Saturday, April 24, 2010

For Love or Tomatoes

There are only two things money can’t buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes. I don’t know much about the former--I’ve been married and divorced, coupled and singled, in and out of lust, and even once dumped for a bleach blonde named Faith--but I do know quite a lot about tomatoes. I’ve grown them, peeled them, cored them, boiled them, seeded them, blanched them, eaten them warm from the garden, smushed them into sauces and salsas, and studied them carefully.

Tomato eating and growing are blends of science and art in Florida where I first got my hands dirty in a tomato garden of my own. Growing tomatoes requires of the gardener patience, knowledge, and financial security. A large dose of stoicism won’t hurt either. Tomatoes are hardy weeds when they want to be and fickle little hothouse flowers when they feel like it. They are susceptible to freezes and frosts, tasty snacks for snails and cutworms, a happy little haven for aphids and hornworm larvae, and damn picky about soil ph. One season the lackadaisical, nearly negligent gardener will have so many tomatoes he can’t give them away fast enough. The next season the assiduous, attentive gardner will get worms, worms, worms, blossom drop, and end rot. There’s just no telling.

Sort of like love. Cultivate it, lavish time and money on it and you end up poor and pouting. Ignore it, treat your lovers like dirt in a deserted garden, and love follows you around like a dog. Like love, the love apple is finicky and fussy. When the most perfect homegrown tomatoes do grow in your garden though, you are joyful, blissful, orgasmic. You think you might not need love after all, but if you do, you could try tantalizing lax lovers with a few of your homegrown tomatoes.

You might have lured lovers with the looks of the love apple a few centuries ago, but if you actually fed tomatoes to your amore, you might have been arrested for attempted poisoning. Until 1800, most folks in the US ranked tomatoes with oleanders: pretty, but not for dinner. Indeed, the tomato is the only part of the tomato plant that isn’t poisonous. The tomato plant is a nightshade and looks an awful lot like its deadly nightshade sister, belladonna. Poisonous leaves and seeds were no deterrent to the industrious conquering Spaniards in the fifteenth century. They gathered tomato seeds along with gold amulets and silver goblets into their treasure throve for the trip across the pond. The Europeans were smitten with the tomato’s shiny skin, but mostly cultivated them as ornamentals, not hors d’oeuvres. The family resemblance to poisonous posies scared off many potential tomato epicures in Northern Europe and Britain. The carpophagous Mediterraneans ate them, though, with olive oil as early as the sixteenth century and even our homegrown Thomas Jefferson was growing tomatoes in 1742. No one knows for sure whether he ate them. If he did, he might have enjoyed them like I do, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar (a gardener’s treat even older than tomatoes), and sprinkled with sea salt, pepper, and a little julienned fresh basil.

Because folks usually eat tomatoes with green leafy stuff and on top of grainy stuff rather than with syrupy sweet stuff, the US Supreme Court deemed the tomato a vegetable in 1893. The fact that Uncle Sam imposed heavy tariffs on veggies and not on fruits might have had something to do with the name change: veggies meant money in the coffer; fruits did not. Despite such lawyerly maneuvers, the tomato is a fruit. The distinction between fruits and vegetables? Fruits have their seeds on the inside: think peaches, grapes, mangos, apples, and oranges. Vegetables grow from flowers, like carrots, broccoli, cabbages, and other cruciferous crunchies. This fruit-veggie category business is a slippery slope. If seeds inside equal fruit, are cucumbers, crookneck squash, and pumpkins fruits fit only for after dinner dessert? Pumpkin pie is a dessert staple. Is Cucumbers Foster next? Tomato ice cream is not out of the question. Chop one cup plum tomatoes or any homegrown variety. Toss the tomatoes in a blender along with 1/4 cup half and half or heavy cream, 1/3 cup sugar, and one to two cups ice or one bag frozen strawberries. Blend on high for 30 seconds. Scoop out this pink sorbet and eat it with biscotti.

