Monday, September 28, 2009

The traditional meal to break the fast at the end of Yom Kippur consists of lighter foods, mostly dairy or egg dishes, and something sweet to start a sweet New Year. Our dinner tonight was quite simple -roast chicken, tabouleh and pita, a layered vegetable tian featuring Japanese eggplant and yellow squash from the garden. And, oh yes, a platter of thick slices of homegrown tomatoes and Armenian cucumbers.

On the platter were slices of Pineapple, my all time favorite tomato, Orange Strawberry which we've enjoyed a lot lately, and Reisenstraub - a mild, deep pink heart shaped tomato that's new to my garden this year. Reisenstraub hasn't produced many tomatoes but the one that I picked today was picture perfect and quite tasty. If it hadn't been alongside Pineapple, sweet and mellow and Orange Strawberry, a dense, sweet tasting tomato that leaves a tiny little tingle lingering on your tongue, it might have been named today's favorite. But honestly, with this kind of competition it didn't have a chance!

Strangely enough, it was the Orange Strawberry that was so delicious it got the Wow! out of me tonight. As a result, Orange Strawberry is today's favorite tomato.

I'm going to guess that for most families a platter of tomatoes isn't a holiday tradition, much less a topic of conversation at the holiday table. For us, it's both...something that we all enjoy and cherish because fostering each other's passions is as important to each of us as our own. So, we begin the New Year with sweet tasting tomatoes, a reminder of the sweetness of friends and family, with us tonight and those far away. Sometimes the sweetness is well within reach and sometimes it's a stretch, but always there if you allow yourself to see it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yes, I promised the ultimate taste test...and yes, I did sample two really incredible tomatoes. And that post will come very soon...

Today I sampled a Kellogg's Breakfast from one of my newer plants. I decided several weeks after planting the majority of my seedlings to create a space for 16 more plants. This plot is on a hill which had been covered with ivy and to say the soil needed a lot of work was an understatement. But because I had the seedlings and needed to get them in the ground, the soil was dug out, amended, potting soil added and the seedlings planted. It hasn't been the most productive bunch of plants. I'm thinking that for next year I need to build raised beds on the hill so the ground can be level and allow better water absorption rather than runoff. The cherry tomatoes on the hill are doing all right. The larger varieties haven't produced very well but Kellogg's Breakfast seems to be doing better than the others.
Kellogg's Breakfast is a beefsteak tomato with a very pretty deep apricot color. It's got a mild flavor. This tomato isn't overly seedy but it is rather watery.

I decided to compare the Kellogg's Breakfast with Orange Strawberry. Orange Strawberry is a beautiful tomato because it's so unique. It's heart shaped and when ripe, the color is a deep orange. Orange Strawberry should have produced the majority of it's fruit about a month ago. But a month ago I was underwhelmed by this tomato. The yield was limited at best and the tomatoes were tart. Now, when many of the plants are slowing down production, Orange Strawberry is going strong. I've harvested eight large tomatoes from this plant in the past two days and there are many more to come. Orange Strawberry is a fairly sweet tomato. I can detect just a tiny hint of acidity and I'm thinking that may be more of a reflection of the 106 degree weather we're having rather than a characteristic of the tomato. The flesh of this tomato is a bit denser and meatier than Kellogg's Breakfast. It's a little easier to eat so I'm going to name this one as today's favorite.

A few weeks ago I might have considered taking out the Orange Strawberry plant, believing it to be finished for the season. It's a good thing I didn't. Sometimes things just need a little more time. Everything matures at a different rate. The point is, they'll all get there in their own time and when they're ready. That's the beauty of individuality. And individuality needs to be honored and respected - if not, look at the beauty that might have been missed.

These days most people say that tomato season is winding down...just tell that to my seven foot tall Neve's Azorean Red! They were delicious earlier in the season. I'm curious to see how the extreme summer heat will affect them.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Squinting makes it so much easier to see the hornworms!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Remember when we were kids and how we thought it was so funny to take an orange slice and put it in front of our top teeth? There's was nothing quite like an orange slice smile - it could make even the grouchiest person laugh! Now imagine a Basset Hound with a bright green, not a slice of a lime or even a stolen Green Zebra tomato. If only I had my camera in hand when adorable Hucksley turned and smiled at me with a big, juicy, bright green hornworm in the front of his teeth!

At this point in the season I have mostly cherry tomatoes to enjoy. The larger varieties have produced new tomatoes and if the weather cooperates I'll have more beefsteak sized tomatoes to harvest in the next couple of weeks. I am not ready for tomato season to come to an end so I do all that I can to encourage the plants to keep on giving...I cut them back, give them a nice feeding with organic vegetable food and talk to them as nicely as I can.

