Archive for the ‘tomatoes’ category

spring & fall

September 16, 2013

Yesterday I began taking down the tomatoes—not that they need much help from me. The heavy vines have been pulling their spindly “supports” down for weeks, sometimes ripping them right out of the earth. Greenery is browning fast, some branches shriveling to dusty nothingness while others, still juicy, play host to a dark creeping fungus. And everywhere, cracked fruits blacken, ooze, spill, stink.


Tomatoland in early fall is not a very nice place to visit—so says the human. But if the plants could describe their ambition, this would probably be it. For this moment, the tender seedlings climbed toward the sky; they put out their modest yellow flowers to tempt the bees and butterflies; they dug deep, sucking water and nutrients out of the soil. All so the fruits could swell, burst, and spill their seeds back to the earth.

It’s all very lovely but, alas, I have to interrupt the cycle. Those ratty vines and rotting fruits can also harbor pests and disease that will re-emerge next year, so I drag the spent plants to the back of the property, then (ick) pick up bucketloads of liquefying fruits. Every few minutes I’m startled by the sound of a pinecone falling five, six stories from the tall trees on the north rim of my property. Across the street, someone tends a grave in the hamlet’s cemetery.

There are a few bright, unblemished specimens, so those go into the kitchen, but after a day spent among the dying I’ve kind of lost my appetite for tomatoes. Early summer—when I would tenderly pinch suckers on the way out of the house, then leave for work with the furry green scent of young tomato plants on my fingers—seems so long ago.

Except…in the shadow of the compost pile, for a late-starting volunteer, it’s still spring. Small green fruits have only just begun to swell on the vines, which show not a hint of decay anywhere. There are even a few flowers left on the plant’s shaded backside. Sitting with it is a nice way to restore the senses after a day of less-pleasant chores. But from a tomato’s point of view, this may be the saddest plant of all, as it will most certainly be cut down by a killing frost before today’s hard green spheres have a chance to swell…color…soften…crack…collapse…spill.Image

more than one way to skin a tomato

September 6, 2011

The first time I tried to peel and core a (small!) quantity of cherry tomatoes, it wasn’t too long before I wanted to flay myself. It is a fussy job no matter how you slice it, but if the little suckers are  slightly too green or slightly too ripe it is damn near impossible — either the skins refuse to let go or the fruit turns to mush in your fingers. And yet this morning I found myself contentedly peeling a pile of cherries for the summer’s third batch of tomato preserves.

This is the season of tomatoes, the most valuable currency of the kitchen. I bring in way more multicolored beauties than I can consume, but I’m always reluctant to downgrade them from fresh to — well, anything else. Every day or so I’ll dry a few pans of halved cherries in the oven, but at least as many are reserved for consumption in their unadulterated form. I pile them up on every available surface, believing somehow that I need to hold on to that Brandywine, this bowl of Persimmons, or risk fresh tomato bankruptcy — never mind that the garden’s economy is showing no signs of slowing.

Yesterday I came to my senses and decided it was time to clear the countertops. I began the day by sorting — perfect, medium-sized specimens would be preserved whole in a ginger-lemon syrup, smaller ones would be oven-dried, and the random remains would be sauce.

These plans involved peeling everything but the babies destined for the oven, a task that turns out to be not as tedious as it once seemed. It helps when you have gained a measure of skill through practice. But more than that, it is an aesthetically pleasing process, bordering on the erotic. After a quick dip in boiling water, the damp, soft skins slip off like a negligee, revealing the delicate flesh beneath — veiny, translucent little orbs that seem lit from within.

I once came across a note in a cookbook that suggested drying tomato skins in the oven and using them as a seasoning. At the time I thought this to be a ridiculous idea. But looking at the sunset-colored pile of discarded vestments, I couldn’t resist.

Even pleasant pursuits can be exhausting, so when I reached the bottom of the preserves pile, I took a little break before attacking the lumpier beasts destined for the saucepot.  Slicing up cherries for drying is quick work; after a few hours in a low oven they would dry to leathery coins that could be packed away for a winter’s day.

So, with the oven humming and a pile of sugar slowly melting over the preserves-to-be, I turned to the sauce tomatoes. Their flesh folded into irregular crevasses and weird growths, as well as the occasional dark spot that needed to be excised — nothing sexy about any of that. I wielded my paring knife like a butcher and did my best to contain the gore.

I find it hard to get too excited about tomato sauce, actually, but after a busy summer of canning I’ve already got more ketchup, salsa, and tomato jam than I know what to do with. So for this project I thought more in terms of soup base — something I could add to, say, a bag of lentils for a quick winter meal.

