Our Favorite Tomatoes
September 03, 2013 at 2:13 PM
Oregon isn’t an easy place to grow tomatoes. We don’t get the sweltering summer heat of the midwest and east coast - and we’re good with that. But cooler summers typically mean poor growing conditions for heat-loving plants. We often end up with more green than red fruit by the time the season is over.
Not this year, however. Our unusually hot summer has meant the best crop of tomatoes in recent memory. (I moved to Oregonian in 1990, and have never seen a year like this.) As I write this, our own home garden is pumping out so many ripe heirlooms, I don’t know what to do with them all. And it’s been doing so since mid-August - surely this is a record.
Our garden here is not only for our own use, but for testing new plants to possibly offer to clients in the future. Each year, in partnership with Gales Meadow Farm - who grow our tomato, eggplant and pepper starts - we try out promising new varieties to see what grows well here. After all, tomatoes are by far the most-requested plant by our clients. This year, we have 21 different tomato plants scattered throughout our 11 raised beds as well as in ground and in large containers. To write this posting, I collaborated with Annie Berblinger of Gales Meadow Farm to pick just six favorites. Annie has more experience and more interesting stories than anyone I know about vegetables. Here's what she had to say about growing tomatoes:
When people ask why René and I started farming when we had perfectly good jobs, a nice neighborhood in Portland, and a satisfying life, that’s a hard question to answer. Perhaps it has to do with the tiny backyard vegetable garden we had then, where we grew five kinds of tomatoes, one plant each, and they produced more than we could eat fresh and put in jars. There are thousands of other tomato varieties, and we would never get to grow them all at a pace of five kinds a year.
How we got started in farming is a long story for another time, but surely part of our motivation was the opportunity to grow many more kinds of tomatoes (and beans, and peppers, and . . .). We have grown close to 200 varieties of tomatoes. They stay in our line-up if they have amazing flavor, at least adequate productivity, and the ability to ripen a good number in our climate. The challenges for tomatoes in the Maritime Northwest are our cool nights and prolonged cool and rainy spring. Fortunately, there are scores of delicious and productive tomato varieties that can overcome our challenges. My assignment here is to talk about a few of the more than 60 tomato varieties we have this year, our 14th season as farmers, and which we will continue to have since they deserve their place in our tomato line-up.
So here are just six of the many wonderful tomatoes we grow collectively - some old, some new - that have been real standouts this year.
60 days, indeterminate
I’m not usually a big fan of yellow tomatoes, despite their beauty. They tend to have a rather one-note sweet citrusy flavor compared to red tomatoes. But Azoychka, a bright yellow medium size Russian heirloom, is wonderfully complex and tastes more like a good red tomato. The indeterminate (vining) plants are reasonably productive. Last year we made a gorgeous sauce from Azoychkas and onions gently sautéed in butter. We pureed and froze this and enjoyed it in winter on ricotta-stuffed spinach ravioli , for a little burst of sunshine when it was most needed.
As with all indeterminate or vining tomatoes, Azoychka should be grown with a trellis or other strong vertical support. The plant matures in just 60 days, and did quite well in last year’s cooler summer.
We gave the seeds for this tomato to Annie last year to grow after they were donated to us by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds to use in our nonprofit garden for Birch Community Services. Here's Annie's take on it:
It is described as a Russian heirloom. An anonymous person apparently saved the seeds from a tomato purchased at a Moscow market and brought them to the U.S. It could be an heirloom, but is more likely a product of the Soviet horticulture breeding program, which produced many of the wonderful varieties popular in the U.S today, including Paul Robeson, Black Krim, Black Sea Man, and Japanese Trifele. Azoychka is a little more acidic than many yellow tomatoes, which do have a tendency to blandness, and it’s pretty, and productive.
Azoychka starts will be available from Gales Meadow Farm in the spring at the Hillsdale and Hollywood Farmers markets in Portland, or as seeds from Baker Creek.
75 days, indeterminate
There are so many interesting tomatoes out there that it always seems a shame when people stick with the same old hybrid varieties year after year. And to many people, especially Americans, tomatoes must be red, round and uniform. We seem to be willing to sacrifice flavor for appearance. One of my favorites this year, Goose Creek, meets the round red criteria, but with better flavor and an interesting story behind it as well.
Goose Creek is an open-pollinated heirloom whose seeds can be hard to find. It has a medium size, round pinkish red fruit, often with a few yellow streaks. It’s juicy, very sweet and intensely tomatoey, with very few seeds. We grew ours in a large container this season with a cage and it did beautifully. Rumor has it that it tolerates cool, foggy conditions.
According to Annie, the origins for Goose Creek are somewhat obscure:
I got the seeds for Goose Creek from Terry Tassone, who has a small company called Secret Seed Cartel. Terry is opinionated and discerning, so when I read in her blog that this was one of her all-stars, and then that it won a national taste competition, we had to try it. I was concerned that it might not do well in our climate, but in fact, it is very early (second week of August) for a huge tomato. And it lives up to its taste reputation. A grower in South Carolina claims that Goose Creek is more than 200 years old, but the tomatoes of 200 years ago were smaller and deeply pleated, not big and round like Goose Creek. This is the closest you can get to a beefsteak in our climate (although it is a deep pink, rather than bright red), and I think the flavor is much better.
