GARDEN FRESH : Grow Me a Taxi

One of the first keepsakes carried back to Spain from this hemisphere were seeds of tomatoes. Golden tomatoes. Soon their vines were spilling down Italian terraces, and the orbs were called pomi d'oro , apples of gold.

The Italian instinct was to regard the tomato as a fruit, which it is. In this country, fruits are sweet and vegetables aren't. Of course, tomatoes can be heavenly sweet, and as a class, yellow tomatoes tend to be so. But they're not cloying. Most are mild, yet in the best cultivars, there's an old-fashioned snap. There must be something about golden genes, because many yellow tomatoes have the sweetness of their cherry-size cousins, Cape gooseberries--known in Hawaii as pohas. Both are native to tropical South America. More Incan gold.

Actually, yellow tomatoes come in shapes other than round. You've probably seen small yellow pear tomatoes, and perhaps the tiny yellow currants that grow in clusters--in fact a different species. Taken together, they seem to have a more dulcet nature than their rosy relatives.

My favorite tomato just happens to be a splashy yellow. Its name is Taxi, and when I tasted it blind against some of the great names in garden tomatoes--Marmande, Lorissa, Brandywine, Costoluto Genovese--I was amazed that it was the meaty flesh of my darling Taxi that had the clearest, brightest, sweetest, most tantalizing flavor of all.

Golden, clear, bright, sweet, tantalizing. Sounds like we're describing mango. Or peach. Or melon. Indeed, for the fun of playing with a new summer toy, I've decided to regard yellow tomatoes as the tropical fruits they are.

Naturally, the first thing that occurred to me was putting them up in jars. I found recipes for marmalade, a splendid old-fashioned standard. Except tomato marmalade is made with slices of orange and lemon, and these dominate the delicate flavor of yellow tomatoes.

Tomato butter is yummy--finely chopped tomatoes and onions, vinegar, brown sugar and spices stirred until thick. But the tomatoes must again compete with stronger stuff. And there's no richer chutney in the world than tomato. A little apple, some golden raisins--but the tomato disappears. . . .

Still, all of these are possibilities for enjoying yellow tomatoes in winter. I wanted to purely taste my sunny beauties, so I made jam of them--easier than preserves. The color is intensely apricot, and the flavor is apricot-tomato. Made with red tomatoes, the color and flavor is as though apricots, tomatoes and red currants had been combined.

For a fruit salad, I plan to add chunks of yellow tomatoes to the likes of honeydew melon, purple grapes, nectarines, raspberries and dark plums. And sprinkle with thin ribbons of sweet basil.

Tomato sorbets are superb refreshments mid-meal, but a yellow tomato sorbet--sherbet--would be gorgeous for dessert with a plop of whipped cream on top and Italian macaroons on the side.

What about ice cream? Gorgeous. The cream would be pale gold (red tomatoes would make it sunset pink). I'd top scoops of it with toasted walnuts, and with its tropical fruit flavor and tangy cream, it would be a dessert that would delight the weariest of palates.

I can also imagine small chilled nuggets of yellow tomatoes in glass dishes, napped with cold custard sauce flavored with orange liqueur, and orange petals of marigold for garnish. Or a yellow tomato tart--slices arranged overlapping in a partially baked short-crust shell, baked, glazed with apricot jam and served with creme fraiche.

Volumes have been written about how to grow tomatoes--something simple made complicated. Basically, you put tomatoes in the ground, give them plenty of sun and water, and stand back. I'm out in last year's tomato patch every day (don't hate me) pulling up volunteers springing from seeds of fruit fallen from the vines.

Really. Provide well-drained soil rich with organic matter. I make the hole a foot deep and a foot wide and fill it nearly to the top with compost or aged manure, then I dig it in, mixing it with the soil. Tomatoes also want at least eight hours of sun each day, enough water to keep their soil evenly moist about eight inches down (that would be 1 1/2 inches weekly), and a 3-inch mulch of newspaper or spoiled straw to conserve moisture and suppress weeds.

Because local conditions vary so much, ask gardening neighbors if there are tomato problems in your neighborhood. If there are, choose resistant cultivars (seed catalogues list them). For best tomato health, rotate the crop through your garden, letting three to four years pass before you return them to the same spot. If you see lots of big holes in the leaves, concentrate as you search for a big caterpillar that's exactly the color of the leaves with a few white stripes--a tomato hornworm. Drop him into a jar of soapy water with apologies.

