Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Grow It , Cook It, Eat It - Tomatoes

Just like chocolate, tomatoes are a gift from the high mountains of the Andes. You can’t grow cocoa beans but there is nothing in the world like the smell and taste of a home grown tomato;
The ancestral home of the tomato is the western coast region of South America, stretching from Ecuador to Peru and Chile. Even in the high mountains, wild varieties abound and these are cherry tomatoes, the forerunners of all modern varieties.

The first domestication probably happened in Mexico and tomatoes were introduced to Europe by the Spanish during the 16th century, after which they rapidly rampaged across Southern Europe. As members of the Solanaceae family, which includes the deadly nightshade, they were treated with suspicion at first, but soon achieved their rightful place as a delicious and health giving food.

Tomatoes are extremely rich in antioxidants, especially carotenoids like betacarotene and lycopene, as well as vitamins C and E, making them good protectors of the cardiovascular system and against some forms of cancer. They’re also extremely low in sodium and quite rich in potassium so they are helpful in conditions like high blood pressure and fluid retention.

A highly important recent discovery has been the role of lycopene, a carotenoid present in ripe tomatoes. This nutrient is known to protect men against prostate cancer, a much less common disease in Mediterranean countries where 6-8 ripe tomatoes a day is the average consumption. The most up to date research now confirms that lycopene also protects against blood clots, heart disease, breast and bowel cancers as well.

Grow Your Own

There’s no magic secret to growing your own tomatoes if you pick the right variety, the right spot and the right soil all it takes is a little bit of time and effort and you’ll never eat a shop bought tomato again without comparing it to your own. Deep red, perfectly ripe and still warm from the sunshine – the just picked fruit has a unique flavour linked to the unmistakable smell of the leaves. It doesn’t bear comparison with the perfectly uniform supermarket version that’s been picked green, artificially ripened in transit and kept in cold store for days on end.

A greenhouse will provide much earlier crops but there are many varieties that do exceptionally well grown outside. If you’ve only a small garden put some plants in your flower beds where they look decorative or grow them in large pots on a terrace or in a sheltered corner. Most varieties will grow indoors or out and nearly all will need staking for support. There are a few bush type tomatoes that you can actually grow in hanging baskets.

The general rules for all upright tomatoes are simple. They’ll keep growing until you pinch the tops out and the rule of thumb is to do that when the plant has formed five flowering trusses, but that does depend a bit on the variety and where you’re growing them. You will need to pinch out the tiny side shoots that grow in the angle of the main stem and the trusses. If you don’t the plant gets completely out of hand, produces far too many flowers and you’ll get less mature fruit.

Grow from seed March/April, then transplant in to 3” pots where they can stay till ready to plant out - roughly seven weeks from sowing but wait till there’s no risk of frost. If keeping in the greenhouse, transplant into a prepared bed, grow bags or even on soaked bales of straw. All tomatoes need regular feeding - I prefer organic seaweed concentrate but Tomorite is the most widely used.

The plants divide neatly into small, medium and large and I like the traditional varieties. In the greenhouse I use Gardeners Delight and Super Sweet as small tomatoes; Moneymaker and Shirley for regular fruits and outside I grow three large pots, each with three plants, of Marmande (large odd shaped and delicious) and a really old variety called Red Brandywine, which is very thin skinned and enormous.

I was introduced to the absolutely fabulous Black Russian tomato by a French neighbour and last year I grew them for the first time. They really are almost black and the sweetest fruit you can imagine, so it is worth making an effort to get the seeds.

Buy the seeds online here

Once the trusses are set, remove the bottom few leaves to allow plenty of light, keep well watered and dream about soups, sauces, chutneys and the late summer treat of fried green tomatoes.

All the above varieties from The Organic Gardening Catalogue plus biological pest control for the greenhouse and non toxic organically approved sprays and powders.

Tel: 0845 130 1304, or look online:

Tomato Recipes

The ubiquitous tomato can be used in so many ways, but no matter how much you think you know and love these fab fruits there is always a surprise lurking round the corner. There are books devoted to recipes for nothing but tomatoes, whole websites dedicated to the pursuit of tomato happiness and best of all there is a growing mass of evidence for their extreme health giving properties.