I started with the typical mélange of onions, carrots, celery, plus a stalk of lovage. (Lovage is my new discovery of the season — it looks a little bit like celery, tastes a little bit like celery, but it also carries the distinctive flavor of, well, lovage. It really doesn’t taste like anything else that I can identify, but boy does it add an intoxicating aroma to a bubbling sauce.) Next, some garlic pounded with coriander, followed by a couple of zucchini, and finally the tomatoes and some oregano.

Preserves were the last job: the pretty little globes with which I began my day went  over the flame with their sugar syrup, plus sliced lemons, ginger and a few cloves. It is a recipe that takes more patience than skill: the idea is to reduce the liquid to gel stage without allowing the tomatoes to fall apart.

And that was that — 14+ pounds of tomatoes reduced to six luminous jars of preserves, about a cup of dried tomatoes, the beginnings of four pots of soup. And the experiment with the peels? Um… I got distracted and burned them.

I stepped outside with the remains and the breeze carried them east to settle on the garden from whence they came. Which is where they were headed anyway, I guess. The path they took happened to be a little less messy than traveling through my gut and septic system. But whether progress begins with a holy unveiling or sloppy scalping, whether they seep into the muck or are borne aloft on the wind, all tomatoes get themselves back to the garden… somehow.

i am my own four-year-old

September 23, 2010

Not all people get excited about a plate full of vegetables all the time.

That’s when disguises come in handy.[Recipe: Pick as many green beans as you can carry in the bottom of your t-shirt. Set a pot of water to boil. Go back outside and grab a bunch of stemmy old arugula, plus a handful of basil. Blanch the beans in boiling water, chop roughly, and throw in the blender with arugula, basil, a couple of cloves of garlic, a chunk of feta the size of an apricot (if apricots were craggy instead of round) and enough olive oil to keep things moving.]

When you’ve had enough of mock guac but still aren’t ready to face unadulterated vegetables, make pizza! Make a simple dough using a roughly 2:1 ratio of flour:water, plus some yeast and salt. Dip into those dried tomatoes you’ve been putting away and let a handful bubble in some warm olive oil. Spread the dough thin, decorate, stick in a very hot oven… and enjoy! You won’t even want dessert.

roasted tomato cornbread

September 9, 2010


I love a tomato

September 6, 2010

Only two things money can’t  buy

and that’s true love

and home-grown tomatoes.

                      —Guy Clark

 For a long time, ours was a one-sided relationship. I brought the scraggly little things home with me and then spent countless hours kneeling at their feet, attending to their every need. For weeks upon weeks, I got nothing in return but bug bites, sunburn, and dirty nails.

 But recently things changed. The great tomato jungle is now so productive, so overgrown, that I inevitably squash a few underfoot when I go out to harvest once, twice a day. And I no longer apologize.

 While I’ve lived this particular romance before, I am again surprised at how fast it changes from sweet to overwhelming. Suddenly they insist on joining me for every meal—and in between, the big bowl on the counter demands to be snacked upon. Meanwhile, there are pans roasting in the oven and the dehydrator hums on the counter all day long. And when I can steal a few moments away from the tomatoes, there are beans and squash to blanch and freeze.

Isn’t this what I wanted? Yes, but I could use some space. Now when I enter the kitchen and see rows of tomatoes lolling on windowsills, I feel something between boredom and dread. But then I slice one open… and it’s like the first time.

Having tomatoes in your life requires some effort. Some years the plants appreciate the pains you take on their behalf. Other years the crop is meager or nonexistent. Maybe it’s something you did. Maybe it’s something you didn’t do. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe you started with bad stock. Last year a blight collapsed plants for miles around. Still, we tomato lovers press on, laboring at the feet of these mysterious nightshades in hopes that our efforts will someday bear fruit.

Yesterday I was cutting some arugula in the herb garden when I felt a familiar pop-squish under my foot. At first I thought I had dropped a tomato on my way in from the house, but then, shaded between the wildflowers and the sorrel, I found this.

I remembered seeing the volunteer early in the summer. I let it stand—just to see what would happen—even though everyone knows productive plants do not begin their lives in this ground. The growing season is too short. Tomato plants are started indoors while the ground is white and the sky is gray, then planted around Memorial Day.

