The very funny Zach Weiner published a comic today that mocks people who speak with great authority on topics they know relatively little about, and rightly so. However, one of his example “Phrases uttered atop Mount Stupid” gave me pause: “Biologically, tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable.”
I figured this was common knowledge, and I was a little confused as to why it was included on a list of misconceptions. Maybe because saying so makes you sound pretentious?
I decided to see what is said about the classification of tomatoes by people with actual authority on the subject, and so I turned to Harold McGee.
It turns out that botanists and cooks classify tomatoes differently, and both sides have good reasons for choosing the classifications they do.
Botanically speaking, tomatoes are in fact fruits. McGee defines “fruit” as “the organ that develops from the flower’s ovary and surrounds the plants seeds. (“Vegetable” refers to “plant material that is neither fruit nor seed.”) In general, fruits have a high sugar content and are moister and softer, with complex aromas, while foods we treat as vegetables remain firm, have milder flavors, and typically require cooking to make them palatable. By this understanding, tomatoes certainly seem to fall in the fruit category.
And yet, we usually eat tomatoes in savory dishes and commonly consider them to be vegetables. Why?
If you were paying close attention to my previous post, you might have a piece of the answer. In addition to having relatively low sugar content, tomatoes are extremely high in glutamic acid, the compound that triggers umami, or savory taste sensations on your tongue, as well as aromatic sulfur compounds. Both glutamic acids and sulfur aromas are commonly found in meats, so it makes sense that tomatoes would complement meaty dishes, as well as replace that flavor and add complexity to meatless items.
McGee also shares the following story:
Even the United States Supreme Court has preferred the cook’s definition to the botanist’s. In the 1890s, a New York food importer claimed duty-free status for a shipment of tomatoes, arguing that tomatoes were fruits, and so under the regulations of the time, not subject to import fees. The customs agent ruled that tomatoes were vegetables and imposed a duty. A majority of the Supreme Court decided that tomatoes were “usually served at a dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meat, which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generally as dessert.” Ergo tomatoes were vegetables, and the importer had to pay.
So, are tomatoes really a fruit? Yes, but what’s in a name? Along with cucumbers, green beans, eggplants, and corn kernels–other fruits also commonly treated like vegetables by cooks–tomatoes are in delicious company. Hopefully this extra knowledge will help you bypass Mount Stupid.
Seeing as it’s the middle of winter, I’m not about to provide you with a recipe that calls for fresh tomatoes (to learn about everything that is wrong with supermarket tomatoes, I recommend this interview). However, while not a substitute for fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes are an excellent ingredient in their own right, cooked and preserved when the tomatoes are at their peak flavor. I especially recommend San Marzanos. This recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen is great for a cold winter evening.
Eggs Poached in Tomato Sauce
- Add enough to olive oil to a small pan to cover the bottom and warm over medium heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook for one minute, stirring.
- Add the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add the sugar and season with salt and pepper, then lower the heat to medium-low and allow the tomato mixture to simmer for 10-15 minutes. If using wine, add a glug a couple minutes before the tomatoes are done.
- Crack the eggs gently one at a time into the tomato mixture. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, until the whites are set, then remove from heat and let sit for 2-3 minutes.
- Spoon the eggs in their sauce over thick slices of toast or sauteed greens to serve.
An “amuse-bouche” (which literally translates to “mouth-amuser”) is a complimentary morsel to start the meal, a tasty little gift from the chef. We hope you enjoy these edible tidbits.