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July 2011

Food for Thought

There's Still Time to Savor Summer
By Lorinda

Food for Thought archive


This easy-to-make garden space will provide fresh, flavorful tomatoes and strawberries.

 

Two things sing Summer to me: strawberries and tomatoes, and I don't mean those red things you can buy all year long in the grocery store that are devoid of taste and fragrance. Imagine tomatoes that are juicy, tender, and juice-slurping delicious. Fantasize about strawberries that you can smell before they get near your mouth and are so sweet they don't need any sugar. If you don't grow your own, or at least live near a farmers market, you probably have never experienced this nirvana.

If you live where there is a patch of sunshine, you can grow both of these fruits with very little work. The photo above shows my strawberry/tomato planter that can be completed in less than an hour for a very reasonable price. Simply stack cinder blocks two high and fill the center and all the holes with dirt. I add some alfalfa meal and compost, but good garden soil will do. Marigolds are planted in the corners to help the tomatoes ward off bugs, but without the flowers the planter would hold ten strawberry plants. Make sure to stack your blocks so that the holes are aligned and the roots of the plants can go straight down to the ground.

It is too late in the season for June-bearing strawberries, so look for healthy everbearing plants like Quinalt or Rainier. If you can find some day-neutral plants like Tribute or Tristar, snap them up! Day-neutral plants will blossom regardless of day length, and can withstand serious temperature changes. The day-neutral berries will be smaller, but very flavorful, and you should see berries into the fall.

The tomato plant will need to be staked or caged. If you want a whole lot of tomatoes at once, and don't want to have to prune the plant, go for a determinate type like Rutgers, Roma, or Burgermaster. Or, since the season is already well underway, you might want to look for an early variety like Legend or Early Wonder.

If you want tomatoes to keep coming regularly, and don't mind doing a little pruning, get an indeterminate vine. It will keep growing and growing, so you'll either need a very tall stake or you'll have to cut off the top growing tip while you can still reach it! My favorite indeterminate tomatoes are Amish Paste and Brandywine, but try Early Girl or Fireworks if you have a short growing season. Make sure you pick off the suckers (the new growth between the main stem and branches) when they're very small; otherwise you'll end up with a mammoth plant that shades the strawberries below.

Besides the amazing flavor of home-grown fruits, you are doing yourself and your family a big favor by avoiding supermarket strawberries and tomatoes. Strawberries are third on the Environmental Working Group's list of the "Dirty Dozen" fruits and vegetables—those that tested highest for pesticides. Some of the berries tested had 13 different pesticides on them! Strawberries have a thin skin, and even if you wash them they will still retain some chemicals. Go to the Environmental Working Group website to see the full "Dirty Dozen" list.

According to a 2010 study by Washington State University, organic strawberries have a longer shelf life and more antioxidants and ascorbic acid. So if you can't grow your own, I hope you'll consider buying organic strawberries. Only a small percentage of California strawberries are organic, but the California Strawberry Commission is funding research for alternatives to the worst of the fumigants, and hopefully more farms will take the plunge and switch to organic practices in the future.

Tomatoes fall further down the list, well out of the top twelve bad boys, but still are problematic. They, too, have thin skins, so chemicals are absorbed and can't be removed by washing or peeling. Most of the fresh tomatoes we eat (especially in the winter) come from Florida,¹ where the weather is agreeable but field conditions are less than ideal, so fumigants are regularly used. Why do these perfect, round, shiny red tomatoes taste like cardboard? They are grown for consistent size and shape, and for easy handling. Flavor is not even a consideration. Picked green, they can bounce around in a truck and not get bruised. They're then gassed with ethylene (or "degreened"), which turns them red. Ethylene is naturally produced by fruits and vegetables, and is considered safe, but when it is used to hasten ripening of green tomatoes, there is a definite loss of flavor.² I've decided I don't need tomatoes badly enough in the winter to buy these anymore.

The current controversy is the use of methyl iodide on tomatoes and strawberries. The EPA approved its use to replace methyl bromide, which was banned because it is known to damage the ozone layer. The state of Washington rejected the use of methyl iodide, but California and Florida recently agreed to let farmers use it with strict regulations. It is a toxic carcinogen, and there are a number of groups trying to stop its use.

There is an excellent book about the fumigant dangers and terrible working conditions in the Florida tomato fields. Please read Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. You will never be able to pick up a supermarket tomato again.

Footnotes

1 Florida is tops for fresh tomatoes. California grows more processing tomatoes along with fresh. For more information, go to USDA report on tomatoes.

2 There is a "mature green" tomato (one that is just about to ripen and begin turning red) and a "green" tomato (one that is not ripe yet). If a green tomato is picked by mistake (and it isn't easy to tell the difference), the ethylene will still turn it red, but it will have no flavor.

 

Recipes

Whether you get your tomatoes and strawberries from a farmers market, the organic section at the grocery store, or your backyard, take time to truly taste and enjoy these juicy representatives of summer! Here are some yummy recipes to try.

Strawberry Banana Bread

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups sugar

1 pint fresh strawberries, coarsely chopped
1 cup bananas, mashed
4 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup chopped walnuts (or pecans)

Glaze (optional): 2 cups powdered sugar mixed with 1/4 teaspoon vanilla and enough milk or water to make it easy to spread on cooled bread.

  1. In large bowl, mix all dry ingredients together well.
  2. Stir remaining ingredients together and fold into dry ingredients.
  3. Grease and flour two loaf pans, and divide batter between the two pans.
  4. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, 15 minutes.
  5. Cool in pans for 15 minutes, then turn out onto racks and cool completely before glazing and then slicing.

 

Spicy Tomato Sauce

Note: You will need a food mill for this. Everything is thrown into the pot—tomato skins and seeds, herbs, etc. The food mill sorts out all the rough stuff and produces a very smooth, rich sauce. I use a hand-crank kind (Back to Basics brand) that clamps onto a table.

15 pounds ripe tomatoes (Romas are the best, but using several varieties can give a more complex flavor)
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
4 stalks celery, sliced
2 bell peppers, coarsely chopped
2–3 hot peppers (I use cayenne)
3 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic, chopped
3 large carrots, sliced
Small bunch of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped, largest stems removed
8 fresh basil leaves, left whole
3 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons horseradish
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Wash and quarter tomatoes, removing any blemishes.
  2. Place all ingredients in large stock pan. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring occasionally, then cover and lower heat to let it simmer for 1/2 hour, or until all vegetables are soft.
  3. Remove the bay leaves and run the vegetables through a food mill into a large bowl.
  4. Pour sauce back into stock pot. Simmer the remainder of the sauce (uncovered) until it is the thickness you desire, stirring often. For soup, it could just take an hour. For a thicker sauce, it could take several hours. Freeze any extra sauce in freezer bags or containers.

I try to cook some down every year to a very thick consistency, and then freeze it in ice cube trays. The frozen sauce cubes can be put into bags or containers and kept in the freezer to add to soups and stews.

Tip: After you run it through the food mill, you can cover the pot and let it sit out to cool down, then put it in the refrigerator overnight. A clear juice will rise to the top. Skim this off—it's a delicious vegetable cocktail–type drink. (Think Bloody Mary!) Then proceed to cook down the sauce. This will save a lot of cooking time, because you won't have to boil off all that liquid.


Tempting tomato sauce ingredients.

 

Contact Lorinda at mamakinnon@aol.com

Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.

 

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