microbes eat my garbage! Or something like that...
Monday, October 26, 2009
You say tomato...
What's green, grows in the garden, and is either a dangerous though necessary infrastructure or a delicious vegetable depending on who you ask?
The tomato plant. Specifically, tomato leaves.
My grandmother taught me to garden and to compost, and a lot of what I know about cooking as well. So now and then I tell her about my more amusing container-gardening experiences, offering stories as partial payment for all the lessons then and now. A few weeks ago, she mentioned almost in passing that you can eat tomato leaves.
I'm sure you could have heard my response for a quarter-mile all around. Why didn't anyone tell me? All that produce, wasted. I'd always thought they were toxic, you see, nightshade and all that. But one of my favorite teachers in the art of surviving life vouches for their edibility, so I went searching for the full story.
Don't have it yet, but I have enough: yes, they are edible, and worth eating, though not everyone's sure or willing to say for the record that they're safe. Still, I found enough in academic journals and newspapers, reprinted family histories and even a few old recipes to decide it was safe enough for me. Within reason. Hey, my grandmother's fed me a lot of good food over the years... And besides, while I did see a whole lot of "tomato leaves will kill you" warnings, none of them were from what I consider really reputable sources, no scientific studies on animal or person.
Some newer publications say that tomato leaves have tomatine, not the solanine usually listed as a toxin, and more than one source points out the lack of verified cases of poisoning by tomato leaf, though there are many from related plants that do contain solanine. Upon first broadening my search beyond the scientific sites, two page views of the general-audience Aggie horticultural site gave me two different versions of a secondary-crop list of common garden vegetables, one of which has tomatoes listed only as a fruit, because "the leaves contain alkaloids," the other of which had only a line in the box where that caution had first been.
All right, I thought, let's assume tomato leaves are in fact edible without risk and move on. Citations? Recipes?
To judge by the scarcity of information it's not too common, but that's the same reasoning that once led historians to assume that no one ate salads in the Dark Ages--some things simply don't get written down. Which does not explain why the information wasn't passed hand to hand, as it were. If they are edible, why are they so overlooked even by subsistence-level famers in areas where the plants are native or at least easy to grow? But then, one could ask the same about carrot tops. Yes, you can eat those, too.
As far as adding tomato leaves to the menu, the general recommendation seems to be that they are a suitable food only for adults (an odd prohibition but not unique). Are they really safe? There's a NYT article about eating tomato leaves, that quoted a book on toxic plants as saying one would have to eat a whole pound before worrying over possible toxins, as if that's incomprehensible, though anyone who's ever watched a pile of spinach cook down to nothing knows better.
By now fairly certain a few wouldn't hurt me, I gave them a try. Raw, they are not for me, though that's more to do with texture than the taste, a bright, almost grassy green with a backbite rather like arugula. Maybe one baby leaf, minced, alone or mixed with chives to top a cold dish, but not torn up for a salad green. The large, dark bottom leaves are too tough to bother with. But that still leaves a whole lot of potential cooking greens sprawling through my garden. And they're pretty yummy.
Recipes are few and far between, but anecdotes can be found, so I turned up a few uses without too much effort. The older, less juicy fresh leaves can be used as a wrap for cheeses during curing. The dried leaves were sometimes used to extend other dried herbs, and as a substitute for parsely in seasoning mixes, I'd guess because drying the leaves took no extra effort when one hung whole tomato plants for ripening, an old trick once again coming into favor: harvest the plant, hang it roots-up away from light and with lots of air, and tomatoes will continue to ripen on the vine.
Medium-sized fresh leaves can be blanched for a few seconds and added to sauces and purees; they are cooked as your basic pot herb (I am so tired of the ubiquitous instruction to "cook as spinach," which I'm convinced is written by cooks who have never used the green in question). Those without my objection to the texture eat them raw when young and tender. Far and away the most frequently cited English-language use of tomato leaves I found was their addition to canned or otherwise bland tomato sauce to improve the flavor, removed before serving, often in combination with other herbs in a string bundle, sometimes alone. And a few regional uses from the NYT article linked above offer ideas I have not yet had the chance to try.
My last-season tomato plant has mostly given up on flowering for the year, but that doesn't mean I’m through with it. I've a few recent romas waiting for fate to find them, and there’s a recipe I'd like to try...after which, I'm calling my grandmother to ask for any of her old recipes that use tomato leaves. 'Cause I've got a lot of years of missed greens to make up for!