Tomatoes are one of those foods that remind me summer is sadly coming to an end.
If you’ve ever had this fruit at its most ripe, you know what I’m talking about.
The tomato is star of seasonal eating in Mediterranean culture. We know that fruits and vegetables taste best when they are allowed to mature and are picked at their prime, so you’re most likely not going to see this fruit served in the Mediterranean during winter months. However, that’s not to say chefs can go without this super fruit for a whole year. When I’d go visit my grandmother Stella as a child, she always had her most cherished dish braising for hours before we arrived. The base was stewed tomatoes that she either carefully preserved from her late summer harvest, or trusted producer of bottled tomatoes.
I have devoted my life to studying food ingredients and their role and effects on gut health, and I find studies in tomatoes particularly fascinating because they retain their promising health benefits even after being cooked and bottled.
Lycopene is the main phytochemical in tomatoes with strong antioxidant powers. This particular phytochemical actually increases in bioavailability after heat-processing compared to fresh tomatoes. So, my rule of thumb with tomatoes is that fresh is always best according to season (such as a late summer harvest), while preserved tomatoes are perfect for healthy recipes like braising.
Here are some of the surprising ways tomatoes can boost health, mostly through the absorption of beneficial chemicals in the gut.
Let’s get straight to the point…
Tomatoes are high in beta-carotene, which converts to provitamin A. This helps in maintaining sexual health because vitamin A aids in the normal functioning of reproductive organs, plays a vital role in the production of testosterone, and is also important for the health of all mucous membranes.
Metabolically, many people have issues breaking down beta-carotene into active retinol, which is why I highly recommend using pastured/organic animal products in combination with plant foods like stewed tomatoes. If standing over the stovetop like my grandmother Stella isn’t your cup of tea, invest in a crockpot— you can add your stewed tomatoes, herbs, and favorite meats (or even vegetarian base like tempeh), cover, and allow the goodness to do its thing.
Better Skin and Hair
If you’ve visited a dermatologist, you’ll know that topical retinol is one of the best ways to reduce the effects of aging as it promotes the production of collagen. Consuming foods that activate to retinol is also very important to skin health, and, as I mentioned above, tomatoes are full of beta-carotene which, when combined with animal-derived vitamin A, does just that!
Tomatoes have also been included in several studies on the health benefits of carotenoids and their antioxidant power for our immune system. Carotenoids are found naturally in plants to protect them against photo damage caused by photosynthesis (the sun), and they also provide us with similar support against damaging free radicals caused by the environment. Less inflammation and less damage from free radicals = beautiful skin.
Now on to Penelope Cruz or Gerald Butler-lustrous hair…
There was a time that my hair depended on products to tame frizz.
I proud to say that I rarely use any hair products these days. Since I’m always looking to food as the primary source in maintaining optimal health—through my microbiome— I favor protecting skin from within and hair health by consuming my nutrients; nutracetucials and topical products are always “in addition to” for support. A Mediterranean-rich diet that includes both seasonally fresh tomatoes, in addition to bottled throughout the year, has provided me (and my hair) with beneficial compounds like lycopene, which, as we know, is noted for its photoprotectant role in health and ultimately our skin and hair.
Better Recovery from Exercise
I was a competitive swimmer when I was younger, so I’ve fallen prey to periods of chronic cardiovascular exercise to get back the feeling of being ‘Stella the athlete.’ Since your gut and brain are connected (referred to as the gut-microbiota-brain axis), there are many studies that correlate fatigue, mood disturbances, under performance, and gastrointestinal distress during intense training and competition in athletes. Most of you reading this—including me—are not pushing ourselves like an elite athlete, but a similar response does occur when you over-train, regardless of performance level.
Since your diet is the key piece to dramatically influencing the composition of your gut microbiota, it’s hugely important to consume phytonutrients for anti-inflammatory benefits, and tomatoes are full of them.
This is how I’ve helped numerous athletes recover from years of systemic inflammation that results in dysbiosis and immune dysregulation. Instead of just looking to the core macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats, water) which are hugely important for athletic importance, I also prescribe food-based phytonutrients as a primary consideration to the overall diet of athletes. The top meal for most of my athletes? Slowly braised meats and root vegetables in a bit of tomato sauce and bone broth— and of course topped with fresh olive oil because the EVOO is known to increase absorption of nutrients.
In Wild Mediterranean, I focus on the four countries of Greece, Spain, France, and Italy because the fundamental ingredients of those cuisines are not only healthful, they’re also easy to find in most grocery stores. Many of the recipes in the book feature a “Four Countries, Four Ways” approach—one simple dish made in the styles of these four cooking traditions. Here is one that highlights the deliciousness of preserved tomatoes.
WILD MEDITERRANEAN ITALIAN-STYLE BRAISED MEAT
Red Wine • Cocoa • Rosemary • Pearl Onions
Serves 6 to 8
For the Sear:
1 tablespoon butter
3 pounds boneless beef shoulder roast, chuck roast, or top blade, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 11⁄2- to 2-inch pieces
Celtic sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Sauté:
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup) 2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped (about 1⁄2 cup) 2 carrots, coarsely chopped (about 2⁄3 cup) 5 garlic cloves, minced
For the Deglaze:
3 cups water 1 cup dry red wine, such as Chianti 1 tablespoon tomato paste
For the Braise:
3 cups peeled pearl onions 26 ounce box of canned tomatoes
2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in 21⁄2 cups warm water until soft, then chopped, soaking liquid reserved, strained, and added to the pot
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary 1 bay leaf 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
Preheat the oven to 350°F degrees.
Sear: In a 6-quart Dutch oven, heat the butter over medium-high heat. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the meat in the bottom of the pan a single layer without crowding and sear on each side for 1 to 2 minutes. The meat should be a caramelized brown color all over. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside.
Sauté: Add the sauté ingredients to the pan, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the vegetables are softened, 2 to 3 minutes.
Deglaze: Add the deglazing ingredients to the pan and use your spoon to scrape up all the caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring the liquid in the pan to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Braise: Return the meat to the pan along with any additional braising ingredients. Cover and transfer the pan to the oven and cook until the meat is fork-tender, at least 90 minutes, turning the meat halfway through.
Reprinted from WILD MEDITERRANEAN by arrangement with Pam Krauss Books/Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Stella Metsovas