Every April we have a battle at our house. My husband John is chomping at the bit to get his garden in, and I harp at him to wait until after the last “freeze date” for our area – April 15th. It is a great relief to both of us (for different reasons) when we finally head to the garden centers to pick out our seeds and tomato plants for the year. It’s fun to pore over all the plants and pick out old favorites and “new” heirlooms to try. I drive John nuts as I lovingly (okay, obsessively) pick out each and every plant!
Once these babies are in the ground, the battle really begins. Our climate and environment present a gardener with numerous adversaries to overcome – wild temperature swings, abundant rain then weeks without it, fungal and bacterial diseases galore, nuclear strength weeds and a host of marauding vermin – rabbits, ground hogs, squirrels, deer, birds, cutworms, hornworms and tiny little fruitworms. It hardly seems worth the bother. Oh let’s get real, it’s not!
We learned a few years ago that if we net our tomatoes the birds, squirrels and deer leave them alone. I leave them alone too, because it is a pain in the watoozie to undo all this hoo-ha just to get at a few tomatoes. Last year we didn’t get the net up in time and the deer came and ate dozens of green tomatoes. But within a few weeks the tomatoes fruited again and large ceramic bowls on my counters were overflowing with several kinds: persimmon shaped Better Boys, fat, squatty Cherokee Purples, lumpy Big Beefs, plump Mortgage Lifters and big, round, orange mystery tomatoes (someone really doesn’t like to use plant labels).
It never fails – you can’t wait till the first tomato ripens, and then you have more of them than you know what to do with! Here are some of my favorite things to do with Farmer John’s bounty:
- Can ‘em! Every year I put up a year’s worth of home-canned tomatoes. Tomatoes canned in the US have the firming agent calcium chloride added to them. This additive helps the tomatoes retain their shape after the canning process, but it also prevents them from breaking down into a velvety sauce when cooked. For pasta sauces I buy cases of San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. For everything else – salsas, soups, stews, etc. – I can my own. A morning spent canning my own homegrown tomatoes connects me to nature and generations of women before me in a way that is both deeply satisfying and practical.
- Tomato Tart – easy enough for weeknites, special enough for company.
- Homemade Pizza Margherita – fresh and it also uses lots of that basil I always have growing on the back deck.
- Italian Tomato Salad – so fresh and sooooo good!
- Fattoush – another fresh, fabulous summer salad.
- Lebanese Green Beans – a great way to use both fresh beans and fresh tomatoes.
- BLT’s – for a special treat try these two variants: (1) for two BLT’s mash one avocado with a bit of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice and spread on the top slices of toasted bread of each sandwich; (2) after you make a grilled cheese sandwich, open it up and insert the B, the L and the T – fat-bulous!