Anyone with a square foot or two of space to spare and a spot of sun can grow a tomato – and thus own the taste and smell of summer itself. While an urban dweller would be highly challenged to put in a patch of corn or even one peach tree – those other tasty and evocative foods of high summer – a tomato plant is easily within anyone’s power to grow.
The only question that remains is which type of tomato to grow. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from, each with a different flavor and texture. One has to decide if a “slicer” or a “cooker” is more important; or if a bite-size cherry or a huge old fashioned beefsteak is more fitting for one’s fancy. Fortunately, farmers’ markets are replete with tomato plant offerings from April, when four-inch starter plants are brought in garden-ready, through the rest of summer when hurry-up one-gallon plants, already sporting young fruit, are available.
To tell the truth, aside from the volunteer cherry tomato that inexplicably showed up in the ivy by my driveway, I didn’t plant any tomatoes at home this year. Instead, I waited breathlessly along with the tomato growers at the farmers’ market for their first picking of the season. The long, cool month of June delayed the harvest by three weeks, so customers got only a few cherry tomatoes a week to hold their summer dreams in place, but July’s burst of heat has brought on a deluge of tomatoes. Many local restaurants that frequent the farmers’ market offer an heirloom tomato salad, which is one menu item that is easy to recreate at home. Aside from a dash of good olive oil and some fresh basil, tomatoes need no accompaniment to sing and dance summer’s song.
A good tomato can be round and red, but round and red have long ago taken a side seat to the revival of gorgeous-hued, oddly shaped heirloom tomatoes that dominate summer offerings at the farmers’ market. Tough-skinned round red hybrid tomato varieties dominate commercial markets where durability and uniformity reign supreme. However, seed catalogues, especially those that specialize in unique or “saved” varieties, list many more “open pollinated” or heirloom varieties — hundreds of them — that have sent farmers, hearts pounding and hands planting. The heirloom tomato revival is several years old now, long enough to have allowed farmers to experiment with many varieties and to have chosen their particular favorites. I like to come home with no fewer than five different shapes and colors of tomatoes each week to decorate my kitchen counter and adorn my plate. It’s hard to pass up my favorites, but I always leave room for anything new or interesting I happen to find.
There is the large, multi-lobed Brandywine which has skin that ranges from pink to purple and juicy flesh that is noticeably sweet. Other so-called purple tomatoes include the Black Krim, which has beautiful reddish-green flesh and skin that can turn chocolate brown in very hot weather. The Cherokee Purple, said to have been grown by Native Americans over 100 years ago, is a flattened, round fruit with pinkish tones on the skin and flesh. Yellow tomatoes include a bright gold Persimmon that can grow to four inches in diameter and has firm flesh for slicing. Then there is the gorgeous, orange and yellow swirled Pineapple tomato, an irregularly-shaped flattish tomato and the incredibly large Old German yellow tomato that contains a red core. The Old German is one of the slowest-growing of all tomato plants and is a Mennonite family heirloom from Virginia.
Green tomatoes add a striking note of color to salad plates. The beautiful bright green striped Green Zebra is maddeningly difficult to sell, according to Maryanne Carpenter from Coastal Organics, one of the market’s major tomato growers. Zebras can go from rock hard to a “ball of mush” in a matter of one day, so Maryanne now goes with a nice round tomato called Evergreen. You can also get a smallish round, pure white tomato from Maryanne or Ed Munak, another grower who specializes in summer tomato mixes. There are other tomatoes in hues from pink to orange, all of which can be sampled at home. Soft spots and irregular growth can be cut away, and tomatoes can be stored on the counter top until needed. As everyone knows by now, tomatoes should never be refrigerated. And don’t even think of storing those leftovers in the fridge — eat them now or save them for sauce. Refrigerated tomatoes become mealy and their flavor vanishes.
Red tomatoes are beautiful and abundant, and full of flavor. Many farmers grow the Early Girl – one of the most dependable reds of all. The classic, enormous Beefsteak is still a favorite and is perfect for sandwiches. Coastal Organics has a native Italian heirloom called Costoluto Canestrino that they grew from seeds brought back from Italy by a customer. This is an arrestingly-shaped, ribbed fruit with bright red skin and flesh. It is one of the premier sauce-making tomatoes from Italy since its flesh melts smoothly, but it is also excellent for eating fresh. The Carpenters at Coastal Organics have begun the time-consuming process of preserving their own seeds from this venerable tomato and are having good results with this year’s crop.Small cherry tomatoes are not just red anymore either. One of the most outstanding favorites at the market is the unbelievably sweet Sun Gold — a drop of pure yellow sugar with a tomato twang. Cherry tomatoes come in at least eight varieties and are delicious as a treat to eat out of hand. There is a black cherry, a white cherry, a green grape cherry, a purple plum, an ovoid red Juliet, and a little light bulb-shaped yellow one. All of these together make a beautiful salad, sliced in half so they don’t roll around and dodge your fork. Try one, try all, and enjoy having summer on your plate.