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GARDEN FRESH : Super Tomatoes: Beyond Beefsteak

Once upon a time, tomatoes were strictly a summer and autumn treat; now we can buy luscious-looking tomatoes even in May. The problem is that they have all the flavor of colored water. Until there are tomatoes that ripen magnificently in cool seasons, I wish those in tomatoland would stop sending us impostors.

Still, if we can’t eat great-flavored tomatoes in May, we can at least have the promise of them, for May is the time to start tomatoes growing.

Tomatoes are among the easiest and surest crops in the garden. Start yours from seed--you can grow tomatoes with flavor you never dreamed existed. Even if it’s just one plant in a tub.

Which are the best-tasting?

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A friend once remarked that talking favorite tomatoes with cooks and gardeners can be more dangerous than politics and religion. She’s seen fistfights. But rather than a punch in the mouth, I played adorable when someone told me he thought my favorite tomato variety was insipid. I was adorable because I know that the strain of seed, the soil and the climate in which the plant grows--not to mention quirks of the individual palate--make it impossible to predict who’ll like what.

But there are tomatoes generally esteemed for their flavor--many have exceptional looks as well.

For long-lasting harvest of delectable fruit, start with Yellow Currants. These are a wild species--the closest to the original tomatoes from the Andes we’re ever likely to taste. Pea-size and golden yellow, they’re borne in clusters, their flavor sweet and true. Another brightly flavored fruit is Green Grape. I love the clusters of translucent yellow-green tomatoes that taste and look like colossal Muscats.

Tang-tempering sweetness is not everybody’s idea of perfect tomato flavor. Like supersweet corn, Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes are so sweet some find them cloying (I do). But they’re the favorite tomato of many, regardless of size. Gardener’s Delight (aka Sugar Lump) is a super-sweet cherry tomato touched with tang.

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weet, but not too sweet, is medium-sized White Wonder, which is stunning with ribbons of basil and shreds of lemon zest. And I’m especially partial to yellow Taxi, another medium-sized tomato whose vibrant flavor matches its color. Then there’s rosy-orange Persimmon, which looks like one and is as richly flavored. With what’s called an oxheart shape, Verna Orange is fleshy and meaty, with very few seeds and a marvelous old-fashioned taste.

But perhaps the most exciting of the large, unusually colored great-tasting tomatoes is Big Rainbow. When nearly ripe--at the salad slicing stage--the fruits have green shoulders, a golden middle and red bottom. Weighing in at two pounds, these tomatoes ripen to a blend of gold and red on the outside and inside. In a taste test of octogenarians who remember what homegrown tomatoes really taste like, Big Rainbow even nudged out the beefsteak-size Brandywine, an Amish heirloom considered one of the finest-tasting tomatoes of all time.

What to do for flavorful tomatoes when you live where summers are cool? Dwarf but productive Czechoslovakian Stupice will give small very sweet tomatoes even in San Francisco! Gold Nugget, a yellow cherry tomato I’m crazy about, was also developed for short cool seasons but does equally well where it’s warm.

Except for Sweet 100, all the above are heirlooms--tomato varieties that have been grown for decades, if not longer, and whose seeds you can save and grow true the following year. But there are hybrids with fine taste, too. Although the tomatoes I’ve mentioned are trouble-free under most conditions, hybrids with resistance to disease can mean the difference between success and failure. Since 1949, Burpee’s Big Boy has been a favorite hybrid with wonderful taste. Stokes’ nearly one-pound Ultra Magnum VFT (great disease protection) recently was a winner in a taste test along with Yellow Brandywine and Green Grape.

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To help keep diseases at bay, always rotate tomatoes through the garden, waiting three or four years before returning them to the same spot.

So order seeds at once. The moment they arrive, start the germinating process. I dampen a paper towel, then sprinkle over seeds. If I want to end with just one ferociously healthy plant, I’ll germinate six seeds. This is spendthrift, but there are six to eight weeks between germinating and planting, so why take chances?

