Originally created 07/29/01

Invasion of the tomatoes

One of the South's summertime treasures is a garden full of ripe, red tomatoes.

After weeks of watering, fertilizing and mulching, the plump fruits are ready for harvest. Local gardeners, much to the delight of their non-gardening neighbors, suddenly begin distributing misshapen grocery bags overflowing with bounty.

Master Gardener Gayle Foster gives plenty of her crop away each year. In addition to her usual Romas, Mrs. Foster is growing four varieties of heirloom salad tomatoes: plum, pear, zebra and peach tomatoes.

The zebra tomato has yellow and white stripes, and the peach tomato is covered in velvety fuzz.

"This is the first year I've ever done these," she said. "But it's been so much fun, we've enjoyed just the novelty of them."

Tomatoes haven't always been well liked.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, while the French affectionately referred to the tomato as le pomme d'amour, or love apple, and Germans called it the apple of paradise, the British were skeptical.

Fresh tomato recipes

Terry Wick of Events and More Catering suggests tossing cold pasta, such as penne or fuscilli, with fresh tomatoes, feta cheese and any other vegetables you like. Top the pasta with a dressing of 1/2 part olive oil, 1/4 part red wine and 1/4 part red wine vinegar. He recommends using rich red wine, such as Chianti or Cabernet.

Tomato Cognac sauce

Bob Flaherty, head chef at Le Cafe Du Teau, created this sauce, which the cafe serves atop crab-stuffed avocado halves.

2 whole tomatoes

1 cup mayonnaise

1 whole orange

A pinch of salt

A pinch of white pepper

1/2 shot of Cognac

Dash (couple of drops) of Cayenne pepper

Dash of Tabasco

Blanche and peel tomatoes. Remove seeds and dice. Mix tomatoes into the mayonnaise. Mix in remaining ingredients, except avocados and crab meat, and chill a couple of hours, until ice cold.

For the crab-stuffed avocados, halve 2 avocados and scoop out the seeds and meat. Slice the meat thin and use as a garnish. Fill the empty shells with diced crab meat, about 16 ounces. Top with sauce and serve chilled. Serves 4.

They believed the tomato to be poisonous like its cousin the nightshade, a plant with toxic berries. The same fear persisted in the American colonies. About 1812 Creoles in New Orleans started using the tomato for jambalaya and gumbo. After that, New Englanders followed suit, mixing the tomato with seafood.

Today area chefs add recipes to summer menus to take full advantage of the tomato crop.

"When they are in season, we make all our sauces, like our marinaras, with fresh tomatoes," said Bob Flaherty, head chef at Le Cafe Du Teau. "Everything tastes better with fresh tomatoes."

Terry Wick, chef and owner of Events and More Catering, adds a few more pasta and tomato dishes to the catering menu when tomatoes are ripe.

Among his favorites is a cold penne or fuscilli pasta, tossed with feta cheese, tomatoes and a dressing of olive oil, red wine and red wine vinegar.

"There's just something about tomatoes and feta cheese," he said.

Good for you

With only 35 calories, a medium-size tomato contains 35 percent of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin C and 15 percent of recommended Vitamin A (beta carotene), according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Tomatoes are rich in the anti-oxidant lycopene. Studies have linked high levels of lycopene with lower risks of prostate and colon cancers. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, European men with the highest levels of lycopene were only half as likely to suffer heart attacks as men with the lowest levels.

That means you don't have to feel guilty about eating tomato sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner all summer.

Picking produce

Roma and Better Boy tomatoes are two of the most popular varieties. Both are versatile enough for salads, sauces or just sliced. Better Boys, found in just about every home garden throughout the Southeast, usually grow to about 8 or 9 ounces; Romas are smaller, plum-shaped fruit.

So how can you pick a perfect tomato?

When Mr. Wick is picking ripe, red fruit for his personal tomato sandwiches, he chooses solely on color and feel. If they are spongy at all they are overripe, he said.

Whether at the grocery store or a corner produce stand, select tomatoes that are completely red, or reddish-orange - depending on variety.

Ripe tomatoes will have a sweet, subtle aroma and give slightly to pressure.

After you get them home, don't refrigerate tomatoes that aren't fully ripe yet. Cold temperatures destroy flavor and stop the ripening process. If they still need to ripen, keep them at room temperature, between 55 and 70 degrees.

To speed up the process, place the fruit in a brown paper bag; as it ripens it emits a gas called ethylene, which will work quicker if it is confined around the fruit.

If you are lucky enough to pick tomatoes from your back yard, Sid Mullis, director of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County, recommends picking tomatoes twice a week as they ripen. Remove all rotten and damaged fruit to protect the healthy ones. And just before the first fall frost, pick the mature green fruit so it can ripen inside.

Growing your own

Here are some tips from Sid Mullis, director of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County, on growing tomatoes.

Start with a good location. Tomato plants need six to eight hours of sunlight each day and well-drained, porous soil.

Add organic matter to the existing soil. Manure, peat moss and compost are all good sources of organic matter.

Augusta-area soils are naturally acidic and require liming to raise the pH. Tomatoes grow best in a pH of about 6.2. Use finely ground dolmitic limestone.

Coming next Sunday

A group of Aiken gardeners has brought vegetables from the past back to life. Unusual varieties of beans, corn, pumpkins, peas and other produce that would have been common during the antebellum period are thriving in a plot at Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site.

Fertilize. If using a new location, 5 pounds of 5-10-15 should be enough if the pH is right. On older sights, use 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 at two to four pounds per 100 square feet. Apply fertilizer, lime and organic matter to the soil, then roto-till it to 8 to 12 inches.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so fertilize regularly. But be careful not to overfertilize. This will cause the flowers to drop without producing fruit.

Plants should be in good condition to transplant. They should be stocky, about 6 inches high and relatively young with a good green color.

Wait to plant. In this area, the average frost is March 17. A good target date for planting tomatoes is April 10.

Space the rows 3 to 6 feet apart. You can go as close as 2 feet if tomatoes are staked.

It is imperative to stake to prevent fruit rot.

Mulch your plants to minimize evaporation from the soil and reduce the chances of disease and weed growth.

Gayle Foster, a Master Gardener with the Columbia County Extension office, said if your tomato crop has wilted because of blossom end rot, bacterial wilt or fusarium (a fungus in the soil), rotate your location next season and plant there again the next year.

To help prevent unhealthy tomato plants, spray them with calcium chloride and fertilize every four to six weeks.

Reach Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332 or lisalohr@augustachronicle.com.


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