Frozen tomatoes in ice cream are one thing, but don’t go freezing or refrigerating your homegrown tomatoes. They won’t last any longer than if you leave them to sunbathe on the kitchen windowsill and they will get all mealy inside and tough outside. If you’ve just got to get those tomatoes in the cooler, chop them up into salsa first. Chop one small red onion, one medium green bell pepper (or jalapenos for the hotties), 8 to 10 sprigs fresh parsley leaves from your garden, a big pinch of cilantro, and two large homegrown tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes in half first and give each half a good squeeze to extract the juice and seeds. If you are really persnickety about texture, blanch the tomatoes for 30 seconds in boiling water before cutting them and slip off their skins. Combine the onion, green pepper, and parsley in a food processor. Pulse until the veggies are finely chopped. Add the chopped tomatoes and pulse some more only until you have a chunky sauce, not a soup. Bits of onion and tomato should be bobbing around in there. Transfer the salsa to a bowl and stir in three tablespoons red wine vinegar and one tablespoon lemon juice. Toast up one tablespoon whole cumin seeds in a small pan and stir into the salsa or whip in one tablespoon ground cumin. Salt and pepper the salsa and eat this all by yourself with a big bag of salty tortilla chips. Refrigerate any leftovers if there are any.

Chips and salsa are good refueling foods after a day of tomato gardening in the hot Florida sun. Tomatoes enjoy the Florida sunshine until long about August. They wither and wilt and just punk out by the end of summer, but you need only wait four more weeks until the first day of autumn to plant your fall crop of baby tomatoes. If you have scads of time on your hands, you can coax along three tomato plantings in Central Florida: one in the spring if you plant in February, one in early summer if you plant in May when the spring plantings are just beginning to set so much fruit you are filling every pot, pan, and canvas bag you own, and one in the fall if you plant the third week in September.

If you’ve got this many tomato plants growing in your garden and are eating even a fraction of their fruit, you will have volunteers. Volunteers are garden gold. These are plants that sprout with no encouragement or effort on your part. Volunteers are evidence of Darwinism at work in your garden ecology. Wind, birds, and insects spread around the seeds of everything you grow and everything that winds up in the compost pile. The fittest of your plants’ offspring survive and poke their little seed-heads out of the soil. These plants, especially volunteer tomato plants, tend to be very hardy and to produce prolifically even if they don’t live very long. If you don’t want twenty-five tomato teenagers hanging out in your garden, you’d better pluck the sprouts as soon as you see them. They look like weeds anyway so you are likely to pull them along with odd bits of grass struggling to take root.

My favorite summertime tomato dinner is fresh tomato sauce with penne pasta and fresh herbs. Pinch off several handfuls of basil, flat leaf parsley, and oregano. Quarter three large tomatoes or use two cups of cherry tomatoes. Toss the tomatoes and herbs in a food processor along with one 28 once can Italian-style plum tomatoes for body and flavor. Add two cloves chopped garlic, one teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese, one teaspoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 3/4 cup pitted black or kalamata olives. Pulse only until blended and the tomatoes are roughly chopped. Serve at room temperature on penne for a refreshing summer supper. Invite friends for dinner on the patio surrounded by your bushy green tomato plants, sun yellow marigolds, fire engine red chili peppers, and the buzzing of the bees making this garden grow. You many not have true love, but you’ve got homegrown tomatoes and that is as close to love and heaven as anyone can get.


  1. Heather,
    Your eloquence around the tomato is making me very hungry. I would have to comment that I treat my tomatoes like dirt and they have come out pretty well one year but not the next. You have encouraged me to try again. I'm also going to use your fresh tomato sauce with penne and herbs... YUM!!

  2. Yay! Let me know how the sauce turns out.

  3. Thank you for the lovely post. The history of food is fascinating. Perhaps you will include images and instructions on how to properly stake tomato plants. It just doesn't seem fair that you should be the only person with homegrown tomatoes.

    I love the new direction of your blog. If I subscribe, do you promise to keep writing? ☺

  4. Thank you Jojitska. I promise to keep writing :-) and do look for photos and instructions. Excellent suggestions!