Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A sweet jewel

I grow tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes.

There are many reasons why I spend my summers planting, pruning, staking, cultivating, feeding and generally stressing over 30+ tomato plants. Of course, there is the incomparable taste of a crimson red, perfectly ripe tomato picked straight off the vine, then sliced and enjoyed with a sprinkle of salt while it's still warm from the August sun. A tomato you grow yourself is an entirely different creature from a tomato that you buy in the grocery. I hesitate even to call them the same species. A homegrown tomato is a sweet jewel, succulent and juicy and deeply flavorful -- smoky, even. A tomato from the grocery is a pale, mushy, mealy, bland imitator. Homegrown tomatoes everywhere should be up in arms, picketing local markets in opposition to their $3.99 per pound inferior fruits. But tomatoes are not sentient beings with thumbs -- let alone arms -- so I will have to do the advocating for them.

So, taste. The first and most important motivation for my tomato garden is flavor. But there's also tradition. I view my tomato garden as an homage to those who have come before me, who gardened not only for the joy of it but also because growing their own food was a necessity as people of limited means. People like my great-grandparents, Dad's grandparents. Grandpa Masterson (pre-Ellis Island name: Mastroianni) filled his backyard with tomato plants because he was a fine Italian man who appreciated a good tomato. He was also a poor Italian man who could make the fruits of his labor feed his entire family for several seasons. I grow tomatoes because Grandpa Masterson grew tomatoes. I utilize his methods, which he taught my father and my father taught me. When I prune off the suckers and hoe around the roots and tie up the rapidly-growing vines with scraps of old pantyhose, I feel the weight of my family's tradition. This seems melodramatic. It is not. Being close to the earth brings me close to my family. And even though Grandpa Masterson lived to a ripe old age, my own grandparents did not. Carrying on a time-honored Masterson tradition allows me to "know" my grandparents, even though I did not know them very well. I am doing something that they, through my father, have taught me. I am an extension of their growing traditions, their need and desire to gain sustenance from the earth under their feet.

Also, homegrown tomatoes taste good. Have I mentioned that?

When you have more than 30 tomato plants, you by extension will have a lot of tomatoes. I can think of few things more tragic than to let them rot on the vine, or go to waste in any way. So of course I eat them fresh. Of course I give them to my family, friends, neighbors, massage therapist and horseback-riding instructor. I can lots of them -- another way to connect with the past because, honestly, who ever cans anymore? (Plus, there are few acts as divine as releasing the flavor and aroma of homegrown tomatoes into the kitchen in the dead of January as you pry open a mason jar full of canned goodness.) Over the years I've also developed many tomato-heavy recipes to make the best use of my fresh bounty.

Homegrown tomato salad with feta and cracked black pepper is, naturally, one of these recipes. Actually, like so many things I cook during the summer, it is hardly a recipe at all. More of a sweet, salty melange of the best the garden has to offer. Just take a number of ripe, amazing tomatoes, mix them with whatever herbs you might be growing, throw in some feta or even ricotta salata, and there you have it. A "recipe" to highlight the summery boldness of your tomato crop...and a delicious way to make sure none of those vine-ripened beauties goes to waste.

You will read a lot more in this forum about my tomato garden; today is just the beginning. Who knew a vegetable garden could be so inspiring? When Dad first taught me the Masterson Method of tomato gardening, I didn't know how what a big part this cultivation would play in my life. But each and every summer -- as Memorial Day approaches and I start turning over the soil, amending it and preparing it for tomato seedlings, and then as summer marches on with its heat and sun, and finally as August arrives and the multitude of green tomatoes take on their red glory and I begin picking, plucking fruits from the tall, heavy plants in the waning, cricket-filled shorter summer evenings -- I am grateful to carry on the Masterson family tradition of the tomato garden.

And I'm grateful for the taste. Have I mentioned the taste?



I made this recipe just this past week, while my dear Australian friends were visiting. As Kerrie gathered the herbs for the salad off the back porch, she remarked that she was happy to be here as I cooked something for the blog. When she arrives back home in a few weeks, she's looking forward to reading this post, having helped me in the kitchen when it was written. So a big hello to Kerrie and her husband Greg, who are not only more family than friends, but also the best and cheeriest house guests one can imagine. Plus, they got me a subscription to "Delicious" magazine! I mean, seriously, these are good people.

4-5 pounds of homegrown (or farmers' market) tomatoes, diced

2 shallots, finely diced

4 T. fresh basil, chopped

2 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

2 T. fresh oregano, chopped

1 T. fresh rosemary, chopped

8 oz. feta cheese, cubed

3/4 t. freshly-cracked black pepper

1/4 t. kosher salt

1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil

You know, for all the multi-step recipes I publish in this space, for once it's nice to write:

Combine all ingredients; toss.

This salad is even better the second day. Another note: considering the moisture content of the tomatoes, this salad gets very watery in the bottom of the bowl. I don't mind this, and simply serve the salad using a slotted spoon. To reduce the liquid, however, you could place the diced tomatoes in a wire-mesh strainer, salt them with about 1/2 t. of kosher salt and let them drain into the sink. Then add them to the rest of the ingredients and toss. There will still be a bit of liquid, but not quite as much.

Makes 8 healthy servings.


Unknown said...

You are my hero and you are right, there is nothing better then the taste of a red ruby gem hot off the vine...OMG...and I love to can.

Unknown said...


Dianne said...

Marlene, thank you for the wonderful comment! I'm so glad there are others out there who appreciate the seemingly lost art of canning. In fact, I just put up some tomatoes tonight!

Sue, are you OK? ;)

Unknown said...

just trying to make you laff.


Anonymous said...

Di, you didn't mention that 4-5lb of your tomatoes is just 2!

Dianne said...

Kerrie, you make an excellent point!

Glad to see that you are able to comment...when I saw your name there it brought a big smile to my face.

Anonymous said...

I saw this post and thought you might be the perfect person to tell me how to grow a tomato. I am in Texas but maybe you could help a wannabe tomato farmer with her first attempt? I found your blog about a week ago and I do believe I have read the whole thing now and tried quite a few of the recipes. Tomorrow I try the Asian Noodle salad. If you care to post about the best way to grow, I would love to have it.

Dianne said...

Paula, thanks so much for your comment, and for reading and trying out some recipes! I would love to post about the tomato-gardening technique that works for me, what a great idea! I'll add this to the list for spring...after all the snow is gone and my thoughts turn to the garden. Stay tuned!