I am still finding grasshoppers in the plants although they are moving rather slowly. I am also finding very large hornworms on some of the plants. I remember when I first began growing tomatoes - I would cry hysterically when I found a hornworm, believing it meant the absolute end of my plants. I can recall several occasions - religious holidays, even my birthday, when my family expected me for dinner but I called and said I would be late because of my huge hornworm problem. I'd search every single plant for those evil caterpillars and chop every one of them in half! (Did you know the inside of a hornworm is as bright green in color as the outside)?

I guess I've grown up, at least in terms of my tomato growing. I can actually ignore the worms from time to time - or comment about how cute the little babies are. When I see a lot of damage, meaning entire branches that have been eaten, I know it means I have to take action. First job - find as many of the chewing beasts as possible and destroy them! Hornworms are hard to see. It's easiest to spot them late in the afternoon when the sun is on it's way down to meet the horizon. They look very similar to the underside of curled tomato leaves. Late in the summer, when temperatures are cool in the morning and hot in the afternoon, the leaves react by curling. The plants actually create the perfect camouflage for the worms. Isn't it ironic that the very plants that hornworms destroy also act as their safe haven? It's a very strange and destructive codependency.

Today I discovered what used to be branches full of leaves, telling me it's time to do more than just remove the worms. I have to be proactive or there will definitely not be any tomatoes for me in a few weeks. Out came the sprayer and in went the Safer spray - the new formula that is safe for animals but is very effective on hornworms. From this day forward fighting the hornworm will be a daily battle.

The bicolor cherry plant, which was one of this year's favorites didn't recover from bacterial wilt. Sungolds are still sweet and delicious. They are consistent and dependable although if you leave them on the plant even a minute too long, they have an insipid, unpleasantly sweet flavor. Black Cherry tomatoes are quite good. Unique in color, they have a true tomato taste. Jennys, which look like a smaller version of the Sungold Cherry are still beautiful, orange, sweet and delicious. And the Snow White Cherries are still really tasty. The Snow White Cherry plant is huge and it is full of tomatoes. To be honest, I've never had a bad one. It's a full flavored tomato even though it's a cherry and always gets a wow! reaction. You just don't expect a pale yellow tomato to have much flavor - you expect it to taste as dull as it looks.

Today I name the Snow White Cherry as my favorite. Tomorrow - the ultimate taste'll have to wait and read...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I don't know anyone who likes finding certain insects in their vegetable garden. There are those that do such incredible damage that they cannot be tolerated. They can decimate entire plants in a very short amount of time...I'm referring to grasshoppers - large, ugly, low flying menaces that seem to have found paradise in my backyard.

Today was a day when I had relatively little to do in the garden besides water. As I stood holding the hose, day dreaming and soaking up the sun, I noticed some movement amidst the leaves. Something sprang into the air, started its propellers and flew to the next tomato plant.It landed right in front of me, leaving me face to face with an ugly brown grasshopper the size of a robin.

Now, before I say anything else, please know that I ALWAYS try to use natural methods to eradicate pests from my garden before doing what I have to do to protect my plants from these particular evildoers. I read someplace that coriander and horehound are natural deterrents so I planted it everywhere. Not only did the grasshopper population multiply, the herbs attracted all kinds of other unwanted pests as well.

I learned long ago that traditional methods such as stomping, smashing or drowning don't work on grasshoppers. They have a protective armor that cannot easily be destroyed. So, I devised my own method...grab the long bladed garden shears, sneak up behind the monster and snap! Chop it in half! This method is incredibly effective (if you've got very good aim) but it often results in one half of the prehistoric creature remaining in your clippers. It is not pleasant to look at the eyes of a grasshopper popping out of it's head. And left me forewarn you, if you chop a grasshopper in half and it drops to the ground, the front half can still hop or jump and try to escape!

I am not a wimp but I've decided that I just can't deal with grasshoppers, so when I encounter one, as I did today, I yell "grasshopper...come quick" and let somebody else do the job. But a few minutes later, I yelled out "oh my G-D, this one is as big as a crow...get the grasshopper getters"! And this was my afternoon...large brown grasshopper on the tomatoes, green grasshopper on the roses, small gray grasshopper on another tomato until seven grasshoppers had encounters with the grasshopper getter.

As I continued with my watering, staring off into the dense foliage of one of the tomato plants, I saw it...the hugest bright green tomato hornworm that I have ever seen! This time I yelled out "you've gotta come see this"! This was not an ordinary hornworm. I've never really seen one move much but this one was twisting it's head back and chomping at something! There was a bee trying to land on the worm's back and he really didn't like that much! I have never seen anything like it - the show was absolutely amazing! This was nature at work and I was fascinated. I ran for my video camera, which of course, had a low battery. Then I grabbed my digital camera with the hope that I could capture the drama to show anyone willing to look at my photos. Finally, although I enjoyed witnessing this future episode from the Discovery Channel, I decided enough was enough...the leaf , along with the caterpillar was cut off and put in the green trash bin.

