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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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A Garlic Obsession

Is it possible to create a new food group? How about an additional nutrient? Maybe it was one of the treasures found in the pyramids of Egypt. Questions fly around such as, “Is it a vegetable or an herb?” Aaahhh, yes, you know I am talking about garlic. In my kitchen there are few things that sneak themselves into my cooking more often than that firm but juicy bulb named garlic.

Cooking with Garlic

I must admit, I have a self-diagnosed and historical obsession with the culinary bulb. As a way of denial, let’s call it a garlic penchant. Garlic has been inching its way more and more into my dishes and menus for several decades now. It started innocently enough back in the mid ‘80s when a little garlic powder sprinkled on my garlic bread was a natural accompaniment to spaghetti sauce with meatballs. When I moved from opening a jar to creating the sauce for the afore-mentioned spaghetti sauce, I realized the value of its culinary pungency. It was uphill (or should I say downhill?) from there.

I seem to regularly make dishes that just happen to have it as an ingredient. Or do I search for dishes that include it? In the back of my mind, I remember, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” In my way of thinking, it is “A garlic clove per day…”

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Ingredients for a Cambodian chicken curry featuring scratch lemongrass paste made with garden garlic and lemongrass.

Three square meals of garlic per day, you say? That is possible. Garlic for breakfast? Yep. A necessity in mushroom crepes. Lunch? Of course. The classic French oil and vinegar dressing drizzled on my garden greens by all standards Françoise must contain a minced clove. Then from 4:00 p.m. and onward, it shows up everywhere, working its way into every dish. Garlic is an essential part of the tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella cheese crostini I’m currently addicted to. Whether I make a Mexican dish like pork green chili, a toothsome Tuscan garlic and kale soup, a Creole classic Maque Choix, or Spanish paella, they are all rife with garlic.

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Garden tomatoes, basil, and garlic with mozzarella over French bread.

Growing Garlic

Garlic has been much more easily consumed in my kitchen than grown in my garden. My issues with growing a successful crop has included forgetting to harvest it in a timely fashion (it needs to come out of the ground once about half of the green tops have dried and turned a sandy color and in mid July), overcrowding the cloves when planting, locating the garlic plot in a sunny location, planting smaller cloves (large cloves=large bulbs the following year).

Well, this year I’ve finally arrived! I successfully grew garlic! Last summer I decided it was time I took the time and effort to buy and plant this beloved vegetable properly. After reading up on the specifics of growing garlic, I shopped around online and ended up ordering from Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. I chose the sunniest spot in my garden beds and prepped the soil. Garlic bulbs are heavy feeders, so I added extra compost to the area. In late September I buried them in the ground, layering inches of dried leaves overtop to insulate against our frigid winters. I secured these with battened down cardboard. Lo and behold, they even survived this winter’s Polar Vortex.

About the Bulb

Regarding garlic, it belongs to the onion genus, Allium, which in turn is a part of the lily family. In the garden, it has almost no enemies. I suppose the same odor that, when consumed by you and me, scares away friends and family also keeps away garden pests. As it turns out it is also rather easy to grow (a fact that previously seems to have eluded me). When you give it sun and space, it rewards you first with scapes and then large bulbous heads.

The only catch to success is that you have to plan a year in advance. In the upper Midwest, the bulbs need to go into the ground in the fall nine months before they are harvested. If you have a sunny corner and an interest in growing garlic, it is almost time to plant. You can check your local greenhouses or look at online vendors, bearing in mind that favorite varieties sell out quickly.

Varieties

The garlic that you find in the vegetable section of your grocery store usually is not successful in your garden. There are several reasons for this. First, much of our grocery store garlic comes from China and they treat it with a chemical to prevent it from sprouting. Secondly, most garlic you find in grocery store is soft neck garlic which isn’t hardy north of zone 6. If you live in zone 6 or south and want to try planting these soft-neck varieties, do it in the very early spring while it is still cold out.

The rest of us have to “settle” for the wonderfully interesting hard-neck varieties. These little gems we’re settling for, why do we love them so? I know I’ve mentioned juicy before, but that’s one of their prime descriptors. Juicy and crisp. Very different from your grocery store bulbs that have been sitting around for months before they get to the produce department. And quite honestly, the taste is fresher. Something is delicious about them because they are disappearing out of my kitchen faster than I can say “I am crazy for roasted garlic soup.”

Health Benefits

I know you are asking, is garlic actually healthy for me to eat? There has and continues to be a great deal of research around this bulb and its health benefits. What the holistic community has been touting for millennia the modern scientific community is working hard to confirm. From acting as an antimicrobial to helping to improve lipid profiles to aiding in the prevention of some types of cancer, more of garlic’s attributes are being discovered or confirmed every year.

This really is a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation. Do we love the ethnic foods from every continent because they contain our beloved garlic, or is it because of our preoccupation with this crisp and flavorful bulb that we snatch up all available fresh heads at the local farmers market to work into our evening menu?

Does it matter? I say go forth. Indulge. And if you can’t convince your friends and family to join you in your garlic-feeding frenzy, make sure you have a stash of breath mints handy.