Thursday, August 27, 2015

Tomato 101

by Andrea Yoder
Summer isn’t summer without fresh tomatoes!  With thousands of varieties to choose from, I’ll admit, it can be a bit overwhelming trying to decide which ones to grow.   We carefully select our varieties based on characteristics including flavor, size, texture, color and disease resistance.  In this week’s blog, we’d like to introduce you to some of the varieties we are currently picking. But first, let’s cover a few tomato basics.

We start all our tomatoes in the greenhouse in May. Actually, we plant two crops about 2-3 weeks apart. Our goal is to get a crop out early in the season after we’re free and clear of the threat of frost. We put the second crop in so we can start harvesting from it when the first one is starting to wind down. This way we can extend our tomato season as long as possible. Tomato plants can grow very quickly in warm temperatures, so it is important to regulate temperature in the greenhouse to try to achieve slow, steady growth. If we do this correctly, we’ll end up with a shorter plant that has a strong stem to support it instead of a leggy, tall, weak plant that takes longer to get established when transplanted into the field.

 It is becoming more common for growers to grow tomatoes in hoop houses which provide more protection for the plants. Unfortunately we don’t have 1.5-2 acres of hoop houses to grow in this way, so we implement the best practices we can into our field production system. We plant all our tomatoes on raised beds covered with plastic mulch which allows water to drain better in heavy rains so the roots don’t get too saturated. Plastic mulch also helps to absorb more heat to warm the soil, especially important in a cool spring when the plants are first being established.

Since the beds are covered with plastic, we have to provide a means for irrigating the plants. We run drip tapes under the bed. Richard has a moisture sensor he puts in the field and checks it frequently so he knows when the plants need to be watered. It is important to provide tomatoes with even watering so the plant isn’t stressed and so the fruit doesn’t crack when it is ripening.

 If you’ve never seen our tomato fields, I must say they are a beautiful picture of artistry. We have chosen to implement a modified “Florida Stake & Weave” method of production. This means we put wooden and metal posts in between the plants and then use twine to tie the tomatoes up. The twine is woven around the posts with the plant in between the strings to create a structure to hold the plant up as it grows. We call this tying tomatoes and usually do this about 6 times for each crop. The benefit of this system is that it lifts the plants up off the ground so the fruit stays clean and isn’t subject to rotting on the ground. It also allows better airflow through the dense foliage and helps the plants to dry out more quickly. Bacteria, fungi, and molds thrive in moist environments. We try to eliminate that “perfect” environment for disease to start and spread.

We never work in the tomato field until the plants are dry or we increase the potential to spread disease from one plant throughout the entire field. In addition to the plastic covered beds, we also put straw mulch in between the beds to prevent dirt from splashing up on the plants or fruit. There is a lot of work involved in growing tomatoes, but the end result is well worth all of the necessary steps that are taken.
Tomatoes may be considered a staple food in many American’s diets.  From a culinary perspective, tomatoes are used all around the world.  They are a New World (South America) crop thought to have been spread to Old World Europe by Spanish explorers.  They have since made their way all around the world and are included in the cuisine of many cultures including Mediterranean, Spanish, Italian, French, South American, Central American, Asian and American cultures.  They pair well with a variety of other ingredients including garlic, onions, basil, mint, oregano, thyme, cilantro, olives, olive oil, cheese, cucumbers, peppers, lemon, seafood, curry, etc.  The key to tomatoes is to keep it simple!  This week’s blog features two different simple sauce recipes, one more European in nature and the other represents a use for tomatoes in Indian cuisine. 

Many choose to preserve tomatoes for use in the off-season.  Drying, freezing and canning are all options and there are a lot of resources available to guide you in your efforts.  One of the easiest ways to preserve tomatoes is to simply cut them into chunks, skin and all, and cook them down in a pot with a wide opening to allow the moisture to cook off and thicken the tomatoes.  Once they are cooked down, cool them slightly, puree in a blender and freeze the puree in freezer bags or containers.  This simple, basic tomato puree can then be turned into spaghetti sauce, chili, tomato soup, etc. 