Who knows what circumstances allowed this impossibility to flourish? Gardeners quickly accept that our best efforts don’t always bear fruit. Once in awhile, we experience the flip side—reward without labor, without explanation. Call it grace.

impulse purchase at the farmers’ market

May 31, 2010


September 8, 2009

000_0923I pulled up this plant a month ago… it’s STILL producing!

how much of what we did was good?

August 27, 2009

Gardening, like life, involves making choices, and often information pertinent to important choices comes to light later than we would have liked. In Roseboom, I am fairly isolated from major media outlets, and though I had heard a bit about the blight from my neighbors, I didn’t realize the scope of the problem at first. By the time I started looking up articles in the New York Times, it was midsummer. I had taken out a few of the hardest-hit plants, but overall I had adopted a laissez-faire attitude: if a plant had more green than brown, it stayed where it was. Then I began to read how the recent upsurge in amateur gardening might have actually contributed to the problem; novice gardeners, not recognizing the warning signs, actually provided incubators for the plague to gather strength and then hop to the next neighbor. I read this about the same time that a bucket of unsullied green tomatoes, brought inside after being plucked from an infected host, collapsed into slime in just a couple days time. And so, it was time for drastic measures. My remaining plants were in various states of health, but not one was pristine, so out they all went. No mercy. Feeling very responsible, I piled them in the farthest back corner of the property and forgot about them, mostly.  But not long ago, among the withering stems, I noticed a few bright spots. Not only had the yellow cherries failed to succumb, they were ripening fast, even as the plant they grew on shriveled to nothing. (Although it had spent a couple of weeks among corpses of the afflicted, it seemed bothered less by the blight than by being severed from the soil.) It recalled an image of a plump baby attached to the breast of a grey, gaunt woman somewhere in rural Appalachia. I’ve probably harvested about 50 little tomatoes at this point, and I’m glad for every one of them, but I can’t help but wonder what my windowsills would look like if I had left that poor plant’s feet in the ground.000_0875

the whole of the harvest

August 25, 2009

000_0854Last year I learned that it is, in fact, possible to have too many garden-fresh tomatoes. Well, almost. For a few weeks, when they appeared at three meals a day, I got tired of the idea of them. But then, I would cut into one…. and somehow only part of it would make its way into the bowl, or the saucepot, or the drying rack. Even when they were covering every windowsill, every countertop, every everything, those shiny globes were still irresistible.

This year I restrained myself and planted only 19 tomato plants (as compared to last year’s 29). And, like growers across the country, I saw them shrivel with blight. I only managed to rescue a handful of early-ripening yellow cherries…

O come, let us adore.

gather potatoes while ye may

August 11, 2009

There is a blight sweeping the entire northeast, taking out all variety of nightshades. For awhile I was pretty confident I’d duck it—my tomato plants were the healthiest I’d ever seen, thanks to a combination of generous rainfall and a neighbor who is very free with his rotted manure. But last week, I began to see the telltale spots on a few stems. They were the poorest of the plants, so even as I ripped them out I retained a bit of hope for the monsters that remained.000_0825

I also plucked off a pile of shiny green tomatoes before throwing their fast-blackening stems on the rubbish heap; I had had a lot of success ripening the last tomatoes of 2008 indoors, and I figured these orphans could coaxed to redness in the same way. Or I could always experiment with some recipes intended for unripe tomatoes.

But after only a couple of days, I had this:


And then brown spots started to appear on my potato plants, too. In the space between showers yesterday afternoon, I was able to get most of them out of the ground. It’s early, of course, but with potatoes it’s not so much a question of ripeness as mass. The longer you leave them in the ground, the longer you will have a store of potatoes in the larder. The early wee ones are a lovely luxury, though, if you can bring yourself to arrest their growth. Or if you are forced to.

This year I planted fingerlings, and while a few had reached full size in time for this forced harvest, most were the size of a walnut—or smaller. There was also a rogue red potato that sprouted on the edge of last year’s compost, and this unplanned pregnancy resulted in some whoppers, one as large as my outstretched hand.000_0842

I fear these guys, like the green tomatoes, will have a shortened shelf life, due to their brush with the blight. So I’m planning to eat them as fast as I can. Last night I started with the smallest—only about the size of cannellini beans—sautéed with their skins in butter. Normally, when I’m preparing an indulgent meal for one, I reach for the arugula. But my favorite peppery greens—especially pungent this time of year—seemed a bit much for these delicate tubers. I went instead with butter lettuce, sorrel, and nasturtium blossoms, tossed with a very soft vinaigrette sans vinegar—olive oil, vermouth, a touch of sweetish creamy mustard to help with emulsification. Yes.000_0841