It’s been a lousy tomato year, especially in the East and the Midwest, where the weather and the tomato blight have not favored our favorite fruit.
Here in the Southwest, we got off to a slow start with an atypically cold, wet June — all of it. Now that it’s warmer, the bigger tomato varieties seem to be scrambling to produce fruit. At least, there are lots of flowers on the plants, but the cool nights seem to be interfering with fruit production.
I’ve heard one gardener say that they (the tomatoes, that is) are confused and don’t know what to do. (I feel the same way sometimes.) They grow, but nothing is happening.
And wouldn’t you know it? This is the year everyone wants to can.
I prefer to grow the “fruit” tomatoes — the cheery little cherries, yellow pears, currants, and the like. They ripen more quickly than the larger varieties, because they’re not as large, and they’re usually pretty good when they do ripen.
And since our days are hot, dry, and often windy, followed by nights that go down to 50 degrees, large mature tomatoes usually develop pretty tough skins. Even the little guys can have that problem, but more often they don’t, and I’m happy to pop a Sweet 100 into my mouth as I walk by my plant.
Many farmers at our market grow small red and yellow cherry types, although almost no one labels what they sell, so you don’t know what they are. One farmer has gone completely bonkers over small tomatoes — and he does label them, thank heavens! His display consists of little baskets and plates filled with about 20 varieties of small tomatoes. Not all of them have fruit names, although all are as sweet as can be. They are mostly heirlooms, and many are from the Seed Savers Exchange catalog.
He grows tomatoes I’ve never seen before, such as the small green tomato called Green Dockers, which looks as if it would be super-tart, but isn’t. The Jaune Flammes, larger yellow fruits faintly tinged with red “flames,” are gorgeous. And the Sweet Chelsea is a round red tomato, with a predictable crack in each.
There was one lethal little tomato with husks and spines that I used to decorate the table because they were so strange. Oval Yellow Submarines, tiny Black Cherries, and pinkish Rose Quartz were all as charming as they were good to eat.
The Sun Golds were predictably over-sweet, but Isis, a slightly larger yellow tomato, had more balance. Petite Chocolate was a northern type — red-fleshed with a little blackness in places and a film of black showing from beneath the red skin.
The most exotic (and ugly, to my mind) tomato was an experimental fruit out of Oregon (or was it Ohio?) State University with big solid black patches over red-orange. Eye-catching, though.
What I love to do most with such a dazzling selection of tomatoes is to make my end-of-the-summer pasta dish: Labor Day Spaghetti. Although instead of spaghetti, I now prefer to use a shell-shaped pasta that catches a tomato and a bit of herb and garlic.
I slice all the tomatoes in halves or quarters, douse them in plenty of my best olive oil, toss in a handful of torn basil leaves, and add pitted Niçoise olives, some fresh minced garlic, and sliced scallions.
The hot pasta goes over the tomatoes and brings out their aromas, then all is tossed and seasoned with sea salt and coarsely ground pepper.
Vinegar is on the table for those who prefer to see this as a salad. And a hunk of Parmigiano is there, too, for those who just love it with tomatoes.
The dish needn’t be eaten hot; in fact, it won’t be hot in any case. Warm or at room temperature is just fine. In fact, I think I’ll take this to Slow Food’s Labor Day Time for Lunch Eat-In, promoting good food for our kids’ school lunches.
Come to think of it, this is a pasta that every school child could make, eat, and enjoy.
Make it with your kids (or someone else’s), and have a happy Labor Day!
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The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
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