A tome from Tomatoman

IMG_0369If you truly love tomatoes, good tomatoes, you eventually have to grow tomatoes. Because no matter how good one you buy might be, it won’t be as good as one you pick from your backyard minutes before eating it, when its skin is warm from the sun and its flesh so juicy that it covers you in red when you bite in.

Luckily for tomato lovers, “Tomatoman” Craig LeHouillier of Raleigh has finally produced his long-awaited book, “Epic Tomatoes: How To Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time” (Storey Publishing, $19.95).

When I met Craig years ago, he couldn’t park his car in his garage or driveway because both will filled with plants and seeds. Although at that time he was a chemist at Glaxo, his true passion was heirloom tomatoes. Heirlooms – those tomatoes that taste like Daddy’s did, with names and stories worthy of a novel – were dying out in some cases, hard to find in others. Craig decided to save them and popularize them. And he is credited with bringing back the Cherokee Purple, a tomato many connoisseurs consider the Perfect Tomato. He also fed the hunger of area tomato lovers for several years by organizing Tomatopalooza, a free-for-all tasting extravaganza.

A few years ago, Craig went full-time into tomatoes, focusing on a project to create dwarf versions of the often tall and unwieldy heirlooms, allowing container gardeners to enjoy their flavor and variety. He hosts tomato dinners are area restaurants during the summer; find out more by following him at @nctomatoman.

At a signing for the book recently at Quail Ridge Books, the co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange called Craig “a national treasure.” It’s not an exaggeration.

“Epic Tomatoes” is one of those books that gardeners love to get in February when a high of 29 is predicted. It has gorgeous photos and clear instructions that should help those who have never tried growing tomatoes from seed through the process. There are even a few recipes, including a roasted tomato sauce that I’d like to try….but not until July.

 

Attack of the green tomatoes

It was time to get ready for fall crops at the neighborhood community garden, so the tomato plants had to

hot green tomato pickles and peach jam

hot green tomato pickles and peach jam

go. As we ripped out the drooping vines, I noticed dozens of green tomatoes. The voice of my mother – the person who saved, flattened out and reused aluminum foil – jumped into my head. “It seems a shame to waste all these tomatoes,” it said through my mouth.

We didn’t think that the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, where most of the garden’s produce goes as part of the Plant a Row for the Hungry program, would want green tomatoes. In a fit of optimism, I took them.

Even after becoming picky and only selecting the largest ones, I could barely drag my bulging bag the two blocks back to my house. There must have been at least 20 pounds of hard, green balls in there.

The green tomatoes led me to violate one of the cardinal rules of entertaining: Never serve to guests a recipe that you’re making for the first time. But I was surrounded by green things, and these were old and tolerant friends who would eat almost anything that wasn’t once hoofed or feathered. I found a green tomato pasta sauce recipe in “Tomatoes: A Savor the South Cookbook” by my friend Miriam Rubin. It was simple – garlic, parsley, some hot peppers and the tomatoes – and I added crabmeat.

It was a success (although linguini might have been a better pasta choice than rigatoni). But if it was followed by The Hub’s chocolate cake, even shredded paper would’ve been proclaimed gourmet, so I had dessert as back-up.

Then I wanted to make green tomato pickles. I had never made them, and had eaten them only once. I purchased a jar for the Thanksgiving relish tray many years ago, and remembered their interesting flavor and texture. I combed through canning books and cobbled the recipe at the end together from several ideas. Easy? Yes. But it will be another week or so before I can say how they taste, because all pickles must sit for a period of time to, well, pickle.

Last night, it was the classic fried green tomatoes with our Labor Day grilled burgers.

The bag is much lighter now, but 20 or so of the greenies still lurk in my kitchen…

Hot Green Tomato Pickles

15 cups cored and sliced 1/4-inch-thick green tomatoes

4 1/2 cups white vinegar

1 tablespoon crushed dried red pepper

2 tablespoons yellow mustard seed

3 cups sugar

1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

2 teaspoons celery seed

6-7 cloves garlic

In a large saucepan, combine the vinegar, red pepper, mustard seed, sugar, peppercorns and celery seed. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. When the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is boiling, remove from the heat.

Have clean, sanitized pint jars, lids and rims ready. Drop 1 clove garlic into each jar, then pack in the tomatoes. Pour the vinegar mixture over the tomatoes, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Push a wooden skewer gently into the mixture and around the sides to release any air bubbles. Wipe the rims and screw on the lids and rims.

