Sunday, September 11, 2016

Baltimore County MG Year of the Tomato Update

Guest post by Angie Goodman, describing yet another wonderful tomato tasting!

Baltimore County Master Gardeners
2016 Year of the Tomato

Let me set the stage for you: It is 8:59 am on the morning of the 2015 Baltimore County Master Gardener Plant Sale.  We have 3 members behind the Tomato tables in the back of the “Sun Barn”.  All is calm. 

The clock clicks over to 9am and the barn doors open.  People come rushing in, pulling Plant Chariots (wagons) and carrying boxes.  One of our Tomato sellers described it as a stampede coming toward them; they were sure they would be crushed.  The next few hours could only be compared to a crazy day on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  I even lost my reading glasses early that day (not good since I was a “cashier”).  They were later found smashed into the dirt floor, an apparent victim of the stampede.

The tomatoes sold out early, and it was determined that there were not nearly enough.  Out of this realization was born the Tom Team, led by Baltimore County Master Gardener Lisa Airey; a team dedicated to improving the variety, quality, and number of tomatoes at the next plant sale and tomato tasting.  Over the next several months, we met, and we planned, and we asked Master Gardeners if they would grow for us.

Our expectation was that we would have approximately 800 plants for the sale, many of them heirlooms.  But our incredible group of Master Gardeners went above and beyond our wildest dreams.  We started the sale with over 2,000 tomato plants as we opened the doors at 9am for the sale! (Red tablecloths designate the tomato tables)

At 1:00, as things slowed down, we did a quick inventory and determined that we sold over 1,200 tomato plants in the first 4 hours.  We moved an amazing 300 plants per hour!!  At the end of the day we had a lot of plants left over, but many were distributed to Master Gardeners in the hopes that they would donate some of their fruit to our Tomato Tasting in August.

As we moved through the summer, the weather seemed to get more and more unsettled.  Cold, hot, wet, hot, wet, stormy and windy, hail, hot, wet.  The call went out to the Master Gardeners for donations for the August Tomato Tasting, as part of our annual Gardenfest event.  As one of the organizers of this event, I always worry that we will have only a few varieties on the tables, a concern supported this year by the many emails that I receive from Master Gardeners telling me how horrible their tomatoes are doing.  That doesn’t really matter though.  What matters is that people care enough to make an attempt.  In general, we never know what we will get, until the morning of the tasting.
Again, Master Gardeners came through with flying colors.  The day of our Gardenfest event, we had 50 varieties of tomatoes.  Some people donated several varieties, others just one or two tomatoes.  All were very much appreciated.  As many of the volunteers had helped with the tasting in prior years, they jumped in and self-organized, having the tasting set up and ready to go by 9am.

One gentleman informed us that he didn’t like tomatoes.  But, after tasting several of the varieties, a Master Gardener was helping him gather some of the seeds together from the tomato he liked the best, explaining to him how to save them for planting next year.  One little girl was tasting many varieties, while her mother shared with us that her daughter won’t eat tomatoes at home.  We suggested that possibly she wasn’t serving the kind (or colors) of tomatoes that her daughter liked.   It is always fun to chat with tasters as they taste varieties of tomatoes that might never taste otherwise.
As part of the tasting, we asked tasters to complete a short survey, mostly to vote for their favorite tomato.  87 surveys were collected.  9 of our tasters had never tasted an heirloom tomato prior to that day. 

Here some of the top rankings:

1st place: Sungold F1 – 19 votes
2nd place: Black Cherry – 13 votes
3rd place (tie): Black Krim -- 9 votes
3rd place (tie): Hungarian Heart – 9 votes

Cherry Tomatoes:
1st place: Sungold F1 – 19 votes
2nd place: Black Cherry – 13 votes
3rd place: Indigo Rose – 3 votes

Paste/Plum Tomatoes:
1st place (tie): Purple Russian – 3 votes
1st place (tie): Striped Roma – 3 votes
2nd place (tie): Juliet F1  – 2 votes
2nd place (tie): Royal Chica Roma – 2 votes

Slicer/Salad/Beefsteak Tomatoes:
1st place (tie): Black Krim – 9 votes
1st place (tie): Hungarian Heart – 9 votes
2nd place: Pineapple – 7 votes

Heirloom/Open Pollinated:
1st place: Black Cherry – 13 votes
2nd place (tie): Black Krim – 9 votes
2nd place (tie): Hungarian Heart – 9 votes

