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Published September 23, 2011, 12:00 AM

Prairie Fare: Tomatoes add flavor, nutrition to your menu

“How can I keep squirrels from eating the tomatoes in my garden?” my caller asked. After answering his tomato canning questions, I wasn’t expecting a gardening question.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

“How can I keep squirrels from eating the tomatoes in my garden?” my caller asked.

After answering his tomato canning questions, I wasn’t expecting a gardening question.

“You need to get some dogs to scare the squirrels. I have three dachshunds,” I joked.

He chuckled and told me he had a lazy dog.

As I proceeded to do a quick search of the Internet on the topic of managing pesky squirrels, I recalled that my tomatoes had some bites, too. Maybe my dogs were not being effective guard animals.

To deter squirrels, some websites recommend using wire mesh or making mini “scare-squirrels” using cloth dipped in vinegar and stapled to sticks. Other sites suggested spreading hot pepper sauce or putting dog fur at the base of the tomato plants. My caller was going to try one of the options.

Later that evening, I overheard my daughter being rather annoyed with our dogs.

“The dogs jumped over the fence into the garden!” she exclaimed.

“Are they eating tomatoes again?” my husband asked.

“The dogs are eating the tomatoes?” I asked in surprise.

“Maybe they know tomatoes are good for their prostates,” he joked as we pulled the dogs out of the garden.

If the dogs are that informed, maybe they know one of the scientific names for tomatoes is “lycopersicon lycopersicum,” which means “wolf peach.”

Tomatoes once were thought to be poisonous because they are in the Solanaceae family. This plant family includes the deadly nightshade plant, as well as highly edible potatoes, peppers and eggplants.

Tomatoes may play a role in protecting men from getting prostate cancer. Some studies have linked eating more tomato sauce and tomato juice with reducing prostate cancer risk and, potentially, other types of cancer.

Tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, which is a carotenoid pigment responsible for the rosy red of ripe tomatoes. Lycopene is the natural chemical believed to be at least partly responsible for helping protect us from cancer and other diseases.

The lycopene in cooked tomato products, such as spaghetti or pizza sauce, appears to be absorbed better by the body than lycopene from raw tomatoes. If the sauce also contains some fat, the lycopene is absorbed better.

However, both raw and cooked tomato products are healthful additions to your diet. The latest nutrition advice from www.choosemyplate.gov recommends that half of our plate should be fruits and vegetables.

Tomatoes are technically a fruit, but because they are used as vegetables in menus, they count toward the daily vegetable recommendation. Most adults need 2½ to 3 cups of vegetables daily to meet the recommendation.

When choosing tomatoes, pick plump tomatoes free of blemishes. Store them at room temperature until they are fully ripened. For longer storage after they are cut, they should be refrigerated. One-half cup of chopped tomato has just 20 calories, 1 gram of dietary fiber, 40 percent of the daily vitamin C recommendation and 10 percent of the daily vitamin A recommendation.

If you have enough tomatoes to preserve, be sure to follow research-tested recipes. Add the recommended amount of bottled lemon juice to tomatoes prior to canning to be sure they are at a safe acidity. Use research-tested salsa recipes. For directions, see the NDSU Extension Service publication at http://tinyurl.com/3zfegts. If you decide to grow tomatoes and its cousins in the future, check out “All in the Family” at http://tinyurl.com/6y86jg3.

Try this tasty recipe for stuffed tomatoes from the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Network.


Stuffed Tomatoes

1 small onion

3 large tomatoes

1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs

2 teaspoons dried parsley

2 teaspoons dried basil

½ teaspoon black pepper

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon salad oil

¼ cup water

Mozzarella cheese (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 F. Peel the onion and chop it into small pieces. Cut each tomato in half. Remove the part with the stem. Gently squeeze each tomato half over the sink to remove the seeds. Put the bread crumbs* into a medium bowl. Add the spices and oil. Mix well, slowly adding water to moisten the crumbs. Use a spoon to press the crumb mixture into the tomato halves. Lightly oil a baking pan. Place the tomatoes on the pan with the cut side up. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the crumbs are browned and the tomatoes are soft. If desired, remove the tomatoes a few minutes before they are done and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Return to the oven until the cheese melts.

(*) If you do not have a box of bread crumbs, make your own. Toast four slices of bread (such as whole-wheat bread). Crush with a rolling pin or the side of a jar to make bread crumbs.

Makes six servings, one-half tomato per serving. One serving has 120 calories, 3.5 grams (g) of fat, 18 g of carbohydrate, 2 g of fiber and 135 milligrams of sodium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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