Once again I picked up the hose and returned to my daydreaming. But there, from the corner of my eye I saw it...the hornworm's twin!

I remember the days when finding a hornworm on my tomato plants was devastating. Today, it was entertaining. I guess it's just a matter of perspective.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I don't think I can write today without acknowledging the date...I am still sad for all of the people whose lives were so tragically affected by the horrible events on September 11. My son flew home from New York today and, now that he is safely here, I will tell you that I was scared to death.

Remembering 9/11 reminds me to focus on and be grateful for the many blessings in my life. My family, my kids, my work, my tomatoes, all of which I love so much. How lucky am I that my family and friends not only accept my obsession with these little bites of sunshine, even more, they support and encourage it?

My tomato plants are in a state of indecision...some want to think they're finished. They've really produced well this season and are a bit weary from the extreme heat we've had in the San Fernando Valley for the past couple of weeks. But there are flowers on the plants that have survived the heat and green tomatoes which hopefully will ripen. This week I planted some short season varieties hoping to have tomatoes to harvest in the fall. Next I'll cut back the plants that look done in the hopes of giving them a second wind. They'll be fed well and I will talk to them sweetly to encourage them to produce for me.

The heat does nasty things to the tomato plants so I didn't have much for a tasting today. I decided to only try one tomato this morning. It was the first time I had taken a bite of White Beauty. It hasn't been a great performer and the dog has enjoyed harvesting what it did produce long before I could pick them. White Beauty is really a pale yellow, small-ish tomato. The flavor was fine...not sugary, not tart, just fine. Maybe like the color of it's skin, White Beauty is a little bland. It would be a good tomato to include in a salad composed of stronger tasting tomatoes. It would add volume but wouldn't fight with the other flavors. I could use this tomato in my gazpacho which I make with a blend of whatever happens to be ripe and available that day.

Today I have been reminded to cherish and nurture those things which I love. Growing tomatoes is just one of them. So tonight, as I say my thank yous to whoever is listening, I'll be sure to express my gratitude for the opportunity to do something which strengthens my spirit, warms my heart and feeds my soul.

And you thought I was just growing tomatoes.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Today's taste test was a little different. I decided to open up the tasting to two other people who happened to be in the house this evening. Sometimes I wonder if tomato preference is totally unique to the individual or if anybody else tasted the same things I tasted in each tomato... First bite - Dona, a small, round, red tomato. Dona doesn't look like anything special and when you first take a bite doesn't taste like anything special. It's a good, basic tomato but just before you swallow - there it is! You find that your tongue is tingling! It's a nice surprise! Next I tried Enchantment, an oval shaped red tomato with a pointed tip. I've really never had much blossom end rot before but this tomato seems quite prone to it. It was tasty, mild but not sweet and didn't make my tongue feel like fine grade sandpaper. Last I tried Purple Calabash. Some say it's the ugliest tomato on the planet. I think it's quite beautiful. The irregular ribs and dark purple and green colors are perfect examples of why i fell in love with heirloom tomatoes in the first place! With a skin as unique as it has, how can you not want to know more about what's inside? The flavor was not too strong but definitely had a hint of citrus. If I tell you that the other two people who tasted these tomatoes said almost the same things, word for word, i would not be lying. We all had the same reactions to these three tomatoes. it was difficult to choose a favorite and we changed our minds a few times. Favorite tomato today - final answer - Enchantment.

Friday, September 4, 2009

While harvesting has definitely slowed down there's still plenty of tomatoes for my homemade gazpacho!
It's really a challenge to pick tomatoes to taste in this kind of extended heat. To be honest nothing is at it's best. Flavor and texture are definitely compromised under these conditions. Over the past week, with temperatures over 100 degrees for several days in a row, the focus has been on protecting the plants, unripe fruit and flowers on the plants. Tasting, eating and enjoying the fruits of my labor have become secondary. I did manage to find three tomatoes for today's taste test and really wasn't impressed by any. That may have had more to do with recent growing conditions so I'm not going to name names and tell you what I didn't like. Let's just say that today's favorite was a variety new to me this season. It was pretty red and yellow on the outside and had a nice balance of flavor. It's the winner today not only because it's pretty and tastes fairly good but also because it held up well enough to be tasted! Today's favorite - Mr. Stripey!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

There is only one tomato that can be named today's favorite. While the other tomatoes were bursting like blisters in the heat, this one kept it's cool. The plant stands tall and proud, brightened by an abundance of pretty yellow flowers, promising to burst into a second round of tasty pale yellow cherry tomatoes. Sweet and delicious, my favorite tomato today is Snow White Cherry.