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I was thinking about all my favorite tomato dishes and wondering if there were a way to infuse more tomato flavor into my chili, spagbol, and bloody mary. I've heard that the tomato vine contains a lot of the aromatic compounds we associate with delicious tomato flavor, but the vines themselves are not safe to eat. However, many inedible things can be used in infusions to carry the aroma only from something, such as how wormwood is made into absinthe. My goal is not to discover the next psychedelic. But can I infuse tomato vines in vodka as an additive for sauces and drinks?

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2 Answers 2

This would be a really, really bad idea. The alkaloid compounds that make nightshades toxic can be toxic even at low levels, and a few of them are specifically alcohol soluble. This means that while chomping down on a tomato leaf might not hurt you, the toxins are readily extracted in alcohol, so you'd be maximizing your exposure to them by making a liqueur.

Further, most of the aromatic compounds in the tomato leaves and stems are going to be very bitter anyway, so even if this weren't dangerous, it would be of dubious culinary use.

Tomato Toxicity from WikiPedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomato#Plant_toxicity

Source: http://www.anaturalway.com/NightShade%20Alkaloid%20Toxins.html

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I don't see anything in the source you cited that says there are dangerous toxins in tomatoes as cultivated (it says solanine is present in all tomatoes, and in all parts of the plant, but obviously tomatoes aren't poisonous). People used to just assume that tomatoes were poisonous - it seems like you're doing the same thing for the vines. –  Jefromi Jul 13 '13 at 20:46
    
I added another source and edited to clarify. The toxins are more concentrated in unripe fruit and the green parts of the plant rather than the ripe fruit (see second source). Since there has been one reported case of toxicity from a tea made from leaves, it seems unwise to soak them in an even more efficient solvent of the alkaloids if the solvent is then intended for consumption. –  sourd'oh Jul 13 '13 at 21:20
    
I don't think the OP is talking about drinking this liqueur - just using it as a flavoring. Wikipedia (your additional source) does say "levels of tomatine in foliage and green fruit are generally too small to be dangerous unless large amounts are consumed ... Small amounts of tomato foliage are sometimes used for flavoring without ill effect..." so I'd imagine using small amounts of liqueur derived from foliage for flavoring would similarly be safe. –  Jefromi Jul 13 '13 at 22:28

According to Harold McGee writing in the Curious Cook column of the New York times, despite widespread belief that tomato vines are poisonous, there is little actual supporting evidence that they are in fact poisonous:

[T]here’s scant evidence for tomato toxicity in the medical and veterinary literature. I found just one medical case, an undocumented reference to children having been made sick by tomato-leaf tea, in a 1974 book on poisonous plants. In contrast to the few anecdotal accounts of livestock poisoning, a controlled study in Israel in 1996 showed no ill effects when cattle ate tomato vines for 42 days.

That is not to say that infusing vodka with tomato vines will taste good. In my opinion, if you want concentrated tomato flavor, use concentrated tomato (paste, or sun dried, for example). It seems highly likely that this going to be far more effective than trying to create a tomato extract from the green plant parts.

You can also take a pointer from the dish "penne a la vodka" which, while trendy, shows that some flavors are more easily carried in alcohol than in water or fat, and so having some alcohol in your recipe (from wine, vodka or whatever) can help intensify the flavor.

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To be fair, the nice aromatics that you smell on tomato stems and leaves aren't as strong in the tomatoes themselves, and they quickly go away with cooking, so the flavor of tomato paste or sun-dried tomatoes isn't exactly the same flavor the OP is talking about here. –  Jefromi Jul 13 '13 at 20:47

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