1st place: Sungold F1 – 19 votes 
2nd place: Red Beefsteak (variety unknown) – 5 votes
3rd place: Earliana – 4 votes

--Angie Goodman (Baltimore County Master Gardener)

Monday, September 5, 2016

Roasted summer vegetables

We talk a lot on this blog about roasting vegetables, but the majority of those posts are about fall/winter veggies like squash or root crops. Summer seems a time for quick stir-fries or cooking veggies on the grill (mm, grilled zucchini, eggplant, etc.). And sure, when it's in the 90s we don't really want to have the oven on to slow-roast. But in the years when I've had a big harvest of tomatoes and peppers (which I've been lucky enough to get this year) and just can't deal with them all fresh, I've turned to roasting and freezing. Maybe I'll use the results soon (like on one of those super-hot days), or maybe I'll pull them out of the freezer in mid-winter - either way, convenient and delicious.

Roasting brings out rich, concentrated flavors in vegetables, and those flavors contribute well to mixed vegetable dishes or to combinations with meat. And they make terrific salsas and sauces. I made a quick and delicious pasta sauce by burrowing in my freezer for last year's roasted tomatoes and winter squash, similar to the tomato-sweet potato sauce I've described here before. Because the tomatoes had already been cooked to reduce moisture content, the sauce was ready much faster than if I'd had to wait for fresh tomatoes to cook down.

Here's a post by Nancy about roasting tomatoes. This is about the same method I use, though I don't bother removing most of the seeds and pulp in the middle, add the step of putting the cleaned and cut tomatoes in a colander over a bowl to drain (you can push them around with a wooden spoon, pressing a bit to get the juice out - and then use the drained juice in other recipes or to drink), and roast at a higher temperature for a slightly shorter time (more like 375/40). There's a big variety in temperature and time in recipes. I think generally if you want a result more like sun-dried tomatoes to eat as snacks, you want lower temperatures and longer roasting time (over an hour is not unreasonable), whereas if you're going to freeze them like I usually do, a greater level of goopiness is okay, and higher/shorter works.

Here's my latest batch of roasted tomatoes.

Any tomatoes can be roasted, and I'll choose first the ripest (since I'm doing this to get them off the kitchen table before they rot) and those I'm least tempted to slice and eat fresh. So this year I wouldn't be roasting my Cherokee Purples, but would choose the prolific and average-to-good tasting tomatoes like those University of Florida varieties I mentioned in a previous post. Cherry tomatoes are also awesome when roasted (and we often end up with way too many).

I've had a great year for peppers, and have put several batches of roasted ones in the freezer so far, both bells and a bunch of jalapeƱos from a plant that mysteriously dried up and died. (Another advantage to roasting-and-freezing - never could I have eaten all those spicy peppers fresh all at once.) There are several methods for roasting peppers, and I will point you to this blog or this other blog for instructions. Basically you can roast in the oven on bake or broil settings, or directly over the stovetop flame. I have found broiling the easiest method for me (just make sure you don't forget about the peppers and walk away distracted!). It's also much faster, which is an advantage on hot days.

Getting the skin well-blackened and thoroughly loose is important, since unlike with tomatoes you really do want to bother removing as much pepper skin as possible. Don't sweat it if you can't get it all off, but do try. Speaking of sweating, I think it was that first blog link that showed me the inverted bowl method for steaming the skin off after roasting, and it really does help. Here are a few of my jalapeƱos under the bowl:

where you can see how much condensation they're putting off, and here they are with nice wrinkled skin that slipped off pretty easily. (Do remember to wear gloves with hot peppers!)

Thick-walled peppers work the best for roasting; with thin ones you sometimes end up with practically nothing once you've peeled the skin off. I find it easier with bell peppers to cut them in quarters first, removing the seeds, and roast afterwards, but you can roast whole too (as long as the peppers are perfect with no suspicious insect holes or evidence of interior damage).

The other veggie I've been roasting this year is tomatillos, since I had a heavy crop earlier in the summer; it's slowing down now.

I did these in a 375F oven, I think, rather than under the broiler, but that would work fine too. They make a great salsa, among other things.

All of these I freeze by the same method: 1) Let cool on the cookie sheet they roasted on; 2) Stick the cookie sheet in the freezer for 30-60 minutes, until the veggies feel semi-frozen; 3) Remove veggies with a spatula and put into labeled freezer bags. Freezing ahead on the sheet makes it less likely that you'll end up with a big lump that needs to be defrosted all at once; instead you can pull out individual pieces.

Anyone else roasting their summer vegetables? Which ones?