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In the Garden

Tomato season


I NEVER SEEM TO GET THROUGH TOMATO SEASON without a calamity of some kind or another. Last year, the aphids swarmed in before the plants could set fruit and they hung around all season, defying the ladybugs and forcing me to spray the plants down with dish soap and hope the leaves dried before powdery mildew could take hold. The year before, they all got some still-undiagnosed wilt that caused the leaves to turn brown and fall off, until just the stalks and a few pathetic green tomatoes remained. This year, the Zebra sisters -- Green Zebra and a new hybrid, Black Zebra -- have been stricken with something so vicious and deadly that I fear they might not make it through the week.

Now that I've been growing tomatoes in the Humboldt fog for a while, I'm finally coming to terms with the fact that the best tomatoes I'll eat in the summer will come not from my own garden but from the Farmers' Market. Those growers in Willow Creek have me beat: They've got the heat and sunlight that tomatoes need to get ripe and sweet.

Over the next few weeks, heirloom tomatoes can be had in abundance at the farmers' markets. You can even buy a box of overripe tomatoes -- perfect for canning or freezing -- for around $15, an investment that you won't regret come January, when you're craving tomato soup made from something other than those stale cardboard Romas they sell at the supermarket.

So whether you have a bumper tomato crop in your own garden (and if you do, I don't want to hear about it) or whether you, like me, are sneaking off to the farmers' market for garden-grown tomatoes, here are a few cardinal rules for enjoying the harvest:Photograph of tomatoes

1. Never, ever, put a good tomato in the refrigerator. It kills the taste and ruins the texture. Tomatoes are best just after they're picked, but they'll keep for a several days on the kitchen counter. (This rule does not apply to the aforementioned cardboard supermarket tomatoes; I don't care what you do with those.)

2. A tomato variety is considered an "heirloom" if it was around before 1940. These tomatoes were generally bred for flavor not for their ability to survive long trips to market and even longer waits on grocery store shelves. Don't be put off by an heirloom tomato with cracks or odd bulges, which are common in older varieties.

3. To peel tomatoes, drop them into a pan of boiling water for one minute, then drop them into cold water. The skin will split and slip right off.

4. You'll get more rich tomato flavor in sauces or soups if you remove the seeds and skin. An inexpensive hand-cranked food mill does this job well, producing a smooth sauce that you can use right away or freeze for later.

5. To freeze whole tomatoes, make sure they're completely dry, then put them in the freezer on a cookie sheet so they are not touching. Once they are completely frozen, drop them in a sealed plastic bag and leave them in the freezer until you need them.

6. Because tomatoes are somewhat acidic, they are fairly easy to can. Look for a good tomato canning recipe -- Rodale Press publishes a book called Preserving Summer's Bounty and the Joy of Cooking Series offers a book called All About Canning and Preserving -- and be sure to follow the instructions carefully.

7. If you still have green tomatoes in your garden at the end of the season, rip out the entire plant and let it hang upside down in a cellar or garage. The fruit will ripen slowly, although it will lack some of the flavor of sun-ripened tomatoes.

People are always asking me for my favorite tomato recipes, but the fact is that I don't do much with a tomato that you could actually call a recipe. I've always felt that tomatoes are best on their own, and elaborate tomato dishes are only a way of admitting that I've grown bored with my favorite summer crop and require arugula pesto or roasted corn coulis to keep me interested. So lacking any real recipes, here, at least, are my suggestions for appreciating good tomatoes.

If you've got tomatoes in your own garden, it is imperative that you start out eating them whole, just off the vine, unwashed and still warm from the afternoon sun. There's just nothing better. It makes a whole year's worth of mucking about in the garden worthwhile. I know some gardeners who walk their vegetable plots with a salt shaker in hand, looking for a Black Prince that they can eat like an apple, with a sprinkle of salt on each bite. But I think that even salt is one too many ingredients at first.

Tomato bruschetta -- a mixture of chopped tomatoes, minced garlic, ribbons of basil, olive oil, salt and pepper -- is usually the first formal tomato dish at my house. This concoction, spooned onto sliced bread, is just about the most glorious summer meal I can imagine. A variation is tomato bread salad, in which red wine vinegar, chopped purple onions, capers and black olives are added to the mix, and the whole thing is tossed with toasted bread cubes until the bread is soaked in the juices of the salad.

Don't forget about BLTs. Let me clarify that I am one of those vegetarians who shies away from meat substitutes. I can't eat tofu dogs because they taste too much like the real thing. I don't like vegetarian sushi because the seaweed is too fishy. But I finally broke down and tried the vegetarian version of bacon -- enticingly called "breakfast strips" -- because I could not resist the idea of a BLT made with ripe heirloom tomatoes. A truly great BLT is usually made with soft sourdough bread, full of holes for the mayonnaise and tomato juice to settle into. In addition to lettuce you might add arugula or basil and your favorite bacon or bacon alternative. And the tomato itself should be the biggest, juiciest tomato you can track down -- a Cherokee Purple or a Brandywine, maybe.

Tomato season lasts only a few more weeks, so enjoy it while you can. This time of year, I find myself at the Farmers' Market every weekend, looking for a good bargain on lugs of overripe tomatoes that I can freeze for later. They won't be around much longer: Already the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting colder. Soon it will be time to pull up the miserable diseased vines in my own garden and start watching the sky and waiting for winter.

I was just kidding when I said I didn't want to hear about your bumper tomato crop. Tell me all about it at E-mail, or write me in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, CA 95521.

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