Goose Creek starts will be available from Gales Meadow Farm in the spring at the Hillsdale and Hollywood Farmers markets in Portland.
85 days, determinate
Developed at the University of Hawaii, Komohana is billed as a determinate plant, but it’s still large and sprawling, not to mention quite prolific. Multiple clusters of at least a dozen red, nearly heart-shaped oblong grape-type fruits make it an eye-catching plant. Fruits have a very good shelf life, probably because they are relatively dry and have thicker skins than many cherry tomatoes. They’re not my all-time favorite for flavor or texture, but for good looks and sheer volume of fruit, they’re unbeatable.
I’ve found Komohana to be best when slow-roasted, intensifying its sweet flavor. I halve the fruits and toss them with olive oil, chopped garlic, chopped fresh herbs and a good pinch of salt, then arrange them cut side up on a baking sheet and roast them for a couple of hours at 250ºF, or until they collapse. They’re wonderful on bruschetta, in pasta dishes or just eaten with a spoon, and can be stored in the refrigerator at least a week.
Komohana starts will be available from Gales Meadow Farm in the spring at the Hillsdale and Hollywood Farmers markets in Portland, or as seeds directly from the University of Hawaii.
78 days, indeterminate
A sun-warmed slice or two of this big, dark heirloom in a BLT is the kind of sandwich you fantasize about in winter. Paul Robeson tomatoes have a sweet, smoky taste and a deep mahogany color with green shoulders. They grow into a satisfyingly gnarly shape that tells you at a glance that they’re the real deal in heirloom tomatoes - the kind people pay $6 a pound for at Whole Foods. As with Azoychka, Paul Robesons are most likely of Russian origin.
Large tomatoes like Paul Robeson can be heartbreaking when we have a cool summer, stranding loads of large green fruit in October, but in a warm year like 2013, they’re sensational.
Paul Robeson starts will be available from Gales Meadow Farm in the spring at the Hillsdale and Hollywood Farmers markets in Portland, or as seeds from Fedco Seeds, where you can also read the fascinating story behind the name.
Piccolo San Marzano
70 days, indeterminate
If I had to choose, I’d opt for this tomato over Komohana. It’s nearly as prolific, producing thick clusters of cute, small (2” long), peanut-shaped miniature Roma tomatoes that can be eaten fresh, used in sauce, or slow roasted as described above (see Komohana) for a wonderful pasta sauce or bruschetta topping. This plant is a great option for short-season gardeners who’d like to grow Roma-style tomatoes, as the smaller fruit has plenty of time to ripen before the season ends. I think its flavor and texture are better than the fruit of the San Marzano plants we’ve grown in recent years, which seem to have become rather dry and dull.
Gales Meadow Farm is the only U.S. source I know of for this tomato, and as always there's a story behind the plant:
Piccolo San Marzano is relatively new. Our friends Charlene Murdock and Richard White brought us the seeds from the Salon de Gusto, in Turin, Italy. San Marzano is the classic Italian Roma or paste tomato, great for sauce since the proportion of flesh to juicy seed cavity is high. Piccolo means “little.” But Piccolo San Marzano is more than just a miniature Roma; it has a unique peanut shape and its own intensely pure tomato flavor. I can produce several pounds of little tomatoes every week, and its good flavor seems to stay well into the fall when many tomatoes become bland.
Piccolo San Marzano starts will be available from Gales Meadow Farm in the spring at the Hillsdale and Hollywood Farmers markets in Portland.
57 days, indeterminate
If you have room for only one tomato plant, make it a Sun Gold. It’s a super productive, easy-to-grow hybrid that produces the most complexly and intensely flavored cherry tomato I know of. It’s Larry’s favorite, hands-down, so much so that it now adorns our own t-shirts and market bags. The ripe fruit is bright orange, and has the kind of flavor that inspires kids of any age to stand out in the garden and snack right off the plant.
For fruit that actually makes it into the house, we toss Sun Golds into salads, or sauté them in olive oil with some fresh basil. They’re great in tabbouleh or a lentil salad. We also cut the sweet fruits in half and dehydrate them to store for a tangy winter snack. To use with pasta, try this easy Mario Batali recipe for a quick dinner for two.
Sun Gold starts will be available from Gales Meadow Farm in the spring at the Hillsdale and Hollywood Farmers markets in Portland.
These are but a smattering of the many interesting tomatoes available, obviously, based on our own experiences growing in recent years. Our hope is they’ll give you inspiration to try something new next year, and to look beyond the typical offerings at big box stores to what local farmers in your area are growing. Around here, of course, the real test for any of these tomatoes will be what happens in a more typical cool Oregon summer. For that, happily, we will have to wait for another season.