoes with olive oil and adding a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

Italians brought their tomato recipes, including pizza and spaghetti sauce, to America in the 1800s. Be inspired. Here’s a tasty old-world style pizza recipe you can make in your oven or on a grill.

Margherita Pizza

1 pizza dough

5 Tbsp. basil pesto

1 c. shredded mozzarella (or slices of fresh mozzarella)

2 to 3 tomatoes, sliced

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1/8 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. fresh basil, shredded or finely chopped

Prepare homemade or store-bought pizza dough per instructions. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Shape the dough onto a lightly greased pizza or sheet pan, spread the pesto on the dough, then top with shredded mozzarella and sliced tomatoes. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and salt. Bake (or grill) for approximately 10 to 12 minutes or until crust is baked and cheese is melted. Top with basil just before serving.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 250 calories, 13 grams (g) fat, 9 g protein, 25 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber and 540 milligrams sodium.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson.