Tomato Season

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Indigo Sun tomatoes

This has been an up and down season for tomatoes.  A cool, wet spring and early summer slowed down growth, probably caused an increased incidence of blossom end rot and may have led to around a third of our 25 plants showing what may be a mosaic viral disease and never developing or bearing tomatoes properly.  Fortunately, we planted 9 cocktail plants in 8 varieties and only one of them had that blossom end rot problem early in the summer and it has diminished as the weather improved.  Since moving to Colorado I’ve always planted lots of cocktail tomatoes preferring a mix of heirloom varieties.  Because of the shorter, cooler summers in Colorado, large tomatoes often don’t ripen until August and September.  When I was learning to grow tomatoes as a boy in Missouri, our goal was to pick ripe tomatoes by the 4th of July and we usually managed to do that.  By growing cocktails that ripen much sooner than traditional larger tomatoes, we were picking ripe tomatoes by mid-July here in Colorado.

I have a long history with growing tomatoes.  When I was a boy our family had a large garden with 500 tomato plants as well as other vegetables.  My parents both grew up on truck farms and producing much of our own food was an important family value.  We froze and canned lots of our produce but my brother and I also had  a tomato stand to raise money.  We were allowed to keep all the money from sales but were required to work in the garden every morning.  I remember getting up at 6am and picking up to 15 five-gallon buckets of tomatoes.  My grandfather would watch our stand in the afternoons while I spent time at the swimming pool where our family had a membership.  We sold our tomatoes for 3 to 10 pounds per dollar, depending on the time of the season and current local prices.  My brother and I made and split as much as $1000 a summer with our tomato business.  That was when I learned how to work hard and grow a garden.

Tomatoes like warm soil and the cool nights we have in Colorado, even in mid-summer are a big factor in delaying production of ripe tomatoes compared to the climate in the Midwest where I grew up.  One way I’ve compensated for that in the past is to grow cocktail tomatoes in large black plastic pots that are 3 feet in diameter.  Our bright sun here heats up the soil in these pots faster than the ground, helping those tomatoes to produce ripe fruits earlier than plants in the ground garden.  In very hot summers, these potted tomatoes may burn up and reduce production in late summer and fall but are a nice compliment to a ground garden in prolonging the ripe tomato season by yielding ripe tomatoes weeks earlier than plants in the ground.  I’ve also moved those potted plants into a greenhouse in the fall and picked ripe tomatoes into the New Year.

Cocktail tomatoes bear heavily as well as early and planting a large portion of our garden with these varieties has saved our production this year.  We have been eating tomatoes every day in our salads for 2 months now as well as using them in cooking whenever we desire.  My wife, Cathy, has canned a batch of sugar-free catsup using stevia as a sweetener to satisfy my desire for catsup while reducing my sugar consumption since commercial catsups have plenty of added sugar.  We have also frozen 10 and a half gallons of tomatoes for use this winter.  I’ve frozen tomatoes for years and believe that preserves fresh tomato flavor for cooking better than canning.  We don’t bother to scald and peel tomatoes as the peels contain valuable fiber and antioxidants that are a healthy part of our diet.

It is easy to thaw and blend tomatoes for use in cooking although sometimes Cathy will toss frozen tomatoes into a cooking dish and then use a tongs and scissors to chop them up as they thaw.  Perhaps our most innovative use for tomatoes is with making our own salad dressing.  As a person who doesn’t like vinegar, ranch or mayonnaise, I’ve always had trouble finding any salad dressing that I like.  We have been blending tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, tomatillos sometimes with various herbs and then adding olive oil to create a delightful salad dressing with a fresh tomato taste.  We plan to use our frozen tomatoes to continue making salad dressing this winter.

As someone who has always liked green salsa, it is somewhat surprising that last year was the first time I ever grew my own tomatillos.  We have been adding chopped tomatillos to our salads creating great flavor and a crunchy texture that has led to them becoming one of my favorite fresh garden vegetables.  We’ve canned a batch of green salsa and have a gallon of tomatillos in the freezer.  Tomatillos will always be a part of my garden in the future.

While I haven’t done it this year, I also have several vintages of tomato wine in our cellar.  The best version of that was fermented with onions, garlic, bell pepper, basil and oregano.  I named it Tomato Italiano and it is a delightful wine with a taste like marinara sauce.  I’ve used it as a substitute for vinegar in creating salad dressings.  The most fun I’ve had with tomato wine is when I served that wine as a cocktail at a wine tasting party.  I served it with a cocktail sword piercing a mini venison meatball and a cherry tomato placed in the glass.  I had introduced that wine previously to a group of friends in a blind tasting, asking them if they could guess what it was made from.  Several wanted me to call it spaghetti wine but a good friend who knows my wines well was mystified.  He finally asked if there was meat in it.  After we all laughed and I revealed the ingredients he said the only thing missing was a meatball.  In his honor, I named that cocktail, Matt’s Meatball Martini.

Perhaps the prettiest tomato we’ve grown this year is a new variety for me, Indigo Sun.  A cocktail with purple shoulders over a golden globe, when the stem cap is removed it exposes a yellow star where the cap protected the tomato from the sun.  The purple coloration indicates a high level of anthocyanin which is an antioxidant flavonoid better known from blueberries, elderberries and other purple foods that have great health benefits in one’s diet.  This is in addition to the well known benefits of lycopene, the main flavonoid found in tomatoes.  While we have had some issues in our garden this year, I have to be satisfied with our tomato and tomatillo production.

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