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For the Love of Tomatoes

How is it that our favorite vegetable is only available in its perfectly ripened glory for a couple months in late summer? Tomatoes, naturally sweetened by the sun, have a fresh yet unami quality that is hard to replicate in the winter months. Their shortened availability feeds our ubiquitous obsession with the pomme d’amour of all colors and sizes.

Growing Tomatoes

I have grown (and attempted to grow) tomatoes for over 30 years. They can actually be quite a finicky plant to grow well. Many factors go into successfully planting, growing, and harvesting these beauties. They are known to be heavy feeders, so you want to plant them in rich soil. They tend to be susceptible to diseases, especially those that are moisture-related. A number of insects agree with us and think they are delicious. They do best in as much sun as they can get. The stems can break easily, so we’re always looking for the newest and greatest way to support them. This is getting to be a daunting list.

Despite these potential obstacles, tomatoes are the one vegetable around which my garden is organized. My primario. I decide where in the garden I am going to move my tomatoes (because, of course, tomatoes are picky about this as well. They shouldn’t be planted in the same spot year to year, or they will get a blight disease that harbors in the soil). Once I know they’ll be in a spot they fancy and where they’ll flourish, I lay out the blueprint for the rest of my garden.

Choosing Varieties

My first consideration in choosing which tomatoes to plant is always about how I am going to use them in the kitchen. Will they be eaten fresh, in sandwiches, in salads, or as part of an hors d’oeuvre? How much pasta sauce or salsa am I going to preserve this year?

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That leads me to which varieties are going to serve my needs best. I tend to prefer the complex flavors, shapes and colors of heirlooms, yet I am constantly frustrated by how easily they get diseased and how relatively few tomatoes each plant produces. After years of planting only heirlooms or hybrids, the last few years I have planted a cross between the two. I am hedging my bets, hoping that the best qualities of each will shine through.

I have faithfully done everything my high-maintenance, lipstick-colored orbs require. The soil has been enriched with compost, they have been fertilized, mulched, pruned, staked, nipped, and tucked. Now it’s time for them to start giving back. To earn their keep, so to speak. It’s August, and I have big culinary plans, almost all of which involves tomatoes.

Cooking with Tomatoes

Let’s start simply. The cherry versions often don’t make it out of the garden, nibbled by kids and adults alike. One of my favorite treats is to sprinkle an interesting sea salt on slices and eat these while still warm from the sunshine.

This is when I splurge on great olive oil, as freshly pressed as I can find. I lean toward the grassy peppery flavor tones. This gets drizzled over tomatoes, slivers of my newly harvested garlic, pieces of torn basil leaves, crushed pepper, and a flaky sea salt. When stacked atop a slice of grilled baguette, it becomes a dish I could actually eat every night of the year. I know I can’t, however, thus compounding its allure.

My imagination for their uses is only limited by the available waking hours of the days. I tuck tomatoes into tarts, crepes, tacos, soups, pizza, braises, pasta dishes, salads, and sandwiches. I haven’t included them in my oatmeal or homemade ice cream, so for now, breakfast and dessert haven’t been invaded. I’ll have to work on that. A tomato sorbet might be in my future.

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Salt: The Only Rock We Eat

Salt as Currency

Salt: “a substance so valuable it served as a currency, has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires and inspired revolutions.” So explains author and food historian Mark Kurlansky in his consummate book on the subject, succinctly titled “Salt.”

What explains salt’s culturally critical importance? The answer lies in its ability to not only enhance flavors but more importantly to preserve perishable foods. Before advances in technology, science, and manufacturing, there were few avenues available to keep foods from spoiling. Nations who laid claim to abundant salt deposits flourished, and those who didn’t paid homage.

Enhancing Flavor in Cooking

As fascinating as this rich history is, salt continues to be a staple of the kitchen. What I love best about it is what it does to heighten the flavor of a crisp spring radish or a perfectly ripe tomato. It is a staple to any great kitchen, for it has the ability to bring depth of flavor to countless dishes. I have been known to use some type of salt in every course of a meal. Its value comes to fruition when sprinkling a truffle scented variety on top of creamy Burrata. It then just as easily delights as a dessert capstone of sea salt caramels.

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My pantry includes salts from around the world. These include pink salt from the Murray River in Australia or the Himalayas. They span grey fleur du sel from the Geurande in France or Wales to delicate white variety from Bali or Maldon. In Spain or Italy, salt makers marry it with peppers or truffles to develop a deep, rich flavor. Or it is smoked with every type of wood smoke imaginable, one of my favorites being Alderwood.

We will travel the world on salt’s back, appreciating it in all its diversity through my full array of cooking classes. Come join the journey!