The Way to a Man’s Heart May Be as Simple as a Tomato

 

tomatoplant

According to the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being the way to a man’s heart was apparently through a tomato.  Advice given in the Tacuinum was based on an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise, the Taqwīm as‑siḥḥahتقويم الصحة (“Maintenance of Health”), and describes detailed accounts of the beneficial and harmful properties of foods and plants including a veiled reference to the tomato.

During the 14th century manuscripts of the handbook were commissioned by northern Italian nobility during the 14th century as a practical guide for improving health.  Lavishly decorated manuscripts illustrate nobles engaged in work, play and romance and the cultivation of all manner of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Directions for the use, preparation and experience of the plant is explained through an elaborate iconography of meaning.  Feudal lords, ladies and laborers engage in the work of the estate in a world where horticulture, health and personal relationships are intertwined.

Medieval gardens with wattled fences are carefully tended to bring out the best attributes of  the fruits, vegetables and those who ate and tended them. In one scene a couple embraces in a garden of eggplants implicating their aphrodisiac properties.  In another carrots are harvested and described in the Latin text to stimulate sexual relations but slow down digestion, and that the purple type, ripe in winter, are the best. Other scenes depict harvesting dill, picking chestnuts, the usefulness and dangers of cabbage, tending marjoram and making soup.

A mixture of medicine and myth where tomatoes become botanically related to the mandrake or “love plant”,  believed to inflame a man’s amorous intentions and said to be able to “lead a man like a dog”. As dogs were often used to pull out the root of the believed-to-be-bewitched mandrake with a man standing in wait to see if the dog survived the mandrake’s deathly curse, it may have seemed like the mandrake and related tomato had powers to lead a man.

tomatoes

When the Spanish brought the first tomato seeds to Southern Europe in the early 16th century, a large percentage of Europeans feared the perceived properties of the fruit.  But around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato’s popularity grew. The Italian pomodoro (pom d’or) apple of gold was becoming a sought after ingredient, juicy, full of flavor, both tangy and sweet.  Italian cooks embraced it’s use in sauces that would eventually catch the eye (and taste buds) of a Queen named Margherita.  Every Italian Nonna has her favorite recipe for a tomato ragu’ or marinara that keep her sons and grandsons close to home.  So it may not be so far fetched to think that the tomato has powers both in and out of the kitchen.

My Perfect Panzanella

tomatoesIt’s almost time for my favorite summertime salad made with vine ripened tomatoes fresh from the garden. I’ve been waiting for those firm, smooth, brightly colored fruits of the vine all year and now their brief time has come. Cold weather and refrigeration will kill their flavor and create a mealy texture so now is the time to use them to their greatest potential and for me that is in the making of panzanella, a Tuscan bread and tomato salad. Mine is patterned after a perfect panzanella eaten at the table of Tenuta di Capezzana, near the village of Carmignano, northwest of Florence. The scent, aroma and flavor of their highly acclaimed estate bottled extra virgin olive oil elevated the simpliest of ingredients into a work of food art. Simple but sublime panzanella is Italy’s “everyman” summertime salad as much enjoyed by King Vittorio Emanuelle, while he was a guest at a castle in Chianti as the Italian contadini in the fields.

Here is a recipe inspired by my visits to Capezzana. Do not use stale American bread for this recipe. It is not a substitute for the firm, artisan quality Tuscan bread needed to make this recipe so good.

Ingredients (this recipe will make several servings)           panzanella
10 oz loaf of Italian country style bread
1/2 cup of fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
3 large ripe tomatoes cut into cubes with their juice
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar; more or less to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
a few cloves of fresh minced garlic

Cut the bread into bite size cubes. Warm 2-3 T extra olive oil in a large skillet. Add minced garlic to perfume the oil being careful not to let garlic brown. Toss bread cubes in oil, transfer to a baking sheet and finish in a 375 degree oven for a few minutes until bread al dente (firm yet soft). Let cool and transfer to a serving bowl and toss with tomatoes making sure to use all the juice the tomatoes yield. Dissolve salt to taste with the vinegar and oil in a small bowl, mix well and drizzle it over the bread mixture. Add basil and a few twists of coarsely ground pepper and toss.  Most Italian cooks recommend leaving the panzanella sit for a while before eating to allow all the flavors to come together.

Italians Are What They Eat

You’ve heard the expression “you are what you eat”. This slightly overused mantra has made its way into the vocabulary of food from proselytizing nutritionists to the voice over introduction on one of the Food Network’s most popular shows.  The Italians were eating healthy, nutritious regional food long before the term “locavore”, sustainability and week- end farmer’s markets became chic. So it follows that Italians are very concerned about the ingredients they use and most Italians I know would be the first to say that great ingredients make great recipes.

                                                                                                

Here are 7 ingredients that no self-respecting Italian would be without.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Italians know that being extra virgin is better. For flavor, taste, aroma and health benefits extra virgin olive oil is absolutely better. It is the freshest oil you can buy, high in polyphenols and protective antioxidants beneficial to heart health. A wide variety of medical studies also document the benefits of extra virgin olive oil in controlling blood glucose levels and strengthening the immune system.

 Oregano and Rosemary – Oregano is a source of natural antioxidants and has as many antioxidants as 3 cups of fresh spinach and rosemary is known as an anti-inflammatory.  Both carry loads of flavor. Whether fresh or dried, rosemary’s sweet pungent piney scent and the herbal spiciness of oregano are the herbs of choice in Italian cooking.

 Tomatoes – Eaten fresh or made into a sauce, tomatoes are an essential ingredient in the Italian pantry. In the summer they are layered between slices of buffalo mozzarella, anointed with extra virgin olive oil and scented with fresh basil or used to make a panzanella, Tuscany’s simple yet sublime bread salad.  At all times tomatoes are the base for the Italian red sauce giving depth to hundreds of regional Italian recipes that have made Italian food recognized all over the world.   

Garlic – Garlic is the godfather of Italian cooking. Chop it, crush it, then, let it sit to release the aroma, enzymatic and cardio-protective benefits found in fresh garlic. Respect this ingredient; use it well and it will never fail to add just what you need to perfect your dish.  

Pasta – Confused about pasta, don’t be. The most flavorful pasta is artisan pasta, roughly textured to allow the sauce to better adhere giving a more uniform and consistently delicious flavor to each bite. Quality pasta ia a “good carbohydrate” made from semolina flour, which is ground from durum wheat with a low glycemic index (41).  Italians eat pasta as a small introductory course (primo piatto) to the meal rather than in Mount Vesuvius proportions typical of American style dining.

Grapes and Wine – The pivotal role of grapes and red wine in the maintenance of health is well documented.  In Italy wine is considered to be a natural resource, a companion to food, a link to the past, a tradition to be preserved and a respected ingredient in cooking.

Cheese – The soft, semi-hard and hard cheeses of Italy are not easily translated in the US. Americanized versions of Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan), Mozzarella and Ricotta are not the same as what you will find in Italy.  Regional cheese making in Italy is government regulated with strict guidelines for manufacturing with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status under European Union law. Cheese in Italy is eaten as an accompaniment to a meal and enjoyed as an artisan product. It is often eaten as a dessert course with fruit.