Process the jars in a boiling-water canner for 15 minutes. Remove the jars from the canner and cool on folded towels or racks.

Makes 6-7 pints.

 

 

Lily’s Salsa

At the recent Tomatopalooza (see the post from a couple of days ago for details and juicy photos), there was also a small salsa competition. One intrigued me because it combined sweet fruit with the tomatoes.

I’m a fan of fruit salsas, but not as a dip with chips. I use fruit salsa as a bright addition to simple grilled chicken or fish – and your guests will think you’ve gone upscale. I often make one using fresh peaches, but the one at Tomatopalooza had a different fruit involved, along with tomatoes.

When I found the salsa’s creator, Jodi Grubbs, she gave me the instructions and revealed the secret fruit: Pear.

To achieve the balance of flavors in this salsa, the type of tomatoes used are important. Grubbs used a combination of yellow, orange and red tomatoes along with the pears. Yellow and orange tomatoes have a less acid, more sweet flavor. Replace them all with tart-tasting reds, and you will lose the nice flavor mix in the salsa. So take the time to search out good heirloom tomatoes in the right colors.

Here are Grubbs’ instructions for Lily’s Salsa, which she named after her daughter: Finely chop 1/4 of a red onion, 1 medium pear (peeled) and 2 habaneros. Stir it all together and refrigerate for 2 days. Then chop 2 orange tomatoes, 2 small red low-acid-flavor tomatoes, 1 medium pear (peeled), 1 medium yellow tomato (she used a Lillian’s Yellow) and 6 leaves of fresh lemon verbena. Stir that into the mixture. Taste, add sea salt as needed and serve.

Tomatoes times ten

Ten years of Tomatopalooza – wow. And it all started in a geeky guy’s driveway. The difference today is that Craig LeHoullier is now a full-time tomato-guy, after leaving his chemist job at Glaxo, His interest in collecting and promoting heirloom tomato varieties grew into a passion for preserving and perpetuating these unusual, flavorful tomatoes. He started collecting seeds and growing plants, which he sells at farmers markets.

Slow Food USA has recognized LeHoullier for rediscovering and preserving the Cherokee Purple, which the organization has named to its U.S. Ark of Taste. Cherokee Purple is one of the most popular and more widely available heirlooms, with rich, balanced flavor (not too acid, not too sweet) and meaty texture.

Tomatopalooza started as a way to popularize heirlooms among tomato-growing nuts. This year, as always, visitors were asked to vote on their favorites. I never do – because I’d take any of them home (although I do prefer a more acid-tasting tomato; love that tartness).

Black, green, yellow, white, crimson, even one with a green-and-red tie-dye look. Sweet, acid, bright, smoky flavors. Tiny ruby ‘maters the size of the tip of my little finger (Mexico Midget). Giant Cherokee Purples like softballs. More than 160 varieties in all were on the long tables beneath the welcome shade of trees on an Efland, N.C. farm last Saturday.

I tasted the same variety, called Carbon, provided by two different growers and they didn’t taste exactly the same, like wine produced in different terroirs. Actually, there are many similarities between great tomatoes and fine wine, and both stain your shirt if you’re clumsy.

By the way, despite what many people think, there is really no such thing as a low-acid tomato. All tomatoes have about the same acid content, and differences in flavor are caused by variations in the sugar-to-acid ratio. That means that sweeter-tasting tomatoes have more sugar, not less acid.

LeHoullier also offered samples of what he calls the “dwarf project”: His work with an Australian scientist to tame the heirloom plants, which can grow 8 to 10 feet tall, into four or five-foot home versions that might even work in containers.

To find out more about LeHoullier and his projects (he also hosts tomato dinners are area restaurants and is working on a book) visit here. And you can see more delectable photos here.

Mysterious roadside goodies

A white tent popped up this summer in the parking lot of the Party Beverage store at Powell Drive and Western Boulevard near my house. The first few times I flew by it on Western, I figured it was some kind of beer keg annex, until I saw that it had plants.

It’s actually a little curb market, like the ones that sprang up on the sides of the road when I was a kid in Winston-Salem, N.C.

When I stopped to look around, it was obvious that some of the items were not local (limes, for example). I asked the quiet teen who was manning the stand where the produce came from. He quickly pointed out what was not from North Carolina, and said his grandfather grew most of the rest. I couldn’t get a lot more out of him as he went to help another customer.

