Thursday, September 10, 2015

Not In the Mood for Cracked Tomatoes?

After a wildly productive weekend at the end of August, the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden has stalled with unexpected amounts of rain and more than a week of high temperatures.   Like some other community gardens (and lawns), the Garden is looking a little shaggy right now.  (The neighborhood girls were a little less kind in their description last night when they came to water their beds).   Although area meteorologists had predicted little-to-no rain in early September, we received several inches.  This prevented some of the gardeners from harvesting or performing other work in their plots.   It also caused most of our tomatoes to burst.   Then, it was unbearably hot all Labor Day weekend (and in the week before and days after), which discouraged us from spending much time in the Garden weeding and planting for Fall crops.  Notwithstanding this, Rayna’s zinnias continue to dazzle.

I’ve attached charts showing the content, recipient and amount of our produce donations through
the end of the August.  However, last week’s donation already materially changed the chart since the heat caused half of our tomatoes to suddenly ripen.   Then, on Thursday, the Garden received over two inches of rain and caused many of our tomatoes to burst.    The food pantry was not terribly excited about this.  I almost offered to take them all back because the cracks are mostly cosmetic.  While they can’t be stored indefinitely when they are cracked or split, cracking doesn’t affect tomatoes' suitability for eating or cooking if you do so promptly.  Last weekend, I canned some, roasted some, made sauce with some, made salsas with others and put a few on a salad.   As I've previously explained, the only way to avoid cracking like this is to maintain even moisture of the tomatoes or plant non-cracking varieties (like romas and san marzanos, etc.).  Sadly, the tasty beefstake and brandywines are prone to cracking when they receive a downpour of rain after they start to ripen.  Some tomatoes will heal themselves if left on the vine, or they will be invaded by mold or bugs.  Happily, not all of our produce burst.  The butternut squashes were not affected at all (to my disappointment), but the beans and zucchinis swelled a few sizes.

I started my Fall crops a few weeks ago and am happy to see spinach, lettuce, napa cabbage, winter kale and peas sprouting in my plot.  (Some of these I will eventually transplant elsewhere when I find time and need to thin them).   Straders Garden Centers also made a late season donation of plants.  I scored some Spanish onion sets and lots of peppers, which I put in our new neighbor plot and a few in bare spots in our other food pantry plots.  I also was able to supplement our sorry-looking strawberry patch and to use the mysteriously donated strawberry jar by planting pineberry plants.

Ezra has abandoned us, so I was all alone at the Garden on Saturday.  Frank and Barb agreed to mow our shaggy lawn since he did not report for duty. I made a little progress on our curb improvement project, but not much because many of the stones are too heavy for me to lift, let alone move.    The front gate lock was not being cooperative and this made everything hard to do since I was restricted to the back gate.   I planted the Straders donation and then spent the rest of the morning harvesting before heading to Lutheran Social Services food pantry (on time for change).   I had filled three collapsible crates.  They kept two of them and gave me back one as a replacement.

This upcoming weekend we are hoping to host a group of Capital student volunteers.    It would be great to complete (or make substantial progress) on the curb project, pull some weeds, harvest some neglected plots and pick up some neighborhood litter.  I’m also hoping that it will not be too wet to plant or harvest flower seeds.   Unlike last weekend, it will not be unbearably hot.   Again, we will have lots of ripe tomatoes to harvest and donate.

Because heat spells are predicted to be in our past, we will also be pinching the flowers off our tomato plants so that they focus their energy on ripening the existing fruit instead of spending energy on creating new fruit that will not ripen in time for the first frost.   I’m also starting to harvest and dry my basil for use over the winter.  When the first frost is upon us, I will harvest the remainder to make pesto.

Because I’m sure that many gardeners are suffering the cracked tomato phenomenon, I will share my favorite recipes for roasted tomatoes:

·        1 head garlic

·        4 pounds vine-ripened red tomatoes (about 10 medium)

·        1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves

·        1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1.  Prepare the garlic.  Separate the garlic head into cloves.  Discard the loose papery outer skin but keep the skin intact on the cloves and wrap them in foil.  Put the garlic package in the corner of one of the baking pans/cookie sheets.  Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees.
2.  Prepare the tomatoes. Wash and chop the tomatoes into 2 inch chunks (i.e., quarters or eighths depending on the size of the tomatoes) and arrange in one layer in baking pans or cookie sheets that have been greased with olive oil. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons each of rosemary and thyme evenly over tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.
3.  Roasting.  Roast the garlic and tomatoes in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of pans after 17 minutes.  Then roast another 17 minutes or so until they tomatoes start to blacken.  You only want the tomatoes to be slightly charred.
4.  Unwrap the garlic and let it cool slightly.
5.  Pour the hot tomatoes into a sauce pan.  Peel skins from each garlic clove and force the pulp into the tomatoes.  Using a masher or hand blender, mix the herbs, tomatoes and garlic together.   If it's not too hot, you could also use a regular blender.
6.   Add the remaining herbs to the sauce.  Season the sauce with salt and pepper and reheat if necessary.   

This sauce is great by itself over pasta or with some cottage cheese.  I made some this weekend and froze most of it to eat this winter. 

I also quick roasted and froze some tomatoes (i.e., six minutes under the broiler on each side) for use in some Rick Bayless Mexican recipes I’ll make later this winter.  (Most of his recipes seem to involve roasted tomatoes).   After they cook, I remove the skins before freezing them.

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