When you think of the famous, history-changing Supreme Court cases, what comes to mind? Brown v. Board of Education? Roe v. Wade? Miranda v. Arizona? How about Nix v. Hedden? Instead of debating over segregation, freeedom of choice, or the due process of law, this particular case was over the issue of tomatoes being a vegetable or fruit. The Nix v. Hedden case, the most heated battle of the Supreme Court in 1883, was between a tomato importer — Nix — and the New York Import Authority, Hedden. Nix was suing Hedden for taxing his tomatoes as vegetables. He argued that they were really fruits (which were, conveniently, tariff-free), and, therefore, were exempt from taxation.
Of course, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably already been told that tomatoes are actually fruits. But what makes the tomato a fruit and not a vegetable? Botanically speaking, fruits are the mature ovary (flowering structure) of plants. Fruits are designed to house and protect the seeds of the plant. Vegetables, on the other hand, are the edible portion of a plant. They are classified into different groups based on their structure like roots (carrots), bulbs (onions), or leaves (lettuce). Therefore, a plump, seedy tomato is really a fruit, but technically, so are pumpkins, peppers, and squash.
Well you can clearly see the confusion. But thanks to the Supreme Court in 1883, the matter of whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable was resolved (kind of). They ruled that:
“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”
The United States Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes would be considered a vegetable according to the common custom, although agreeing that, botanically, the tomato is actually a fruit. So, unfortunately for Mr. Nix, he had to continue to pay the vegetable tariff on his tomatoes.
But this doesn’t mean that we should be confined into thinking that tomatoes are vegetables, or “served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish or meats.” In fact, a tomato has more similarities to an apple or orange or plum than it does to a carrot or onion. Like most other fruits, tomatoes are juicy, soft, and during their summer peak, have a mild sweetness too. So if we are all acknowledging that tomatoes are fruits, why don’t we start treating them as such?
Instead of making the predictable red sauce, or tossing them atop some salad, or stuck inside a sandwich, I’m taking advantage of the fruity qualities of tomatoes and utilizing them in new and creative ways. Take for instance, sweet tomato peach jam, or buttery sun-dried tomato shortbread cookies, and even heirloom tomato cake.
Playing upon the fruity characteristics of tomatoes make them work really well in these recipes. Like most fruits, tomatoes contain a significant amount of pectin, the natural thickening compound in fruits. This makes them ideal for jams and preserves. Without skinning them, roughly diced tomatoes blend perfectly with sweet and juicy peaches. After a few minutes of simmering together, the fruits form a delicious jam without any added thickening agents.
Due to their high water content, tomatoes also lend themselves well to drying. Like many other fruits, once dried, tomatoes become deliciously sweet and chewy. Using them similarly to raisins, sun-dried tomatoes can easily be added to a cookie dough like shortbread cookies. The savory shortbreads below are an easy, but elegant hors d’oeuvre to serve alongside wine or cheese.
But a tomato, like most other fruits, can be cooked as is too. Although they have seeds, I find them small and soft enough to leave them within the fruit, like kiwis. Baking sliced tomatoes in butter and brown sugar helps caramelize the natural sugars in tomatoes and adds a soft topping to a homey cornmeal cake.
Although Mr. Nix might have lost his case (which is now obsolete as fruit, in addition to everything, is taxed), his plight is not forgotten. Though common culture might treat them as vegetables, botanically, tomatoes are truly fruits and deserve to – occasionally – be treated as such.
Tomato Peach Preserves
Tomatoes have a significant amount of pectin, the natural thickening agent in fruits, that makes it perfect for turning into jams and preserves. Combined with sweet summery peaches, this spread makes a delightful addition to any brunch menu. Serve on plain toast or with a soft cheese.
1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 overripe, soft peaches, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons ginger
Juice from ½ orange
In a small saucepan over low heat, heat the tomatoes and peaches until they begin to soften and release their liquids (about 10 minutes.)
Using a vegetable peeler or knife, peel a thin section of the orange peel, about ¼ of the orange. Slice the skin into fine ribbons.
To the saucepan, add the orange ribbons and remaining ingredients and stir to combine.
Continue to heat over low heat until the preserves reach the desired thick consistency about 20 more minutes stirring occasionally.
If you prefer a sweeter preserve, add one more tablespoon of honey or two teaspoons of sugar.
Yields 1½-2 cups preserves
Sun-dried Tomato Shortbread Cookies
These cookies are a savory and addictive appetizer. A slightly sweet and buttery cookie is the perfect vehicle for the natural sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, and a sprinkle of Pecorino Romano cheese. Feel free to change the herbs and other additions to what you have on hand as these cookies lend themselves to many tasty variations. These would also be delicious with our slow-roasted cherry tomatoes.
1 cup flour
½ cup cornstarch
½ cup sugar
I stick of butter, softened
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ cup diced sun-dried tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped basil
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted and chopped
3 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Preheat oven to 325°F.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour and cornstarch.
In a separate bowl, mix together the sugar, almond extract, and butter with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely absorbed by the butter.
Add the butter to the flour mixture and using your hands or a pastry cutter, blend the butter and flour together using your hands or pastry cutter. Just before the dough fully comes together, add the tomatoes, basil, pine nuts, and cheese. Continue mixing until a ball forms. The dough should be slightly crumbly.
Wrap the ball in plastic and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured surface to ¼-inch thickness. Using a circle cookie cutter, cut circles from the dough and place onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake the cookies for 20-25 minutes or until the edges are just lightly golden. Be careful not to overbake as the cookies should not change color.
Let cool and serve.
Yields 12 2-inch cookies
Heirloom Tomato Upside-Down Cake
The original version of this recipe called for using green tomatoes — which can be quite bland and tricky to find. I decided to use plump heirloom tomatoes for their flavor and striking color. Baked in a pool of brown sugar and butter, the tomatoes soften and become incredibly sweet. This cornmeal-based cake is rustic and homey like something straight from the farmer’s market.
1 stick melted butter, divided
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
2 cups sliced heirloom tomatoes in a variety of colors
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup sugar
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Pour half the melted butter into a 9-inch cake pan. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the butter and spread evenly. Layer the tomato slices, arranging them in a single layer. Set aside.
Whisk together the remaining melted butter with the buttermilk, eggs, and sugar.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking soda, and salt until evenly mixed. Gradually add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until well incorporated, but do not overmix.
Slowly pour the batter over the layered tomato slices. Bake the cake for 45-50 minutes or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes.
Run a knife along the edges of the cake. Place a serving plate, upside down on top of the cake pan. Carefully flip the cake pan on top of the plate.
Serve warm. As an option, serve with a sweet balsamic reduction and mascarpone cheese.
Yields 1 9-inch cake
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s Green Tomato Upside-Cake in The New Greenmarket Cookbook (DeCapo Press, 2014).
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski