Weeds. Acres and acres of weeds stretching as far as the eye could see, and it was my job to pull them. The agony, the heat, the boredom. I was 12, and weeding the rows and rows of tomatoes in my family's garden was my job. I don't remember my little sister helping, but I'm sure she'd disagree. We lived in the Fan, so the garden couldn't have been all that big, but still, it was enormous. I hated those tomatoes, and I couldn't have cared less about eating them.
I don't feel the same way about them anymore.
I can eat tomatoes straight from the garden every day. They bow their vines and threaten to drop down in the dirt in August; they spill out of the bowl on the counter and overflow all of the baskets at the farmers' markets around town.
But who gets tired of tomatoes? We're not talking about zucchini, that wonder crop that both taxes the culinary imagination and drives you to a kind of end-of-summer psychosis that makes you furtively abandon the excess bounty on strangers' porches under the cover of darkness. You've got to get rid of that stuff — it mocks you from the counter when you can't think of another way to serve it and grows to a menacing size if you forget to pick it in time.
Tomatoes, however, help you make friends instead of driving them away. Show up with three or four in hand, perfectly red or glowing a vivid orange or yellow, and then graciously offer to slice them up to serve on a plate with salt and a pool of olive oil dripping over the pile of slices. You will be adored. I will adore you.
It's been a crazy season for tomatoes around here. They've been growing gangbusters all over the place, despite an oddly dry, cool summer. Dry is good, according to Amy Hicks of Amy's Garden in Quinton.
"Tomatoes grown a tad dry taste better, and there is less cracking of the fruit," she says. The dryness helps concentrate the flavor.
Plus, you can control the irrigation, and that's important if you're growing heirloom varieties, all of which are more fragile and inclined to crack if they get too much water. Despite demanding a little extra care, heirloom tomatoes are the ones packing serious flavor. They give you that deep, meaty tomato essence with a sweetness a commercial variety just can't replicate.
Sun Gold cherry tomatoes seem to be doing the best of all the heirlooms in Richmond this summer. The Cherokee purple is another big producer, and for Hicks, it "has become our best selling heirloom . . . and folks will even buy the gnarly looking ones! A testament to its fabulous flavor and uniqueness."
In Buttermilk & Molasses blogger John Sarvay's garden, the tomatoes are "doing great — 8 feet tall and loaded with fruit." Tragically, his yard is infested with tomato-loving wildlife. "As far as harvesting, the [expletive deleted] squirrels have eaten every single close-to-being ripe tomato, so we've gotten nothing."
Sun Golds are doing well for John Haddad, who writes the Epicuriosity blog (and reviews restaurants for Style Weekly and is my very own next-door neighbor), but "the Wapsipinicon peach (plants) were a disaster . . . they just withered on the vine."
The professionals do successive plantings, and the plenitude of tomatoes should last at farmers' markets into October. So even those who've had one problem or another won't have to rely on kind friends bearing gifts of vegetables. The farmers have got you covered.
Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes
Nothing is better at the end of the summer than a sauce full of garlic and chunks of fresh tomatoes. It's simple and obvious. Add a heavy scatter of chiffonaded fresh basil and a lot of Parmesan cheese, and the only thing you have to cook is the pasta itself.
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 pounds of fresh tomatoes, de-seeded and diced
- 1 small bunch of fresh basil, stems removed and chiffonaded (very thinly sliced)
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt (or more to taste)
- Pinch of sugar
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 pound of linguine (also works well with penne, farfalle, etc.)
- 1/4 cup of freshly grated Parmesan
Set a large pot full of water, liberally seasoned with a tablespoon or more of salt, over high heat to boil.
Toss together the olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, basil, salt, sugar and pepper, then allow the flavors to meld while you cook the pasta until al dente. (If you don't like the strong taste of fresh garlic, you can sauté the garlic in the olive oil for a couple of minutes and then add to the other ingredients.)
Drain the pasta, place in a large bowl and toss with the cheese. Taste the tomato sauce and adjust seasoning, then toss with the pasta.
Serves four hungry, sweaty people or six who had a late lunch.
Brandon Fox is the new dining columnist for Richmond magazine and the managing editor of R•Home, our sister shelter magazine. Check out her personal blog at brandoneats.com .