Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tomato, tomahhhto

It just wouldn't be an Iowa summer without the tomato. There is nothing better than crisply cooked bacon, crispy fresh lettuce and still warm from the garden sliced tomato on toasted bread. Beats ANY lobster or steak you could set in front of me, hands down. It can't just be any old tomato though. You have to grow these yourself, or get them from a friend. No grocery store tomato EVER tasted this good. What is it about a home grown tomato that makes it so special?

For one thing, you put in all the man-hours. Digging, planting, watering, supporting, pruning, watching for pests, more watering. Maybe you even started them from seed yourself- which makes them even more special. With thousands of varieties of tomatoes available, you can have any size, any color, any flavor, any acid level you could ever want. Tomatoes for fresh eating. Tomatoes for canning. Tomatoes for paste. Cherry tomatoes. Grape tomatoes. Yellow, orange, even purple tomatoes. Peach tomatoes that even have a little bit of fuzz on their skin. Heirloom or hybrid. Beefsteak or Early Girl. I can spend hours in a garden center browsing the tomatoes. I almost always pick up more than I have room for, which means more containers to be bought, more soil, more work, more tomatoes! You might have also spent years amending the soil and planting different things to get just the right, perfect, happy garden soil tomatoes thrive in. You spent hours weeding and inspecting your plants, always keeping an eye out for the dreaded tomato hornworm.

Cherry tomatoes **
Every winter I look forward to the inevitable arrival of the gardening catalogs. Ahhhh yes, like Christmas in February, these catalogs will be well worn by the time I'm done with them. Circles around all sorts of vegetables, but especially......tomatoes. The long, cold Iowa winter can be quite depressing, but seeing all the beautiful vegetables in the catalogs gives me hope for warmer times to come. As a home canner, I like to find higher acid tomatoes (for safety) and thicker meaty tomatoes like Romas and San Marzanos for paste and sauce. Salsa can be lots of fun when you use different colored tomatoes. Mr. Stripey is one of my very favorite heirloom tomatoes. So are yellow pear tomatoes- they are awesome for low and slow long roasting and covering with olive oil for future use (store in the freezer). 

Heirloom tomatoes **
Some people prefer hybrid tomatoes for their disease resistant qualities and high yields. Celebrity tomatoes are a variety I have grown myself and really liked. Good tomato for fresh eating and pretty good for salsa and canning chunks. I know I have tried many others but don't remember all the names. Sometimes I'll be browsing at a greenhouse or garden center and just grab a pack of plants that looks nice and healthy- they may or may not have a tag even! I just know whatever the variety, the warm Iowa summer will produce the best, juiciest and tastiest tomatoes no matter what kind they are.

The really fun thing about those hybrid tomatoes is the future of those seeds. Every year somehow I end up with some seeds left behind, whether it's the last yucky tomato left on the vine or one that dropped off the plant, those seeds end up on the ground, survive the Iowa winter and produce something that just makes me so happy every year- volunteers. I love finding them hidden among the weeds underneath my deck, growing in cracks on the sidewalk and between the gravel of the driveway. This year I found three volunteers in the middle of my front yard. They had sprouted up and grown like crazy and I happened to notice them on a stroll through the yard to check on beans and cucumbers. I immediately had to dig them up and transplant them!! Can't let them be mowed down by the mower! What makes these volunteers so much fun to me? I have no idea what I am going to end up with! They might be heirloom seeds and I'll have three more Mr. Stripeys or Romas to play with. If they were a hybrid I won't get the hybrid again- I'll end up with what I call "golf balls", or golf ball sized tomatoes. They are roughly double the size of a cherry tomato but not big enough to be a good slicer. They do, however, make excellent tomatoes for puree, for drying (cut in half and dehydrate for "sun dried tomatoes"), and for fresh eating in salads. Plus they're FREE !!!

Three tomato volunteers in the yard!
Since repotting in great big pots on my deck they have more than doubled in size in just a week! They are starting to blossom and it won't be long before baby tomatoes appear on these gifts from Mother Nature. I'll happily take them! I can't wait to see what kind of tomato I end up with!

**Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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