I fold up the paper towel and tuck it in a plastic sandwich bag. I press out most of the air, zipper the bag closed, and write the name of the tomato on the bag. Now I put the bag on a baking sheet and set it in a gas oven with just the heat from the pilot light. I prop the door open three or four inches with something sturdy and warn all comers that the oven mustn’t be closed or lighted.

I check the seeds every day, sprinkling a little water over the towel if it’s drying. In three to six days, the seeds will germinate--this is at about 80 degrees, the ideal temperature. If your oven is electric, other traditional warm dark germinating places are the tops of the refrigerator and hot water heater.

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Once seeds have sprouted, drop them tails-down into rich potting soil (not garden earth) in a container four inches wide and as deep. Grow the seedlings where days are filled with light (sun or fluorescent) and nights are dark and between 55 and 60 degrees. Keep moist but not wet, and every few days water with liquid fish alternating with kelp solution, both at quarter strength.

When the days are warm and settled, plant the seedling, burying its first pair of leaves and setting plants 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart.

What I’ve described is somewhat fussy, but it is likely to give you the best tomatoes from your seed. If you’re busy now but can expect four months of growing weather ahead once your soil warms up, you can just tuck tomato seeds into the soil, water them, and they’ll do beautifully--especially the smaller sorts like cherry and currant.

What tomatoes must have is full sun and soil that’s half manure and enriched with a sprinkling of bone meal and rock phosphate. Or set one tomato plant in a deep container filled with 1 1/2 cubic feet of best potting soil. A strong stake for support (even if the tomato has only medium-long vines) will keep the crop freer of problems than were it draped along the ground. It’s also crucial that no weeds compete with it for water and nutrients. Once the soil is warm, mulch with several inches of newspapers or old straw, leaving a few inches around the stalk so it can breathe.

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To harvest, pick a tomato when it smells ripe, gently twisting the fruit from the vine.

For the first tomato of the season, I sit down on the front stoop and eat it then and there. Sometimes I share it. It’s been a long time in coming, but it’s the real thing.

Sources:

Seed: Brandywine, Gardener’s Delight, Golden Nugget, Marmande, Persimmon, Taxi and Yellow Currant from the Cook’s Garden, Box 535, Londonderry, Vt. 05148.

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Ultra Magnum from Stokes, Box 548, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240-0548.

Hybrids from Tomato Growers Supply Co., Box 2237, Fort Myers, Fla. 33902.

Other tomatoes mentioned from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Box 170, Earlysville, Va. 22936.

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T artine is the French word for a slice of bread spread with something, and inspiration for this recipe came from a Nicoise book. This is the simple but rapturous sort of thing that requires sensational tomatoes. So clip the recipe and put it in your calendar for August. Then serve the tartines with drinks, accompanied by bowls of roasted pistachio nuts in the shell and a basket of golden wedges of lemon cucumbers, raw purple pod beans (neither topped nor tailed), white icicle radishes (ditto), clusters of grapes and a bouquet of arugula or watercress moist from rinsing.

To be their freshest, all ingredients may be in readiness, but the tartines should be put together and heated just before serving. They go quickly.

TARTINES NICOISE

Olive or hazelnut oil

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1 large red onion, thinly sliced into rings

6 squares French bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick, crusts removed

3 to 4 cloves garlic, sliced in half lengthwise

Thickly sliced ripe tomatoes

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12 flat fillets anchovy

12 oil-cured black olives, halved lengthwise and pitted

About 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh sweet basil leaves

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Freshly ground pepper

Nasturtiums, marigolds, or other bright flowers, unsprayed, optional

Brush large nonstick skillet with oil and set over medium-high heat. When hot, add onion slices and saute, stirring frequently, until slightly tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat. This may be done in advance.

Lightly brush bread on one side with oil, then rub with garlic. Cover tops with onion rings. Lay tomatoes on onion rings (if grape or cherry size, slice in half and set cut sides down). Top with 2 crossed anchovy fillets, border with 4 olive halves. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and drizzle with oil to taste.

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Set on baking sheet and brown quickly under broiler. Do not burn. Sprinkle basil and pepper to taste over. Serve at once on platter or tray garnished with flowers. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

149 calories; 356 mg sodium; 12 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.60 gram fiber.


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