The honey was from Mocksville, N.C., and there were corn, cukes, melons and herb plants. I went right for the tomatoes. Wherever the rest of the vegetables and fruits came from, these tomatoes were obviously farm grown, and from not too far away because they were a tumble of tender-skinned heirlooms in pink, red, maroon and bi-colors. Red and yellow cherry tomatoes were displayed like jewels in china bowls.

I bought an assortment of the large tomatoes. They were the best, along with the CSA’s, that I’ve eaten this summer. And now I’ve ruined it for myself because y’all will drive straight over there for these mystery ‘maters. But I’m closer. I’ll be there first.

 

Food news roundup

You’d expect a certain level of elegance at picnics held before North Carolina Symphony outdoor concerts. Food matched to concert themes, shrimp with horseradish, silver candelabras. Read about it in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) here. If the concertgoers tried a little harder, they might reach the level of an Ole Miss football tailgate.

Corn strippers. No, not entertainers who peel off their husks. They’re essential for serious corn-from-the-cob removers. Read more in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer here.

You’ve heard of eat local, now you can sauce local. The Independent Weekly has a colorful collection of local barbecue sauce makers. The pineapple and garlic in The Shizzle Jerk Marinade is quite intriguing. Read more here.

OK, I want to know why, in every grilling article, the main subject is a guy grinning in a baseball cap. Like the photo with the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal article here. Women grill, too, y’all. We do not wear baseball caps because they spoil our coiffures. I do happen to own two grills (one charcoal, one portable gas) and a turkey fryer. I’d like to have a Big Green Egg, like the baseball-cap guy, but have not yet put my pennies together for one. As that founding griller Abigail Adams admonished, “remember the ladies.”

Vegan food in a slow-cooker? How crazy is that? Well, not very if you read HealthySlowCooking. Since I’m scanning the skies for dairy-free desserts for The Hub, who is allergic to dairy, this is a good find.

Ever wonder what happens to coupons after they accomplish their mission to save you money? The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) has the interesting answer here.

Boil before grilling? If you’re thinking about brats, the answer is yes, according to Bill Daley in the Chicago Tribune. Read the reasoning here.

Until someone manages to produce a bacon plant, we’ll have to make do with NCTomatoandGardenBlog by tomatomaniac Craig LeHoullier. Read through the list of plantings and drool.

 

 

Mega-maters and contraband pork

black cherry - photo from previous tomatopalooza

black cherry - photo from previous tomatopalooza

I had a big food weekend, and it’s taken until now to recover and tell y’all about it. On Saturday, I assisted with registration at Tomatopalooza, which drew more than 100 people in a drizzle at Apex Community Park. This annual festival of heirloom tomatoes is organized by Craig LeHoullier and Lee Newman. Craig sells heirloom tomato plants and has been involved in locating, saving and growing rare heirlooms for many years. Read more about them here.

I have attended for several years but felt obliged to help this time, since the article I wrote on the event for Our State magazine might have led to a flood of tomato fans. There were more than 160 varieties of tomatoes, ranging from pearl-sized Mexico Midgets to a Georgia Streak weighing in at 1.8 pounds (that’s for ONE tomato). Black Cherry won the popular vote for best tasting. The medium-sized, purple-and-green tomato is a perennial favorite, and I like its balanced flavor. It’s too small for a BLT, though. You need a big slab of tomato, preferably one with enough acid flavor to balance the richness of the bacon (in my opinion). It’s still hard to beat Brandywine or Cherokee Purple for a good BLT. I discovered that a big advantage of helping is getting to take home the leftovers, so I have been throwing a wide range of tomatoes into dishes ever since.

That night, the hub and I attended a birthday party. I will disclose neither the location nor honoree, because the hosts were serving smuggled pork product. They had visited Spain recently, and returned with a hunk of rare Iberian jamon, which they sliced with a generous hand. I’ve never seen this stuff around here. It’s like prosciutto, except deeper and richer, a little more fat and less salty flavor. It comes from a special breed of pig found only in Spain (our host said Spain won’t even let the DNA out of the country) and fed on acorns. I wondered how they got it back here – I’ve seen customs take food away from nuns, for goodness sake. The fresh-faced, young couple convinced customs that they were late for their connection, so the officers didn’t open the luggage. There they would have found a bouncing baby jamon wrapped in clothing. With fresh figs from their yard – ham heaven. But I realized that you’re really getting old when you’re more excited about ham than the joint that was passed around.