Before we look at the individual varieties, I want to make a comment about storing tomatoes.  The ideal storage temperature for tomatoes is about 50-55°F.  At temperatures less than this, tomatoes will suffer chill injury that affects the texture of the skin and flesh as well as robbing the tomato of its flavor over time.  If you receive some tomatoes that are still a little on the green side, it’s best to ripen them on your kitchen counter and eat them or preserve them as soon as they are ready.  We do not recommend storing tomatoes in the refrigerator for more than a few days at most.

So what is tomato flavor?  The flavor characteristics of a good tomato are actually an element of the balance between sugars and acid.  A tomato with good flavor will have a balance of sweet and acid.  Low acid tomatoes have a more mild flavor.  If the acid level in a tomato is high, it can throw off the balance.  Texture is also somewhat involved in this flavor conversation.  Some tomatoes are more fleshy and thus have a more firm texture while others may have softer flesh and a larger seed cavity.  The nice thing about having so many tomato varieties to choose from is that you can tailor how you choose to use the different varieties in ways that best fit the tomato and allow it to shine!  It also makes for a more interesting plate when you can combine different colors & textures of tomatoes.

Alright, let’s dive into the different varieties and learn more about each.

Red Slicer Tomato
Red Slicers:  This is one of the most common tomatoes, an old standby.  The varieties we grow have a nice balance of sweetness and acidity.  As far as texture goes, they are fleshy enough to hold up on a sandwich, yet still with enough moisture and acidity to create a pleasant eating experience.  These tomatoes are kind of an all-purpose tomato that is excellent on sandwiches, in salads, used for salsa or cooked into a sauce.

Golden Slicer Tomato
Golden Slicers:  Our golden varieties have been chosen specifically because they are good yielders, but also because they have a deep orange color, consistent sizing and a bit of sweetness.  In general they have more flavor than many gold varieties which are known to be lower in acid.  These are similar in use and texture to a red slicer tomato and add a beautiful contrast to a tomato plate.
Japanese Pink Tomato

Japanese Pink:  The Japanese certainly know
how to do tomatoes.  This is another all-purpose tomato that has a nice balance of acidity and a discernible sweetness and is our top vote for “all-around”  tomato.  It’s a bit softer than a red or gold slicer, yet still able to hold up nicely on a sandwich.  The reason the pink tomatoes are pink is because the skin is transparent allowing you to see the true color of the flesh.  Peel a piece off and hold it up to the light…you can see for yourself!

Black Velvet Tomato

Black Velvet:  This has become our favorite black tomato in recent years.  It’s classified as a “Heritage” variety which means it’s an improved heirloom.  The fruit is rosy mahogany when ripe and will always have a slight greeness on the shoulders.  It’s a very fleshy tomato and will never get really soft like many other tomatoes, hence the squeeze test is not a good way to check ripeness.  You’ll know this tomato is ready to eat when the bottom starts to get a nice red blush that extends down the sides of the tomato.  The flesh inside has a pretty pink blush with a nice smooth texture and a sweet, tangy flavor.  It makes for a stunning display on a tomato platter or in salads.

Red Riviera Tomato
Red Riviera:  This is another improved heirloom variety that is a descendant of the Italian oxheart.  It has somewhat of a pleated pear appearance with deep red skin and flesh when ripe.  Its flavor is mild when raw, but the flavor really shines when cooked into sauces.  It’s a very popular tomato in Italy and we’d have to agree it’s a keeper.
Orange Russian Heart Tomato

Orange Russian Heart:  This is a true heirloom that is also an oxheart type of tomato.  This tomato is a beautiful golden yellow color with streaks of red on the outside as well as the flesh inside.  You’ll recognize this tomato by its heart shape with fruit weighing anywhere from 8 oz to well over 1 pound! It’s a very mild, low acid tomato with a hint of sweetness.  It’s best eaten fresh in salads, on sandwiches or to adorn a tomato platter.
Solar Flare Tomato

