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You say tomato, I say ... a guide to the fruit

Mama mia! “Today” food editor Phil Lempert takes a look at this Italian staple, breaks down packaged sauces, and shares his simple recipe.

How did a fruit from the Americas become the signature ingredient in Italian cookery? The lower Andes native originated in Mexico where the Mexican Aztecs cultivated it for generations, calling it tomatl meaning “plump fruit.” The Spanish, especially Columbus, took tomatoes (along with maize, potatoes, chili peppers and sweet potatoes) with them back to Seville, introducing them to Spain and Europe. The popularity of the tomato found its way to Italy in 1544 where Mattioli, a well-known herbalist, referred to tomatoes as golden apples, or mala aurea. The lusciously plump, red fruit was elevated to aphrodisiac status not by Italians, which would seem natural, but by a Dutchman, Dodoens, also an herbalist. The French, knowing an ideal food for love when they saw it, called the tomato pomme d’amour or love apple, thus sealing its exotic reputation and explaining why Italians now call the tomato pomodoro.

Tomatoes are a powerhouse of good things including significant quantities of vitamin C, folate, and lycopene, a red pigment that has antioxidant properties and, in fact, maybe a powerful anti-carcinogenic. Lycopene has also been noted as a good source of nutrition for eye and prostate health. Ironically, heating tomatoes, as commercial manufacturers do to prepare packaged sauces, actually increases the lycopene levels of this valuable element. The tomato is botanically part of the fruit family, Solanacea, but U.S. government agencies have quirkily given it vegetable status, thus continuing the seesaw definition of fruit or vegetable that has shadowed the red, luscious tomato all these centuries.

This zigzag trip through culture and cuisine does have a point. The tomato made its first appearance in a “Spanish-style sauce” edited into a Neapolitan recipe, jotted down in 1692, two hundred years after Columbus sailed home with his bounties. The most famous of Italian red tomato sauces is marinara which means sailor in Italian — probably because the spicy sauce is cooked quickly, poured over pasta, making it an easy, simple dish for sailors at sea. The many styles of tomato sauce include: plain tomato sauce with herbs; with the pronounced perfume of basil; with one or four cheese(s); cooked with ground beef or sausage; vegetables; sun dried tomatoes; mushroom; spinach, or combinations of these with heavy doses of onions and garlic. They’re available in regular and organic, and in smooth and chunky versions with noticeable bites of tomatoes.

Tomatoes should be the first in the list of ingredients on any jarred, canned, frozen or tetra-pak pasta sauce. Nearly all commercial, tomato-based pasta sauces have some sweetening in them to counteract the acidity of the tomatoes. Among the sweeteners can be one or all of the following: sugar, cane juice, high fructose or corn syrup, and/or dextrose. Frankly, I’ve found that the better tasting the pasta sauce, the less sugars were added and that real sugar was used. Diabetics beware that some brands list the sweeteners as the first, and therefore the main ingredient in the sauce. Oils included can be corn, which also adds a heavy, sweetish quality to the sauce, olive oil (ideal), or light-tasting oils like canola or safflower.

Remember that fresh tomato sauces should be refrigerated at all times, and used within the expiration date, usually under five days. Canned and jarred tomato sauces have a considerably longer shelf life, from six to 24 months. Once opened, they must be refrigerated in a container with a tight-fitting lid. It is best to remove leftover sauces from cans and put them into refrigerator-safe containers. Exposure to open air leaves the sauces vulnerable to mold and bitterness.

And if you really want to be a purest, try my recipe: quickly sauté a teaspoonful of the best extra virgin olive oil you can find, a sprinkle of fresh basil, a sprinkle of fresh oregano and add a can of crushed tomatoes. Heat on a medium flame and stir in crushed red pepper seeds (to taste, but remember the pepper seeds are hot!). I guarantee you’ll have one of the freshest tasting sauces you’ve ever served and save money instead of buying jarred sauces!

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .