Absence makes the heart grow fonder and by the middle of July I can hardly wait until those first green tomatoes ripen in the garden. This year I got so desperate I made fried green tomatoes just so I could get a hint of the taste of fresh tomatoes. We love the taste of ripe red tomatoes fresh from the garden! My husband and I frequently eat them like apples and don’t mind the juice dripping down our hands and arms. Tomatoes allowed to ripen on the vine develop a spicy, bold and tart flavor you will rarely taste in a store bought tomato.
Each year I can bushels and bushels of tomato products. I always make sure to have 30-40 quarts of whole tomatoes on hand so that if I run low on other tomato products during the winter I can use them to make a batch of whatever we need. I generally can about 30-40 quarts of salsa, 30 quarts of spaghetti sauce, 20 pints of pizza sauce, 20 pints of chili sauce, 30 quarts of tomato juice, and 30-40 quarts of tomato soup. I am the only person who eats ketchup in our household (German family who only likes mustard) so I can get by with only 10 quarts of ketchup every two years. I also can an assortment of stewed tomatoes, tomatoes and zucchini, and tomatoes and okra.
We don’t always have tomatoes on the menu throughout the year but they are a great enhancement to so many dishes and when they are ripe from the garden we enjoy them every day. We especially enjoy tomatoes sliced fresh as a side dish. They are great on their own but sometimes I like to add a sprinkle of salt, basil and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. My daughter brought back a recipe she discovered while living in Spain, that I have made many times. Slice eggplant in 1/2 inch slices; sprinkle with salt and let drain for about 20 minutes. Dry with paper towel; top with sliced tomatoes, sprinkle with salt, pepper and parmesan/ romano cheese ( or vegan substitute) and top with pine nuts. Drizzle with olive oil and bake in the oven until brown and the cheese is bubbly. This makes a fresh vibrant flavored side dish for the carnivore and a great main dish for the vegetarian.
Last year I grew 175 tomato plants but this year I cut back to around 75 plants. I usually mulch the tomatoes with straw because the cost is prohibitive for cages or staking devices given the number of plants I grow. I look forward to raising bamboo in the future and after harvest use it to trellis/stake the tomatoes. Tomatoes need to be kept off the ground to minimize rot. Tomatoes that touch the soil very nearly always develop rot and keeping them off the soil with good ventilation increases production substantially. Allowing plants to spread over the ground makes picking more difficult than harvesting from staked plants but I usually get better production when they are not staked, and have a good mulch.
I like Jet Star and Supersonic varieties as they are disease tolerant, produce abundant harvests of medium to large size nicely shaped fruit, have a good acid content, and taste wonderful. I have not tried heirloom tomatoes because I need great harvests to fulfill my families canning needs. I keep thinking; however, I should plant a few heirloom varieties so I can compare the taste with what I grow now. They are more prone to disease and don’t keep as well as commercial varieties but I have been told that the favor makes up for these weaknesses. I also love grape and roma, (also called plum) tomatoes. You only need a plant or two of grape or cherry tomatoes for the average size family because they are abundant producers. Plum tomatoes are great for sauces because they are meaty and have less seeds than standard slicing varieties. They are great sized snacks too!
Tomatoes are relatively easy to grow and harvest and there are so many ways to preserve them for later use. Even though I am up to my armpits in tomatoes right now, I can’t imagine not having this simple pleasure to look forward to each year.