Solar Flare:  This is a new heirloom tomato we’re trying this year.  It’s a beautiful rounded red tomato with faint gold stripes that shimmer in the light.  The flesh is smooth, juicy and sweet.  This is a great tomato for fresh eating.
Great White Tomato

Great White:  This is another new heirloom trial this year, but unfortunately it may not have made the cut in the area of disease resistance.  Nonetheless, we’re enjoying this unique white tomato.  It is a large, white beefsteak tomato that isn’t truly white but rather a pale yellow with hints of red blush on the bottom.  It’s a mild, low-acid tomato that doesn’t strike you as much of anything remarkable while you’re eating it, however slow down and pay attention to the aftertaste that lingers on your palate as this is where the flavor of this tomato stands out.
Red & Yellow Grape Tomatoes

Red & Yellow Grape Tomatoes:  This is a standard pop-in-your mouth tomato, but within this class there can be a lot of variation in flavor and texture.  This year we’re doing some red grape trials for one of our major seed companies.  One of the trials is being bred for higher levels of lycopene, which is very noticeable in the bright, deep red color it displays when fully ripe.  It also has proven to be very tasty and sweet with a more complex flavor profile than many grape tomatoes.
Sungold Tomatoes

Sungold & Sunorange Tomatoes:  Those who know the sungold tomato appreciate it as one of the sweetest, most flavorful tomatoes on the market.  The downside of a sungold is its thin skin which makes it prone to splitting.  This year we grew a variety very similar to sungold, except that it has a thicker skin.  I have to admit it tastes pretty darn good, although sungold still has a slight advantage on flavor.
Roma Tomatoes

Roma Tomatoes:  Often described as a plum or paste tomato, romas are most often used for making sauce, salsa and preserving.  The reason they are used for sauce and such is because they are a fleshier tomato so you get more bang for your buck and less water.  This makes a nice sauce without spending more than a day in the kitchen.

Simple Tomato Sauce

This simple recipe is included in Alice Water’s cookbook, Chez Panisse Café Cookbook.

Yield: About 2 Cups
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced fine
3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
2 pounds sweet, ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped
1 tsp salt
Bouquet garni (bundle) of fresh parsley, thyme and basil sprigs

  1. Warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed nonreactive saucepan over medium heat.  Cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until softened and slightly browned, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and let it sizzle for half a minute.  Stir in the chopped tomatoes and salt, and add the herb sprigs, bundled together with kitchen twine.
  2. Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the flame to low.  Simmer the sauce, uncovered, for 30-45 minutes;  it will thicken as it cooks.  Remove and discard the herb bundle. Taste for salt and adjust.  The sauce will keep for 5 or 6 days refrigerated.

Note:  For a more refined sauce, pass through a food mill or puree in a blender.

Tomato Chutney

This recipe was featured in Cooking Light Magazine in 2003. It was a contribution by Veenu Chopra of New Delhi, India. She included this note with the recipe: “This recipe for tomato chutney was taught to me by my mother. It’s been a favorite since childhood.  An easy, everyday sauce, the chutney’s best features are that it’s light and that it’s a good accompaniment to steamed rice and any curry.”  
Yield:  About 2 cups
Cooking oil, as needed
2 cups finely chopped onion
½ tsp finely chopped garlic
½ tsp finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
4 cups chopped, seeded, peeled tomatoes
¼ cup raisins
2 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp ground coriander seeds
1 tsp finely chopped fresh mint
1 tsp finely chopped fresh cilantro
½ tsp salt
½ tsp paprika
¼ tsp ground red pepper

  1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat with enough oil added to lightly coat the bottom of the pan.  Add onion, garlic and ginger;  saute 6 minutes or until onion begins to brown.  Add tomato and remaining ingredients, stirring well to combine.
  2. Bring to a simmer;  cook 17 minutes or until liquid almost evaporates (chutney will be thick). 

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