Miriam's Garden: It's all but over for her tomatoes
My husband and I left for a trip to Buffalo last Friday to visit my parents. It was warmish. I wore sandals and briefly, shorts, before I came to my senses and put on jeans. Returning home Sunday, we shook out the down comforter, turned on the small heater in my office and read about frost warnings.
We stayed frost-free here, but down in the valley, things were icier. "I checked the windshield," David said. It's a guy's way of telling if there's frost.
I went out to a dew-soaked garden and looked at the basil. My way of checking. All the summer things, the tomatoes and basil, are still OK, but they're not going to last long with night-time temps in the 40s. I sampled a newly grown French Breakfast radish; it was crisp and cool, just like early spring.
Summer is really over. We are nearing the last of the big, juicy tomatoes.
I always get panicky at this time of year. I think of all the things I didn't do: the pruning, the weeding, all the canning and freezing I didn't make time for. There's the letdown. Another seven months until I can start tomatoes, plan my garden, attempt to do it better. Another 10 months until I taste the first cucumber. More until I can slice the first tomato.
In gardening, so many things are out of your control. Such as weather and bugs. Sure you can water, you can amend the soil, feed a plant. You can mulch. But if it doesn't rain or the sun doesn't shine, or all it does is shine, or some odd bug decides you should never again plant beans, as the Colorado Potato Beetle has done in my garden, there's not much you can do.
Our potatoes, the place this bug should have attacked, were pathetic this year. This was due to the drought. Our beans, at least the second planting, were looking good but then I noticed an outbreak of squishy, soft-shelled orange-yellow bugs. They chewed the leaves, weakened the plant. They hung out on the underside of the leaves. Made the beans quite unappetizing.
I pulled those beans up and tossed them far into the field. The potato beetles, still hungry from lack of potato leaves, found another row of beans. In research, I learned that once they're done with the potatoes and the beans, they move onto other plants. Such as squash and tomatoes. I couldn't take the chance.
So I think I'll buy beans from someone else for at least a few years, until I find a non-toxic way to deal with this pest. They've even chewed holes in the leaves on the okra plant.
The tomatoes have struggled this year. While they love heat, it's been way too hot and dry. Right now there are lots of green tomatoes with the potential to ripen but it's too cold and pretty late. Less yield this year as well. But the tomatoes that have fulfilled their potential have been amazing. Packed with flavor. Maybe the skins are a bit thicker and the fruit smaller, but they had to work harder.
I went wild this year with heirlooms and started everything myself. The 'Brandywines' and 'Cherokee Purple' were outstanding and the best producers. Next were the other black tomatoes: 'Black Prince' and 'Black Plum,' which are continuing to produce some luscious fruit. Maybe because they originate in Russia, they can take crazy weather or maybe the color of the skin is protective? 'Rose De Berne' had superior flavor, but went in late, so not much fruit. I will absolutely try 'Dr. Wyche's Yellow' again. Orange-colored and firm; the package says "tropical flavor." I didn't notice that but they were sweet. I also will again attempt the orange-fruited 'Kellogg's Breakfast.'
'Spear's Tennessee Green' -- a large, many-lobed, ripe-when-green tomato -- needed an earlier start but I was intrigued by the tart sweetness. 'Yellow Perfection' lived up to the name; a small round pale yellow tomato, it's crisp and juicy, never mushy and very productive. My big successes of other years, 'Amish Paste' and 'Coeur di Bue,' sadly did not do well this year.
I brought a selection of the last of the big, fat, fabulous tomatoes to my parents in Buffalo for our visit. Both nights we had tomato salads, thick slices with slivers of sweet homegrown red onion. Flaky sea salt, olive oil, a dash of vinegar. Tri-colored tomatoes: orange, red and purple. The last, great sweet tastes of summer. We savored every bite.
With the smaller, multi-colored tomatoes, I made this scalloped tomato dish, which everybody adored. I think I'll have enough tomatoes to make it a couple more times. Then I will move onto cooking the green tomatoes. Now that's a whole other season.
This amazing recipe comes from the website Food52. It was adapted from Sarah Leah Chase's "Cold Weather Cooking." I fooled with it more, adding a sweet onion and using crusty whole-grain bread and a mix of tomatoes, including 'Black Plum' and 'Black Prince' tomatoes and other small round ones, along with 'Amish Paste' tomatoes. One cup of 'Sungolds' added a burst of tart-sweet goodness. None of the tomatoes are peeled and the skins basically melt during baking.
Originally the recipe called for bacon fat or olive oil for toasting the bread and cooking the tomatoes. I opted for olive oil because I didn't want the bacon flavor to interfere. The title is a little deceiving because it isn't layered. I made it for dinner for my husband and me. Serve it with a salad or maybe some sauteed squash and you, too, might eat the whole thing. Otherwise it's more of a side dish.
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 cups 1/2-inch pieces crusty cracked-wheat bread or ciabatta
- 1 small sweet white or red onion, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 3 cloves minced garlic (1 tablespoon)
- 2 1/2 pounds very flavorful tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (and, if you have them, 1 cup 'Sungold' cherry tomatoes)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced, lightly packed basil leaves
- 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set out a 10-inch square or 10-inch wide oval baking dish, or an 8-by-12-inch baking dish. (Baking vessel should hold 6 to 8 cups and be shallow).
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in 12-inch, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add bread and stir to coat with oil. Cook, turning often, until medium-brown, about 5 minutes. Add onion and garlic; cook, stirring often, until onion is just tender, 3 to 4 minutes.
Add tomatoes and cook, stirring often, until they start to break down, about 5 minutes. Season well with salt and pepper and stir in basil. Pour into baking dish. Sprinkle with parmesan and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons oil.
Bake, uncovered until bubbly and top is browned, about 40 minutes.
Makes about 4 servings.
-- Adapted from Food52.com
First Published September 27, 2012 12:00 am