Gardeners await that first red-ripe summer tomato as eagerly as Great Britain awaited its new heir to the throne.
We anxiously watch for those little green balls to ripen into the glorious redness that shouts juicy and delicious. The backyard tomato far outranks the taste of any supermarket variety, and that's why we devour bushels of them when they arrive.
This year's tomato crop ranges from pretty to pitiful, depending on where your garden is located. Some people with patio tomato plants are noting that their tomatoes aren't ripening fast, or some tomatoes are dying on the vines. But many experienced growers are faring much better.
Madison County farmer Bill Best said tomatoes as a rule are late this year because of the cold and wet spring. "This includes the high tunnel tomatoes as well since we also had so much cloudy weather. Our high tunnel tomatoes were two weeks late this year and our blueberries were ten days later than last year. However, both tomatoes and blueberries have produced heavily," said Best, who is director of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in Berea.
Barbara Napier, owner of Snug Hollow Farm bed and breakfast in Estill County, said her tomato crop is the best she has ever had. Napier, who grows the tomatoes that she serves to guests, said the rains came just at the right time, when the plants needed the water. "These particular tomatoes were planted late. The early ones got rained out and we just redid the whole garden and it's just perfect."
Napier grows only a few heirloom tomatoes that so many consumers desire. "They are wonderful but they don't produce a lot. Restaurants, like the one we have here, have to have Fantastic (the variety) ones that hold up and produce."
According to Brook Elliott of the Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy in Richmond, an heirloom is basically defined as an open-pollinated plant variety (one that has been naturally fertilized by wind, insects, birds, or mammals) that has been grown for at least 50 years.
If you buy an heirloom tomato at the farmers market this summer, you'll want to save the seeds, and try your luck at growing fabulous tomatoes yourself.
"We need to save heirloom tomato seeds in order to continue having a supply of good flavored and nutritious tomatoes," Best said. "Modern plant breeding continues to give us tomatoes that ship well and have a long shelf life, but taste and nutrition leave much to be desired. Even the older, and sometimes excellent, hybrids are slowly being phased out. Heirlooms will insure that we always have flavor, nutrition, and genetics on our side."
The standard way for seed saving is to let the tomato ripen fully, Best said. Then quarter them, cut out the core, and put them in a bucket to ferment for several days, stirring some each day. When the seeds have loosened from the pulp, you can then pour water in the bucket and let the pulp run over the sides. The tomato seeds will sink to the bottom. They can then be poured into a fine mesh strainer to allow the water to run off and then put on waxed paper to dry under a slow moving fan. Once dry, they can be put into airtight containers for saving.
Best's new book, Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste (Ohio University Press, $22.95) includes an introduction to heritage and heirloom seed saving, and it's also about the cultural traditions associated with seed saving. "Over the years I have given many talks about the importance of seed saving. Six years ago I gave a talk at the Appalachian Studies Conference at Maryville College in Tennessee at which time I was asked to put my ideas in book form to be published by the Ohio University Press. I assumed I could do it in a year or so, but it took six years, hundreds of hours, and thousands of miles. I wanted to do a thorough job and visited and interviewed a lot of people," Best said.
The summer tomato deserves its own celebration, and Winston's Restaurant, a teaching facility for Sullivan University's National Center for Hospitality Studies in Louisville, is doing so with a dining event.
Chef John Castro celebrates the local tomato harvest with three dinners, Aug. 8 to 10. The menu features Kir royale with heirloom tomato; stuffed shrimp with pork and shallots, wrapped in a won ton skin and served with fresh salsa; chilled ghost gazpacho with red onion and tomato; braised beef short rib finished with marsala tomato sauce; and doughnut filled with raspberry tomato jam.
Here is Castro's recipe for ghost gazpacho.
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 cups white vinegar
1 quart good quality sour cream
3 medium cucumbers, peeled and partially split lengthwise, ¼ inch thick slices.
1 red onion, cut in quarters and sliced ½ inch thick
5 to 7 large very ripe heirloom tomatoes, cut into ½ inch or larger chunks
Salt and pepper, to taste
Mix water, sugar and vinegar, and stir until dissolved. Stir in sour cream and reserve. Combine all the vegetables, salt and pepper. Let set out for 1 hour, then chill. This needs to be done 2 or 3 days in advance as the ingredients need to marinate. This will be strained and used as the broth.
For the garnish, you may use any of the following or whatever you are growing: cucumbers, scallions, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, celery, peppers, chilies, green beans. The shapes and sizes can vary as the produce will vary. Other vegetables may be used but might require blanching and chilling to use. Makes 8 servings.
Here are two of Napier's vegetarian recipes she serves at Snug Hollow bed and breakfast.
"This is everybody's favorite. This is a perfect dish for those home canned tomatoes. Don't forget the butter — it is the secret ingredient," she said.
Homemade tomato soup
2 tablespoons oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon tamari sauce
2 quarts home canned tomatoes
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil (fresh if possible)
2 cups milk or light cream (may substitute your choice)
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup brown rice (optional)
Heat oil in saucepan and sauté garlic, onion and celery. Add nutritional yeast and tamari, stirring to blend.
Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, oregano and basil. Cook over low heat to boiling. Remove from heat and purée in blender. Return to heat and stir in milk or cream and butter. You may add a dollop of pesto to each bowl of this creamy soup or stir in a little brown rice for a more substantial soup. Sprinkle with favorite cheese if desired.
"We serve this beautiful dish by layering the items on the plate. Begin with the squash, add layer of onions and a healthy portion of pasta on top. Finish this with some Romano or feta cheese, if you like. Great way to get that bumper crop of squash eaten," Napier said.
Summer garden pasta
Spaghetti, enough for 6 servings
Garlic-flavored oil (see note)
1/2 cup fresh pesto
1/2 cup homemade red sauce of your choice
Red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
1 medium onion, sliced
2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
Yellow and zucchini squash, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
2 tablespoons tamari, optional
Boil a pot of water and cook spaghetti until al dente.
Pour a little garlicky oil in large skillet over low heat. Add drained pasta. Add pesto and red sauce, and mix carefully. Add pepper flakes, salt and pepper.
If you have a large skillet and can move the pasta to the side, do so and drop tomatoes in hot oil. Stir carefully just until hot, and mix with pasta. Heat in another skillet, if needed.
Place onions in heavy skillet with small amount of olive oil. Add tamari, if using. Cook onions on low heat until nicely browned, stirring occasionally. Steam or roast squash. Layer ingredients on a plate and serve.
Note: Napier makes garlicky oil by adding a few cloves of garlic to 1 cup flavorful olive oil and whir it in a food processor until well blended.