Tomatoes are what most gardeners who grow veggies wait for all year. For some, fresh, summer-ripe tomatoes are so key to summertime eating that they’re the only things they grow. That first juicy slicer right off their own plants is a much-anticipated reward for the effort of growing and tending.
|A basket from yesterday's small haul|
There’s absolutely no substitute for a ripe beefsteak slathered with mayo, topped with crisp bacon and lettuce mashed between two toasted slices of whole grain bread. Or a thick slice of Big Rainbow in all its golden-rosy glory on toast with grainy mustard and melted cheddar, or fresh salsa made that morning, or brie cheese and chopped fresh tomato on warm pasta --one of the quickest, best summer suppers ever. Tomato sandwiches, Genovese salad with mozzarella and basil and a drizzle of good olive oil, fresh marinara sauce, tomato dill soup. I could go on. And on.
Tomatoes are so good for you. Chock-full of anti-oxidants, vitamins and lycopene, which is good for the eyes and helps prevent macular degeneration. But of course, if it tasted like caster oil, it would be a chore to eat them, whereas they’re so delicious in season. Seasonal eating brings us back to the earth, offers the opportunity to anticipate short-lived culinary pleasures and then to savor them when they arrive.
|Big Mamas and Supersauce ripening on the counter|
But this year has been hard on the tomatoes so far. Lots of rain, wilder-than-usual swings in temperatures, fungus, blight. It’s been challenging on a number of fronts. I had to clip off the bottom leaves of all mine to take off the blight and have my fingers crossed about the rest of the season's production. As a precaution, I’ve been grabbing the fruits off the plants as soon as they show a blush and bringing them indoors to finish ripening. It works. They taste just as good as right off the vine (though for purists this off-vine ripening seems like cheating), and it gets them away from the potential predators and diseases. There have so far been a few with blossom end rot -- a Big Rainbow and couple of Supersauce and a Genovese Costoluto. A few are cat-faced, which doesn’t affect their flavor at all, but is a pain in the neck to cut around. (I do it anyway). Last night I got home from a long meeting and chopped up two big cat-faced babies and sautéed them with peppers, onions, garlic, some fresh Cuban basil and a splash of white wine and plopped a cod filet in the middle. Fifteen minutes start to finish. Yummy.
|Tomato dill soup in pot|
I usually plant far more paste varieties than slicers since I can them. I count on a winter’s supply of home-canned tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, salsa, my version of V-8 which doubles as Bloody Mary mix and struggle to make enough to carry us through until the following year’s first ripe tomato. If I have extra fruits after filling the pantry with a sufficient supply of those things, I start experimenting with new (to me) recipes. Last year I made harrissa from a recipe I pulled out of Ball’s Canning and Preserving. I like it and so does my family; it’s an easy thing to throw on chicken or fish or into beef stew, but I plan to tweak the recipe some if I make it again this year – less sweet more heat.
So far, I’ve canned about nine pints of Big Mamas and Supersauce, a variety I’m trying this year. (The Supersauce plants don’t seem to be as robust as Big Mamas but the fruits are huge and meaty). Canning, like gardening doesn’t always work out every time, even when you’ve been doing it as long as I have (decades). That’s life. I’ve had several jars break their bottoms out in the water bath despite being set on a rack in the canner to keep their bottoms off the hot metal canner’s bottom. The jars could have been old and ready to go, there could have been a crack in them that I didn’t notice when I washed and sterilized them, it could have been the set of the moon. I really don’t know, though I will inspect much more carefully before filling any more.
|Tomato dill soup|
Despite the losses, I’ve got nine perfectly sealed pints of plain canned organic tomatoes so far, and plan to start making salsa and spaghetti sauce with the next batch that ripen on the counter. In winter, the jewel-like lines of canned tomatoes and other garden produce offer organic possibilities for meals even if we’re snowed in, out of electricity, or in some way blockaded from modern life. Like money in the bank. It makes the challenges and frustrations worth it.
Growing, eating and preserving what I grow gives me confidence in what I’m feeding those I love. I also appreciate the many small but creative and important ways that generations past planned for, worked toward, and created an abundance in their lives that we now tend to take for granted.
Tomato Dill Soup
This soup is good hot or cold, can be made with canned or fresh tomatoes, and is so easy. I used the cat-face tomatoes I harvest the other day and have been enjoying the soup for lunch.
3 cups tomatoes, peeled and rough-chopped
1 medium onion, rough-chopped
4-5 sprigs of fresh dill
2 tblsp butter (don’t substitute, the real thing is worth it)
1 tblsp olive oil
1 chicken bullion cube
salt and pepper
1 cup water
Melt butter with olive oil in a heavy pot. Throw in tomatoes, onion and half of the dill. Sauté for a few minutes. Throw in bullion cube and water. Cover and simmer for about 10 minute or until everything’s soft. Puree (hand blender right in the pot is easiest. If you put this in a blender or food processor, wait until it cools some). Sever warm or chilled with a sprig of fresh dill on top.