I have to confess: My passion for tomatoes tends to wane from time to time. It’s probably an occupational hazard of running an Italian restaurant, the culmination of constant exposure to too many tomatoes--too many of them significantly less than perfect.
At my caffe, Angeli on Melrose Avenue, people expect the comfort of finding their favorite dishes on the menu all year, so I’m constantly up to my elbows in tomatoes. By mid-winter, I’ve begun to recoil from those hard tasteless fruits that masquerade as real tomatoes.
And yet right now in my frontyard vegetable garden, 25 plants are busily producing what will soon become bushels of summer tomatoes, ready to be turned into meal after meal for months to come.
Thank God for gardening. Because right when my interest is at its lowest point in January, the seed catalogs start to plop through the mail slot. Even catalogs that have black and white text and no pictures describe their tomatoes in such vividly sensual terms that I find I’m having insane conversations with myself. (“If I double-dig one more plot near the white lavender, maybe I can tuck in three more plants.”)
I begin to think back over the year and realize that I do still love tossing together a pungent, fragrant bowl of spaghetti alla checca every Saturday night. And then I find myself reaching for one of the last jars of home-canned tomatoes to throw into a curry or to pump up a rich recipe of braciole.
And so it begins, the process every gardener looks forward to with a kind of ur-hope: to begin again, a new year, a new garden, new varieties to try and familiar favorites to be sure to include.
But to be honest, for the last couple of years I’ve been using the seed catalogs primarily as an educational tool; I read them to learn which new hybrids have been developed and which varieties are making their first appearance on the American market.
When it comes time to buy, there’s only one place I go. When the Tomatomania flyer from Hortus arrives in early March, I become weak in the face of so much choice. Hortus is a unique nursery in Pasadena that is as much a source of planting ideas as it is a store to purchase plant material and tools. Just walking around there reinforces my desire to create something wonderful from the dirt.
The Tomatomania flyer typically lists nearly 200 varieties of every shape, color and flavor imaginable. I begin making lists and soon recognize that my standard-size frontyard is hardly the back 40. And, after all, I do want to plant a few other veggies besides tomatoes.
So the list is made and revised, made and revised until finally it’s done. Some of the choices are easy. I love the crisp acidity and beautiful color of Green Zebra. My standard red round type will be Carmello, as it is each year; it’s a wonderful thin-skinned variety full of flavor and incredibly prolific. The deep red color and perfect texture of sauces made with Cherokee Purple makes it a no-brainer.
But from there on it’s all negotiable. Maybe I’ll plant Red Currant tomatoes up a trellis to give visual focus to the back of the garden. I never have any luck growing plum varieties, but Scott Daigre, my man with the answers at Hortus, convinces me to try Ivory Egg, a white variety. I love the flavor and beauty of the large yellow tomatoes streaked with red but want to try something new; German Stripe is my choice. I have to try a few Lebanese Red; the name alone conjures up luscious salads.
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be asked to be one of the judges for Hortus’ follow-up to the weekend of Tomatomania. One day in late August, backyard gardeners are asked to go to the nursery toting their pride of the summer--the fruits are all grown from the plants bought during Tomatomania.
In one day, I tasted more then 40 varieties. One of the standouts was a misshapen, heavily lobed small tomato called Zapotec. A Mexican variety grown for stuffing because of its hollow core, it is deep in flavor, richer and more complex than many varieties for which a simple sugariness is the main attraction. So the next year, I ran to grab as many Zapotecs as my garden could hold. The plants were gorgeous, huge, vigorous . . . but there was not one tomato. Not one tomato all summer from them. I nearly wept.
But one of the main characteristics of home gardeners is our ability to forget, to put disappointments behind us and try again. This year my plants are even more vigorous than last and they are loaded with fruit!
My tomatoes aren’t quite ripe yet, but gardeners have another quality, patience. While I’m waiting, my thoughts turn back to the kitchen. I start to recall all the delicious dishes I made last year, and the recipe note-making begins.
I remember the wonderful oven-roasted beauties laden with herbs that I used to garnish plates of goat cheese, and the addition of a scarlet ring of tomato sauce to a simple plate of spaghetti dressed with oil and garlic. The Tuscan tomato and bread soup, pappa al pomodoro, has to come back onto the menu, and what about a simple side dish made of sun-gold cherry tomatoes tossed in a pan of warm olive oil with a few fresh herbs?
Before I know it, I’ll be happy to be elbow-deep in tomatoes again and excited to taste every dish. My confession? It’s summer. It’s time for tomatoes.