I am enamored with Solanum lycopersicum. Those of you who know me in real life already know about my sickness but I figure that I should follow a policy of open disclosure on this blog and let the rest of you know how obsessed I really am. And if I'm going to be obsessed with a vegetable, what better vegetable to be obsessed with than one that is regularly referred to as a love apple?
My cruel, heartless husband mocks me on a regular basis come seed ordering time. All I have to do is tell him about how I'm going to cut down on the different varieties I grow that year and barely suppressed laughter can be heard for the next couple of hours. It's not my fault that when I say I'm cutting down on the number of varieties that he doesn't understand that means I'm not going to add as many varieties as I usually do. How could I not want to grow them when I see names like Aunt Ruby's German Green, Moonglow, Cherokee Chocolate, Hillbilly, White Queen, Furry Yellow Hog, Depp's Pink Firefly, Bloody Butcher and Thai Red Turtle Egg?
I live in the city but that's never stopped me from gardening. When I lived in an apartment, people were always amazed by the vegetables I grew on my porch. Corn, watermelon, sweet potatoes – I don't care what people told me, I was sure that any vegetable could be grown in a container and the only thing that failed to grow was corn but that survived until a fat, unruly raccoon claimed it for his own a few days before harvest. Except for a barely navigable front porch, I managed to keep my sickness in check until we bought our house.
I was a source of great frustration to our real estate agent. I knew I wanted an old house and I wanted to stay in the streetcar suburb area where I had always rented. But it didn't matter how nice the house was or how great a deal it was – if the yard wasn't suitable for gardening, I didn't want any part of it. The house we ended up with is a beautiful, ramshackle NeoClassic Queen Anne that we lovingly refer to as our money pit Sure – it's missing walls, is flaking paint all over and has no kitchen to speak of. But it's sturdy, will be gorgeous when it gets finished (in 50 years) and has a sun-filled yard with gorgeous stone retaining walls on two sides. And I've wasted very little time filling up my back yard with plants.
I started small with two 4×4 foot beds and only six tomato plants but that restraint quickly flew out the window. We now have 24 beds in our back yard and more than half of them are filled with tomatoes. When I realized how expensive buying plants were and how limited I was in my choice of varieties, I decided to learn how to start my own seedlings. I got a little exuberant in my seed starting my second year and Marcus put his foot down and told me there was no way I was going to have room for 450 tomato plants in my back yard. So I started selling my extra plants down at the Market Square Farmer's Market. This past spring we sold over 1000 tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings. It's been so much fun sharing my love of heirloom tomatoes with people and I LOVE hearing from people how well their plants are doing. I always laugh when people ask me where our farm is and I explain that my "farm" is our sleeping porch in our house. In fact, we've been asked so many times that we made up a name for our "farm". That's how Knox Vegas Farms was created and it become official this past Spring when I saw my picture in the paper with the caption referring to me as an owner of Knox Vegas Farms.
There are cold nights during the spring when carrying over 60 flats of plants in from outside gets a bit tedious but I can't imagine not growing them to sell. I can't imagine not growing heirlooms – even this summer when we've had problems with blight and get eaten alive my mosquitoes every time we spray with an organic fungicide. I can't imagine ever being reduced to eating the pink styrofoam balls they try to pass off as tomatoes at the grocery store. I can't imagine not eagerly awaiting the moment in late June when we eat a fresh tomato for the first time since the previous fall. And I can't ever imagine not being infected with a passion for tomatoes – My name is Kristina and I'm a tomato addict. And that's a problem, how?
It's been pretty hot in Knox Vegas this week so I thought I would celebrate Summerfest by posting my favorite no-cook recipes for tomatoes. This time of year, a dead-ripe summer tomato needs very little embellishing. I am going to suggest that you don't head to your local supermarket and buy their heirloom tomatoes. Part of what makes an heirloom tomato so good is the fact that a local farmer will have grown the tastiest varieties for our area and picked those tomatoes when they're dead ripe. Knoxville now has a farmers market open every day except for Sunday, so find your way to one of those and stock up. Don't buy the pretty hybrids like 'Celebrity'. You want to find the weirdest, ugliest looking tomatoes that are being sold – that's when you know you've got a good one.
Here are my top three favorite way of using raw tomatoes:
This is an easy one but I make a meal out of this several times each summer. Take a loaf of good quality bread. Do NOT use sandwich bread, make sure it's a peasant style bread. I use no knead bread that I bake but VGs Bakery in our area sells a really nice ciabatta. Cut thick slices, brush with a good olive oil and either grill or toast:
Cut a few juicy tomatoes in half and peel a couple of garlic cloves. Have kosher salt (or even better, sea salt) at the ready.
Take that garlic clove and rub it into the bread. If you're like me and addicted to garlic, I usually flip the bread over and do the other side just so it's really good and garlicky. Plus it keeps vampires away.
Now put your tomato cut-side down on the bread.
Start rubbing that tomato into the bread.
Really mash it in there:
Pop that leftover piece of tomato in your mouth and sprinkle your bread with some salt. Eat. That's it. It sounds so simple and it is but the sum is far greater than it's parts.
This is one of my favorite way to use up leftover, stale bread. It's a very simple concept and I'm not going to give you an exact recipe, mainly because it's a recipe that I use to use up whatever odds and ends I have lying around.
Take leftover bread, cut into cubes and toast. You want to use a sturdy bread in this recipe.
Meanwhile, mix olive oil, red wine vinegar, and garlic. I use equal parts olive oil and vinegar in this recipe and I mince up one or two garlic cloves, depending on size. Add salt and pepper – make sure to add a little extra salt to this. You can add any dried or fresh herbs you think would taste good. I usually use an Italian mix from Penzeys but I've left it out and it's just as good. Basil, rosemary, oregano and marjoram would be my choices of herbs to add.
Dice a cucumber, a red pepper, and onion. Cut up tomatoes. Mix together. You can add some cubed cheese to this – mozzarella is what I usually add but ricotta salata is nice as well. Toss the vegetables with the dressing and add the bread cubes. Serve right away.
PS – make it more a Greek-style vinaigrette(I cheat with a great Greek seasoning mix from Penzeys) and sub in pita chips and you've got a great cheater's fattoush.
Basil, Feta & Tomato Sandwiches
This is one of my favorite summer sandwiches and it's such an easy combination but so good together.
Toast some sandwich bread.
Measure out the following ingredients:
2 Tablespoons crumbled feta
2 tablespoons mayo
1 tablespoon lightly packed chopped basil
Mix together and spread on toasted bread while toast is still hot so that the cheese will melt.
Slice a tomato and add to sandwich.
Eat with plenty of paper towels close by.
This is my entry for week four of Summerfest. Join in the fun!