Tomatoes! A tomato grown in fertile soil and ripened on the vine in hot, dry weather is an extraordinary thing. We strive to achieve such perfection in tomatoes, and we often have, but Missouri weather does not always cooperate. Cold spells in late spring, high humidity, excessive heat, excessive summer rains, and/or hail storms can compromise quantity, quality, & flavor. From our perspective as CSA farmers, tomatoes probably generate more nervousness and stress about potential failure than virtually any other crop, largely because expectations are always high and sources of potential problems numerous. But when conditions reasonably cooperate, tomatoes are oh-so-very good!
We strive to harvest nearly or fully ripe tomatoes, but weather conditions may force us to pick less ripe than ideal at times. If, for example, heavy rain is headed our way, we’re better off picking heavily to include partial ripes rather than letting the fruits split on the vine from excess rain while their flavor is diluted by too much moisture in the fruit. Occasionally, heavy pest pressure will force us into picking slightly under-ripe tomatoes, as well. Partial ripes will generally ripen up nicely on the counter, and flavor can be nearly as good as vine ripened. Inclusion of partial ripes in shares can also be a way to help members enjoy tomatoes throughout the week, since fully ripe tomatoes need to be used quickly.
HANDLING & STORAGE
We advise storing tomatoes on the counter in a manner that allows some air circulation around them. Giving them a bit of space will make them easier to inspect. Large tomatoes, especially, should be stored upside down, as their shoulders (around the stem) are the most solid part of the fruit and can best bear the weight.
Tomato flavor is compromised by refrigeration; don’t do it if possible! Rot also compromises tomato flavor, so if you can’t immediately attend to a tomato that is soft-to-the-touch ripe and/or starting to develop a bad spot, then refrigeration may be preferable to complete spoilage.
For cherry tomatoes, either a colander/sieve or a cardboard pint/quart container would be suitable. These allow more airflow than a solid bowl. Again, there is no reason to put these in a refrigerator; they’ll taste better at room temperature.
IN THE KITCHEN
There are entire cookbooks dedicated to tomatoes, and most everyone has their own favorites, so we have no intention of being comprehensive in this section. Here are just a few of our favorite ways to enjoy tomatoes.
Just eat them: The best thing to do with cherry tomatoes: Snack on them. Treat them as the fruits they are.
Caprese salad: Slices of the most flavorful tomatoes, combined with some fresh basil leaves and high-quality mozzarella, artfully arranged (or not) and drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled lightly with salt.
Bruschetta: Combine chopped tomatoes, chopped basil, and minced garlic. Toast some bread slices. Top bread with the tomato mix and sprinkle with cheese. Put under the broiler until the cheese is melted.
Greek salad: Chunks of tomato, ripe sweet peppers, cucumber, sweet onion, and (optional) dates and/or olives. Cheese (such as feta) a very nice addition. Dressing: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, thyme and/or oregano, salt, and pepper. The taste of summer. This is a chunk salad; no self-respecting Greek salad should have lettuce in it.
Roasted tomato sauce: Halve the tomatoes, toss with oil, salt, & pepper, and roast at 400ºF for 45 minutes, stirring at least once. Roasting really intensifies the flavor, and this is a great way to use the tomatoes that aren’t the most flavorful for fresh eating. (We adore preparing the pink Amish Salad tomatoes this way; they’re a bit bigger than cherry tomatoes and don’t need to be cored so are very easy to roast.) The results can be used in many ways: on top of pasta, as a soup base, for a cooked salsa, and so much more. Or freeze this for later use. Below is a tray of winter-storage Mercuri tomatoes getting this treatment, our favorite way to use these as well.
Canning: Canning is our first choice method of tomato preservation, though it does require a pretty big batch to be worthwhile. We follow the directions for canning tomatoes from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. We mostly do crushed tomatoes in juice. We also do an occasional batch of tomato paste, which cooks down to a distressingly small amount, but makes an amazing base for BBQ sauce. Our personal taste buds tell us that home-canned tomatoes are superior to store bought.
Freezing: Tomato sauces of all sorts freeze well. Since flavored sauces aren’t suitable for canning unless a reliable recipe has been strictly followed, we throw this kind of sauce in the freezer, instead. Whether an Italian-style sauce flavored with garlic and basil, or a Mexican-inspired sauce with onion and pepper, freezing is the way to go.
Dehydration: Tomatoes dehydrate well. We’ve become addicted to dried cherry tomatoes since a horribly wet year when we dried a batch of splitting, poor-flavored specimens picked just after a big rain. Even though the fresh flavor was inferior to normal, the dehydration intensified & sweetened the final product into something quite spectacular. Now we try to plan on dehydrating cherry tomatoes every year when their production skyrockets. These are simply halved and spread on the dehydrator trays. Once sufficiently dry, we store them in glass jars until ready to use. A few minutes of soaking in boiling water renders them ready to put on pizza, add to a frittata or pasta sauce, or other good uses.
VARIETIES WE GROW
The exact collection of varieties varies from year to year; this list represents many of our favorites as of 2013. All varieties are open pollinated, with the exception of Sungold (a remarkable hybrid cherry tomato).
Cherry tomatoes: Sungold (orange, & the only hybrid tomato we grow), Black Cherry (purple), Dr. Carolyn (yellow), Peacevine (red)
Saladette: Amish Salad (pink), Jaune Flamme (yellow/orange)
Slicer: Stupice (red), Green Zebra (green/yellow), Arkansas Traveler (pink), Jubilee (yellow), Rutgers Original Strain (red)
Larger heirlooms: Cherokee Purple, White Tomesol, Cour di Bue (heartshaped pink/red), Kellogg’s Breakfast (orange)
Paste: Sheboygan (pink), San Marzano (red), Roma (red), Striped Roman (red/yellow striped), Opalka (red)
Winter keeping: Mercuri Winter Keeper (yellow/orange; a variety we offer through Seed Savers Exchange)