To count some small graces, this was the first year Benen really took a strong interest in working with me in the garden. I've recruited him to sow seeds and water and trample seedlings in past years, but this was the year the light went on; he gets that we are growing food out there, and he is willing to work and willing to eat it (and play with the hose).
Time in the garden has become an ongoing dialogue about the work of bees, the work of worms, the work we do together. He's learned to pop the heads off caterpillars, feed them to the chickens, and keep the worms intact. I didn't get a single cucumber from the ten I planted this year, but I have an engaged child who knows the difference between a paper wasp and a honey bee. One priceless gem.
This was the first year I had mild success with winter squashes, and tomatillos, and late in the game, learned to protect my transplants from slugs. It was the first year I was able to harvest enough basil to make pesto and eat collards daily for three months. And after many years of heartbreak, it was a year for tomatoes.
And yet. With my tail between my legs I admit that I had tomato lust on the mind when I planted fourteen heirloom varieties. So my thinking was obscured. And when I chose my varieties, so wounded was I after so many years of blight and crop failure and just utter crap tomato experiences, and so seduced was I by the memory of a late October night canning quart after quart of tomatoes in a friend's kitchen last year, that I thought nothing of taste. If the package said hardy, I bought it, I planted it, I coddled it, I bribed it with art projects and fish emulsion, I skipped trips to the gym to stay home and water it. And hardy I got: plants dense and aromatic, my tomato jungle. I was hopeful, but only in my heart, and I refused to let anyone tell me that they were doing well. Perhaps I empowered failure by refusing to speak my wish. You know I wouldn't be going on and on here if everything ended well and I had my late night canning date with my buddies and a bottle of Zinfandel.
The Brandywine bushes grew giant, the leaves the size of my palm, and the blossoms made my heart sing, and now, among three plants, there are maybe 6 tomatoes between them, each unconvinced that they want to ripen. The yellow pears, as promised, spit up a caboodle of tiny little green fruits, vigorous and productive - then got blight and died. And, for those that were harvested, tasted, well, bad. It was all up to the San Marzanos. The horn worms had a field day the week I went away, and I have still managed a decent harvest, and Gemma enjoys picking those that haven't ripened and cramming them into the cabs of all the Tonka trucks in the wasteland called our yard. They are, for lack of a better word, quite hardy, almost weed-like. And, like a basic paste tomato, about as delicious as paste. These were the ones I had counted on canning, dreaming of Brandywines for salsas and salads, and Yellow Pears for my babies to eat by the bucketful.
If there is anything parenting has taught me, if there is anything gardening has taught me, it is to adjust my expectations so that I can fill the moment, rather than let it march over me and steal my soul. So I adjusted, and turned on the oven, because the key to making a crap tomato taste at least a little bit more like the tomato of my lusty visions is to submit it a very hot roasting, and marry it with strong flavors, and make do with what I am given, and make mental notes about paying attention to seed packet fruit descriptions come 2012, and not taking long absences in the middle of tomato season, and getting back on that tomato pony for one more ride next year.
You don't have to use your failed paste tomatoes. You can use any tomato you choose, but this method is ideal for tomatoes that lack full flavor on a stand-alone basis. This is salsa for the Lowly Tomato (maybe the grocery store tomato, but I am not sure if those can be saved, even by a dip in a hot oven); let those showy, tasty heirlooms just fan their fancy tails and enjoy their simple sea salt preparation elsewhere.
We ate it last night with Salmon fried in Mojo de Ajo (yes, I need to talk to you about that). Try it on egg dishes, instead of dressing on a salad, spooned into avocado boats, off the spoon as you stand at the refrigerator...
One pound of tomatoes, various stages of ripeness fine
1 small onion (I used red, since this is what Jeff grew this year)
6 large cloves garlic, in skins
2 small chilies (any variety, depending on your taste for spice. I used Serrano, because I like my mouth to go numb rather than burn).
1/2 tsp sea salt
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Heat a heavy skillet over medium high heat on the stove. Place the garlic, still in its skin, into the dry skillet and toast on each side; the skin will blister and brown. This takes about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cover with a kitchen towel while cooling. When the oven reaches temperature, place tomatoes and chili pepper on ungreased, rimmed cookie sheet or shallow roasting pan and put on highest rack in oven. They don't need to be turned; roast until the skin blister and browns and they are leaking juice, about 10 minutes for the chili, 20 minutes for the tomatoes. As the garlic, chilies and tomatoes roast, chop the onion fine and store in a bowl of cool water, and chop the herbs very fine.
Once the tomatoes are roasted remove and set to cool. Once cool enough to handle, pull the stem core out, it will come pretty easily and can always be persuaded with a small paring knife. Chop the tomatoes into small chunks and put them, seeds and skins included, into your serving bowl. Stem and seed the chili (easily done with a small sharp knife or a teaspoon), mince fine. Pop the garlic out of its skins, it should yield easily, and mince. Add chili, garlic and herbs to the tomatoes, stir gently. and salt. The flavors develop over time; I like to let mine sit in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving. Keeps 2-3 days in the refrigerator, but ours usually doesn't last that long.
Prep time: 30 minutes. Chill time: at least one hour.
What did the garden teach you this summer?