Friday, November 09, 2018

Tomatoes and Smoke

No, that isn't a new recipe. The smoke part is because we are having a repeat of last year, but this time the big smoke...and in Paradise, near Chico, northeast of us quite a ways. The winds were so strong and the high was sitting in just the right place off the coast that the extreme smoke from the fire they are calling the Camp Fire in Paradise, CA blew over to us very quickly yesterday, making everything around here really smokey by 11 am. This is hard of folks who have asthma  and other respiratory ailments, but not much fun for the rest of us either. Waking up to a red sun and smokey skies was a strong reminder of the Tubbs fire of just over a year ago. Over 5,000 homes in our area were burned that day, so you can imagine the terrible memories that this smoke brings back to them. Praying for a quick resolution of the current fire for the fire victims and first responders in the Chico area, but also for the peace of mind of friends and neighbors in the greater Santa Rosa area.

Don't have a photo of the smoky situation but at 3:30 the air was dense and the sun was still red.

Tomatoes have nothing to do with wild fires, but they are the next food memory I wanted to talk about with you. My Dad grew tomatoes in the far back yard when we first moved to Northern Virginia (and probably long before that, but I was too young or merely a twinkle in his eye prior, so we'll start there). Later he grew tomatoes in the side yard near the back door. The big maple trees had gotten so tall that there was nowhere else to grow things that needed full sun all day.

I guess I inherited the need to grow vegetables from him. Even when I was living in a small apartment in Berkeley with no garden space I figured out how to grow vegetables. My first attempt pleased the neighbors and street people because I planted in the space between the street and the sidewalk. This particular patch also had a telephone pole. The tomato plant thrived and I think I may have gotten one or two ripe tomatoes, but most of them disappeared while they were still green.

The corn (three stalks) was even funnier. I did get about four ears developing, but someone picked them before the silk had even browned over. They probably found that there was a cob and some teeny tiny corn nubbins but they would have been green tasting and milky and not at all sweet at that stage.

Once we arrived in the country I was in heaven. I had a pretty large garden the first year, not realizing that the gophers were there first and would eat whatever they wanted from below ground. It was shocking at first to arrive at the garden in the morning and find that a whole plant had been sucked underground. I did manage to grow corn and one tomato plant survived. It reminded me strongly of that Berkeley experience, but this time the corn ripened and we even invited Max's kindergarten class on a field trip to pick and eat corn, visit the sheep across the fire station lot, sing harvest songs and run around a bit.

The next year I built a raised bed next to the barn with hardware cloth underneath to protect from gophers. I've also learned that the best thing to do is to plant my veggies, and even flowers and bulbs, in pots and wine half barrels. It means more work in the spring getting all that dirt refreshed and is more expensive, but the gophers only get a few things I don't really care about this way.

I found fairly quickly that our solarium is the perfect place to grow seedlings. Every February or March I begin with seeds and end up, by planting time, with sturdy seedlings. My favorites are tomatoes and zucchini, but I also do cucumbers. The beans and peas do best being planted directly in the soil, but sometimes I do the cucumbers that way, too.

One year I grew a dozen different kinds of heirloom tomatoes. Each of three seed packs had four kinds in it. Fortunately, almost all of the seeds germinated, so I had plenty of seedlings to give away to friends. Those were the best tomatoes! So much flavor and so many pretty colors. They were a joy to grow and to eat. There were green zebra tomatoes, black krim, costelluto, a yellow one that I forget the name of, brandywine, and more.

Last year I did something similar, but planted more seeds of fewer varieties and gave the seedlings away to the local Grange for their spring fundraiser. It is a bit of a process going from seed to cell pack to larger seedling pot, keeping them watered, hardening them off before planting and then keeping them healthy until their roots get well worked into the soil and they begin to really grow.

Then it's mostly a matter of even watering (done with a drip system for the last 10 years or so), fertilizer once or twice during the season, tying them up if they are escaping their tomato cage, and usually pretending to be a bee once at the beginning of the time when they set fruit. We used to have enough real bees, but they are not as plentiful, so a camel hair brush helps transfer pollen from male to female flowers. Once the first few tomato fruit are set, the plant seems to get the idea and I don't usually have to help again.

Send me an email if you would like information on to how to start your own seeds the way that I do it. It starts with damp paper towels and small plastic bags, like sandwich bags and, of course, seeds. Be sure to leave the little plastic bags with their roll of paper towels studded with seeds open to let in fresh air, but keep them on their sides to store as much moisture as possible. Once you check them and see that there are roots and the first leaves, get them into the ground or into cell packs (I do the latter) to keep growing. To harden off, take the seedlings outside during the day for a few hours, then take them inside again in the late afternoon, and do that for four days running. After that you remove the lower leaves, plant them with some of the stem (where those lower leaves were) under the soil because roots form there for stronger plants, add water and tomato cages and watch them grow! It's important that the soil warms up before you plant the seedling out. Otherwise they will just sit there, keeping the same size, until the soil warms. That can be frustrating!

So what is the best recipe I can think of for using the ripe tomatoes once they are firm but juicy and fully colored and come off the stem easily? To really enjoy the flavor of the tomatoes, best is just sliced with maybe some salt and pepper. Next would be to drizzle slices with good balsamic vinegar and peppery virgin olive oil, plus a scattering of finely sliced fresh basil. The taste of summer...our here, the taste of early fall.


  1. It looks like you have a Cherokee Purple in there already, but that one's a favorite. The Black Krim was fun, but didn't bear well for us. And the wee golden ones make wonderful dried treats - halved & dried cut-side-up they turn into almost raisins!

  2. Yes, the one in the far back is probably a Cherokee Purple. The Black Krim seems to require me to be a bee before it will set a lot of fruit...getting the first couple set seems to signal that it better get to work!
    By wee golden ones, do you mean golden cherry sized? Mine often split and then would get mold, so I stopped growing them, but I can see how they would be a great snack if dried.