First things first: the tomato is a fruit. It is a fact. It is actually a fact that I’ve known for years, and yet, it still feels weird to state it J
The tomato is another one of my “can’t-be-without” ingredients and makes a weekly appearance on my shopping list, and it does so under two forms mostly: fresh tomatoes and tinned tomatoes. To be truthful, I buy tinned tomatoes more often than fresh. The problem I have with fresh tomatoes is that it is nigh on impossible to find tasty tomatoes. As most of the tomatoes you find in shops and supermarkets have been force-grown in order to get a year-round supply, they have not been given the time to develop their natural sweetness and are more often than not insipid and under-ripe (even the more expensive, on the vine tomatoes as I have sadly found lately.)
An unripe, tough and tasteless tomato on your salad is a grim prospect – the solution is, if you can, to grow your own tomatoes. You don’t actually need a garden to do so; at first, before I got my allotment, I grew my tomatoes in big pots and was always very successful. You cannot beat the taste of a tomato that you have grown yourself at its own pace.
For cooked dishes, tinned tomatoes are a perfect, and cheaper, alternative. They also have the advantage of being a “fast” ingredient: open the tin and there you have a base for various soups and sauces in an instant!
The tomato is full of various vitamins and minerals, but the most important one would be lycopene, a carotenoid which gives the tomato its red colour. Lycopen is known to help prevent cancer (especially prostate, breast, lung and endometrium.) Studies have indicated that lycopene could have twice the anti-carcinogenic properties of beta-carotene. It neutralises free radicals before they can cause damage to the cells, and can help prevent everything from sun-damage to heart attacks.
Lycopene is unharmed by the cooking process and food processing, which means that many tomato-based products offer the same protection as fresh tomatoes (however, this doesn’t mean you are allowed to pour ketchup on everything! Moderation is the name of the game J)
Tomatoes also contain vitamins C and E, and beta-carotene. They work together to prevent cataracts, heart disease and cancer. Vitamin C is antiviral and crucial for the functions of the immune system. Tomatoes contain a little iron, which is absorbed more efficiently thanks to the vitamin C and helps prevent fatigue and anaemia.
The beta-carotene in tomatoes is essential for the production of vitamin A, which plays a vital role in a healthy immune response. Tomatoes are also rich in potassium, which regulates fluid balance. A bottle of tomato juice is an efficient way to re-balance your sodium levels, especially after a long run during which you have drunk a lot of water.
Chilli Con Carne
The following recipe is my son’s favourite. I do it on a regular basis, sometimes a few weeks in a row until I get fed-up of eating it (he never does!) This dish freezes really well, so it is worth making a big batch of it for future use.
Ingredients (serves 6):
3tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
800g lean minced beef
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
½ tsp hot chilli powder
1tsp ground cumin
1tbsp cocoa powder (not drinking chocolate)
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp black pepper
2 tins red kidney beans (400g), drained and rinsed
3 tins chopped tomatoes
1 cube or pot beef stock
½ tsp salt
1 square dark chocolate (no less than 70% cocoa content)
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and cook the onion until soft and translucent, approximately 7-8 minutes (take care not to burn the onion.)
Add the minced beef and cook until completely browned. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute (take care not to burn the garlic or it will taste bitter.)
Add the chilli powder, cumin, oregano, cocoa powder, cinnamon and pepper and cook for a further minute to release the flavour of the spices.
Add the chopped tomatoes (with their juice), the cube or pot of beef stock and the red kidney beans. Stir gently. Bring to the boil then turn the heat to medium and simmer for 30 minutes (the juice of the tinned tomatoes should be enough, but should your chilli become a bit dry and start catching at the bottom of your saucepan, add a little water.).
Check the seasoning and add ½ tsp of salt if necessary. Add the square of dark chocolate and stir it gently in the chilli until melted.
Serve with a portion of brown rice and garnished with a teaspoon of soured cream.
Sandra’s note: the cube or pot of beef stock is used as it is, without dissolving in water first, to intensify the beef flavour of the dish. I use Knorr stock pots as they tend to contain less salt than cubes. This is the reason why I ask you, in the recipe, to check your seasoning at the end and to add a little bit of salt only if necessary. Depending on which stock cube you use, you might find that your dish is salty enough after the addition of the stock cube. Remember it’s easy to add salt in a dish, but once it’s in, you cannot remove it.
Sandra’s note 2: I know the square of dark chocolate at the end of the recipe seems weird but, please, do not omit this step. The flavour of your chilli would suffer from its absence and so would the texture of the sauce. Adding the square of chocolate and allowing it to melt gently whist stirring somehow emulsifies the sauce and makes it almost creamy. I don’t know why this is but I’m not questioning the magic alchemy of cooking! J