If you have no place for tomatoes in your garden--or if you have no garden--but you do have sunshine, tomatoes go gangbusters in containers. For standard cultivars, the pot should be at least 24 inches deep and hold about 1 1/2 cubic feet of potting mix.

Tomato vines come in two types, indeterminate and determinate--long and short. Short vines need no support, an advantage, but they ripen all their fruit over a comparatively brief period. You can usually harvest the fruit on long vines until frost. And as a rule, indeterminates have the best flavor--but Taxi is an example of an ultra-flavorful determinate.

So that fruit won't molder on the ground, give long vines the support of a stout six- to seven-foot stake or a trellis. (I find that the V-shaped cages from the nursery wobble, then fall apart.) Either stake or trellis can fit into a large container.

It's not too late to have hand-picked tomatoes in your life. Nurseries offer seedlings that are eager to be tucked into a bed or pot. It's possible--but unlikely--that there will be yellow cultivars at the nursery. Choose stocky rather than skinny plants, and resist the temptation to buy small pots with plants already in bloom--or worse, with fruit on them. Young plants will establish themselves and grow faster unencumbered.

And next year, you can grow them from seed. No matter where you live, you'll want to start seeds indoors about six weeks before they'll go into the garden--about two weeks after the last frost. Where there is no frost, set plants out January through March.

There are many marvelous yellow tomato cultivars from which to choose--in addition to my Taxi. I'm also partial to prolific Gold Nugget, a nearly seedless cherry tomato with fine flavor. Aesthetic small yellow pear tomatoes are usually lemon yellow and mild--though with so generic a name, cultivars can differ wildly from one seedsman to the next. And this year, a dwarf indeterminate named Husky Gold won an All-America Selection award. That means it will grow handsomely in most parts of the country.

Tomatoes ripen from the bottom of the plant up. When it smells like a ripe tomato and it's evenly drenched in color, twist the fruit from the vine.

But at some point you must eat a green tomato out of hand--another sensational fruit! Perfection is when the green is blushed with rouge or gold and the texture is crisp with a hint of softness.

Sources: Seeds of Taxi, Yellow Pear and Gold Nugget, and a catalogue with excellent growing advice: Johnny's Selected Seeds, Foss Hill Road, Albion, Me. 04910-9731.

Seeds of Husky Gold and many others: Tomato Growers, P.O. Box 2237, Fort Myers, Fla. 33902

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Here is a combination that profits from being prepared in stages, always a help in entertaining. Cream whips fullest when thoroughly chilled, and flavors bloom in one another's company, so it's ideal to prepare the mixture well in advance of freezing. It's especially helpful when making this Philadelphia-style ice cream. Philadelphia is very pure ice cream because it's uncooked, with no eggs or starches to thicken or stabilize it. But, as with so much that's pure in this world, it's ephemeral. Texture should be billowy and soft--served within two to three hours of freezing. Any leftover can be frozen, then taken out of the freezer for half an hour and whipped until creamy. But its perfect beauty will be a thing of the past.

By the way, you'll note the fresh lemon and orange juices in this recipe. Escoffier's rule: When flavoring a fruit composition, always add a little lemon juice, and if the fruit is red, add an equal amount of orange juice as well. Flavors sing.

FRESH GOLDEN TOMATO ICE CREAM 2 1/2 pounds ripe flavorful yellow or red tomatoes 1 1/2 cups half-and-half 1 cup heavy whipping cream 3/4 cup sugar 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice 1 tablespoon pure vanilla 1/8 teaspoon salt 1 1/4 cups toasted broken walnuts

Place tomatoes in boiling water 1 minute. Trim out stalk ends and remove peel. Slice in half horizontally and squeeze out juice and seeds (can use juice in salad dressing). In food processor, carefully pulse tomatoes to dried currant-size bits, about 3 cups.

In container, blend tomatoes with half-and-half, whipping cream, sugar, lemon and orange juices, vanilla and salt. Cover and chill up to 24 hours. Freeze according to ice cream maker's instructions. Serve soft-frozen, strewn with walnuts. Makes about 2 quarts, 10 servings.

Note: To freeze in 2-quart canister, remove 1/2 cup mixture.

Each serving contains about: 214 calories; 64 mg sodium; 46 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.72 gram fiber.

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