This week’s share: Basil, Eggplant, Edamame, Endive, Garlic, Lettuce, Candy onions, Hot peppers, Thyme, Tomatoes, Cherry tomatoes
I spend a fair amount of time every winter choosing tomato varieties. There are hundreds and hundreds to choose from, each one presumably offering some positive trait or it would not have made it into a seed catalog. At least, I have never come across a tomato in a catalog described as insipid, offputtingly ugly, a meager producer, disease prone or just a waste of space in your garden. I am sure such tomatoes have existed. Tomatoes will cross pollinate given the chance (the chance existing if a different tomato in the vicinity flowers at the same time and there’s a bee or a slight breeze), and they are fairly easy seeds to save, so people have grown god knows how many difference varieties over the years. Most of them have probably not been worth hanging onto and were never seen again. The varieties people have gone to the trouble of maintaining are the varieties worth maintaining because they look cool or produce an abundant crop or shrug off fungal diseases or taste notably good. Or, if you get really lucky, all of the above.
I don’t know that many tomatoes achieve all of the above. Most standard modern varieties have a kind of general competence. Professional plant breeders have worked pretty diligently to amalgamate as many positive traits as possible. But they have bred varieties that emphasize specific traits because farmers have a range of needs and challenges. Southern farmers using conventional methods to grow for wholesale markets are not looking for the same things in a tomato that an organic farmer selling direct to consumers in the northeast wants.
Even a single farmer might need different strengths depending on when and where he’s planting. I grow inderterminate (that is, the vines just keep growing and growing) varieties in the greenhouse, determinate varieties outside, and extra disease resistant, short season varieties for the late planting. Within those parameters, I look for varieties with notably good flavor, a little durability (it doesn’t do me much good to have a stupendously delicious tomato so fragile it cracks when I pick it) and decent disease resistance (I don’t spray a lot, and only use organic fungicides) in a range of colors and that aren’t too small or too large. That still leaves me with a lot of choices
I have a core list of varieties I plant year after year (if I can get the seed; sometimes even good varieties disappear from the catalogs), and a longer list of ones I have tried and won’t plant again. And then each year I try some new (to me) varieties that meet some need—a reliable pink slicer to replace Pink Beauty, for instance—or that just catch my fancy—such as Mila, a kind of gourd-shaped bright orange Russian variety with an allegedly perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.
I know, of course, that none of the varieties will live up to the catalog hype because nothing ever does. If our possessions were even half as good as they sound in the sales pitch, we would be a much more content bunch. And there’s generally some defect that, for some reason, has gone unmentioned, or been recast as an asset. A variety with an unpleasantly thick skin might be touted for its resistance to cracking or its high percentage of fruit with marketable appearance.
But the main reason the tomatoes fall short of their catalog description is that tomatoes generally don’t grow in ideal conditions. In addition to the embellishments and omissions, the description is of the tomato variety at its best. It is telling you about its potential when everything goes right. Whenever that is. It’s not useless information, but it would be nice to know, say, how often over a ten year span that variety came close to its potential, and what it was like the rest of the time. When I started farming I tried a variety called Cherokee Purple tomatoes and it was tasty as any tomato I have ever had. In large part because of that, I continue to grow a few every year. But at this point only a few because in the 27 years ensuing years it has sometimes been good—though never as good as that first year—more often disappointing, and occasionally more or less a total failure.
With tomatoes, nurture matters as least as much as nature. Not that really coddling a variety will turn a cherry tomato into a beefsteak or jazz up a red one with yellow stripes. But stick a puny seedling in poor soil and leave it to fend for itself, and no amount of breeding will save it. To get the most out of a tomato, out of any tomato, you have to give a lot all through its life. It needs a good start, a good home, food, water, medicine, protection from predators, space to grow, support as it ages. And because it lives in an imperfect world and is always fragile in certain ways, it needs a healthy dose of luck. The most robust a tomato is the more resilient it will be. But a minute of wind-driven hail might do more damage that any tomato can take.
If I have gotten better at growing tomatoes over the years, in part I have become more sensible about variety selection. I am willing to sacrifice a little wow for a steady supply. Mostly, though, I have raised enough tomatoes at this point that I have become a somewhat more adept guardian. I have a lot of crops to look after, so they don’t always get everything they want. But they don’t need everything they want. You just have to know what’s necessary and provide it when necessary. And, most importantly, you have to make sure they don’t have too much to drink
Vegetable notes: The edamame (little, fuzzy green pods) should be boiled in very salty water for a few minutes until the beans are slightly tender, but not soft. I think the best thing to do with them is just snack on them, but you could shell them and use them in a salad or a stir fry.
If you are looking for something else to do with eggplant, and you happen to have a little ground meat and some time, here’s an idea. Halve the eggplants, score the flesh and brush with olive oil. Bake at high heat until the flesh has browned on top and softened. Scoop most of it out, leaving enough so the eggplant halves hold their shape. Meanwhile, sauté meat with onions, garlic, slat and pepper, and maybe some hot peppers, add tomato paste, vinegar, cumin, coriander, a little cinnamon, sumac, the eggplant flesh, and enough water or stock to make the mixture moist but not soupy. Cook on low about ten minutes, add some currant or dried cranberries (and pine nuts if you like them). Taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Fill the eggplant shells, and bake, covered, for about forty minutes. Serve with yogurt and chopped herbs.