Here are a few of my favourite recipes and I hope you enjoy them. If you have a family favourite do send it to me and the best three will be published in the Newsletter and the senders will get one of my books as a prize.

Tommy Tofu
Serves 4

Tofu isn’t to everybody’s taste, but I’m convinced that’s because few people other than those from the Far East know how to cook it. It’s practically tasteless, so needs strong flavours to make it more attractive to taste. You can either marinate it yourself – in ginger, garlic and balsamic vinegar – or, as I’ve done here, buy ready-marinated tofu, and add even more extra flavours at home. Tofu is a wonderfully healthy food. It’s full of phytoestrogens that help regulate hormone levels and is a valuable food for women at all ages as its calcium content helps build strong bones.

3 heaped tbsp tomato ketchup
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp hot chilli sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp chilli oil (see fresh tip below)
handful of coriander, chopped
1” ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
8 oz Tofu, cubed
1 onion, finely chopped

First make the sauce by mixing together the tomato ketchup, soy sauce, Worcester sauce, chilli sauce, sesame oil and chilli oil.

Heat the rapeseed oil in a wok, add the onions, cook till soft but not brown. Add the tomatoes, ginger and coriander and stir for two minutes. Pour in the sauce and add the tofu and cook gently for seven minutes, stirring occasionally.

Michael’s tip

Chilli oil is sometimes difficult to find and often expensive, but it’s easy to make yourself. When small, hot red chillis are easily available in the shops, buy a few packets (or grow your own in a large pot)– about 20 heads of the fruits – cover them with freshly boiled water, then drain immediately and thoroughly. Leave to cool, push them into a large bottle, cover with olive oil and leave for at least two weeks before use. This oil also gives a really fiery taste to an arabiatta sauce for pasta.

Mediterranean Barramundi
Or use cod fillets

Serves 2
I first tasted Barramundi on a quayside in Sydney when I was visiting my brother-in-law. How fantastic! I even ate it in the same place the following day for breakfast. Happily, thanks to a few enterprising fish farmers here, it’s now becoming more easily available in this country mostly because of our dwindling stocks of cod. Barramundi has the same texture as cod, but is slightly sweeter. Here I’ve adapted one of my favourite South of France cod recipes to take advantage of our fishy friend from down under. This is extra healthy as it’s one of the few white fish which contains the omega 3 essential fatty acids. There’s also masses of vitamins C, A and K from the tomatoes and the sauce. Good on ya, cobber.

1x 450g/ 1lb can organic crushed tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp capers, thoroughly rinsed
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 tsp finely chopped fresh oregano
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 barramundi fillets

Thoroughly mix together the tomatoes, garlic, capers, parsley, oregano and olive oil. Put the barramundi fillets into an ovenproof dish. Pour over the tomato mixture. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 200C/400F/gas mark 6 for about 20 minutes, until the fish flakes easily.

Michael’s tip
If you’re not lucky enough to find Barramundi near you – it’s now in some branches of Waitrose - this dish works well with cod, haddock or any other fish with a firm texture. Visually, it’s better with white fish.

Four Tomato Salad
Serves 4

This may sound like a fiddle but it looks fantastic, it tastes even better and it is a huge source of both protective and curative nutrients. Anti-cancer lycopene, a very good source of heart friendly potassium and fibre, a good source of vitamin B6 to help PMS, folic acid for good blood and healthy babies and even some extra iron to help prevent anaemia – all from these amazing tomatoes. Add black Russians if you have grown them – they look amazing and taste even better.

2 very large Marmande or Beefsteak tomatoes, thinly sliced
6 good sized plum tomatoes, quartered lengthways
20 cherry tomatoes, whole
10 sun dried tomatoes in oil, drained
1 red onion, chopped
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp fresh oregano
6 fresh basil leaves

Cover the plate with the thinly sliced large tomato. Put the quarters of plum tomato round the rim, fill the centre with cherry tomatoes, lay the sun dried tomatoes between the plum tomatoes. Scatter over the red onion. Sprinkle over the oregano, tear the basil leaves into small pieces and sprinkle over the plate. Thoroughly mix oil and vinegar and drizzle over the salad.


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