Tomatoes may be the only plants in the garden that actually enjoyed the weather we’ve had this summer.
After a long, hot drought followed by inconsistent heavy rain, small farmers and chefs report a bumper crop of the juicy fruit. Some say they’re not only more plentiful, but also better tasting than last year.
“They’ve been sweeter and more intensely flavored, but smaller,” said Patricia Mulvey, who co-owns Local Thyme in Madison.
Local Thyme takes four different Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes each week and cooks each one to create menu plans for Tipi Produce, Wholesome Harvest, Crossroads Community Farm and Keewaydin Farm.
“We’re not seeing a lot of gigantic heirloom tomatoes — that’s probably because the lack of water and intense heat made them more intensely flavored and tight-packed,” said Mulvey, who also grows tomatoes in her backyard.
Tomatoes are easy to grow but hard to make perfect. Inconsistent rain can lead to cracking; too much sun can scald them. Insects and abnormally cool or hot weather can cause catfacing, the cavities and holes that form in large tomatoes.
Irrigation seems to be the key for those who succeeded. Kyle Thom, who owns Roots Down Community Farm in Rock County, said a new greenhouse allowed him to grow “more efficiently,” with irrigation and protection from the elements.
At the Eastside, Fitchburg and Dane County farmers’ markets, Thom sells tomatoes in large wooden crates. He has about 1,000 plants, including heirloom slicing tomatoes and a mix of cherry tomatoes in white, yellow, black, orange and red.
“It’s definitely our best tomato year yet,” Thom said. “When it rains more, there’s more disease pressure.”
But when irrigation is doing the watering, it doesn’t rain on the foliage and the plants “stay healthier longer,” Thom said. The challenge is to keep them off the ground.
Amitaba Organics in Whitewater have “more tomatoes than (they) can deal with” this season, with some 1,200 plants producing Green Zebras, Woodle Oranges, Ace 55s and Black Princes, among many others.
“A side effect of the drought was if you water too heavily or inconsistently they’ll crack,” said Chad Rogers-Coxhead, who works on the farm. “But having only our water from our well, we were able to be consistent during the beginning.
“Our fruit was good. Lack of water adds more flavor. ... We’re getting much more dense tomatoes.”
Chefs often get tomato fever this time of year. At Madison Sourdough, chef Molly Maciejewski takes tomatoes from Amitaba and makes a gazpacho every day during the warmer months.
There is a peach version, a mix with roasted red peppers, a Catalan style with cucumbers. (She also makes a cold soup called ajo blanco, with garlic, almonds and bread, and one with roasted eggplant.)
“I try to use a lot of (tomatoes) fresh, in a caprese or gazpacho which isn’t cooked, or feature them on the BLT,” Maciejewski said. “I have also slow-roasted them and kept them in oil to preserve them and use them later in the season.”
At Lombardino’s, Patrick O’Halloran devotes an entire menu to tomatoes that he gets, in part, from Scott Williams at Garden to Be in Mount Horeb.
They end up in almost everything, from simple preparations like antipasti, panzanella, tomato soup and a market tomato pizza with goat cheese, to a popular dish of pan-seared scallops with heirloom tomatoes, basil and mozzarella cream.
“This is one of my favorite menus of the year,” O’Halloran said. “We probably have 300 pounds of tomatoes in the basement and they’ll be gone in a day.”
Some restaurants showcase tomatoes in BLTs and market salads, as soon-to-be executive chef Dan Zaremba does at Alchemy. (His favorite tomato is the Green Zebra, because “they’re so unusual looking … and they taste great, too.”)
Other chefs amp up the flavor using blasts of heat and low-and-slow cooking.
In early August, Francesco Mangano taught a class at Orange Tree Imports on stuffing and roasting tomatoes, putting them into soup, salad and seafood pasta.
Lily Kilfoy planned a similar class for kids ages 6 to 12 this week at the east side Willy Street Co-op.
For the mini-chefs, she planned a four-course tomato supper, starting with two tomato-based salads — one with sweet corn and avocado, another with cucumber.
The main course was pizzettes (mini-pizzas) with a variety of tomatoes and cheese. For dessert, Kilfoy decided to add some sugar and make tomatoes into a sorbet.
“All tomatoes that are fresh and local are really intense in flavor,” Kilfoy said. “What’s available locally right now is absolutely delicious.”
In her own garden, Kilfoy makes green tomatoes into a compote using pie spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. She also bottles up Bloody Mary mix, tomato sauce and salsa to use after the ground has frozen over.
Polly Reott, of Polly Jane’s Pickles and Jams, teaches people how to do the same with their own tomatoes in classes hosted by Fair Share CSA Coalition and in in-home tutoring sessions.
“There’s a renaissance for this right now,” Reott said of canning and preserving, quickly noting that some new techniques are both easier and safer than how “grandma used to do it.”
“Grandma used sugar and salt to preserve her food,” Reott said. “We no longer have to do that.”
Reott’s favorite way to keep tomatoes is to skin Romas (cut an “x” on the bottom, dunk in boiling water for a few seconds, cool down with cold water, peel). She then layers them with basil leaves, lemon juice and a pinch of salt.
“You pop open that jar, and you literally get a smell of summer, I’m not kidding you,” Reott said. “I use them for everything.”
Mulvey, with four CSA boxes’ worth of heirlooms, slicers and cherries every week, may have the biggest creative challenge.
She often makes her mom’s easy marinated tomato salad, which showcases fresh tomatoes with vinaigrette, sugar, salt and fresh herbs. Her Aunt Irene makes a fresh tomato pesto, blended with garlic, olives and “whatever nuts she has.”
Mulvey puts tomatoes in Thai fried rice, with fish sauce, lime juice and red chili paste. For a Greek twist, she stews tomatoes with zucchini and tops them with lemon juice and feta. Pasta alla Norma, from the Italian side of the family, showcases eggplant and tomato equally.
Mulvey loves a North African recipe that involves roasting tomatoes, peppers and onions under a broiler, then mixing in caraway, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. (“It’s out of this world,” she said.)
And one favorite summer appetizer — perfect for a cocktail party — is the ultra-simple, adults-only Bloody Mary on a Stick. To make them, peel cherry tomatoes (using the blanching method above) and soak them in vodka overnight. Stick each tomato with a toothpick, then set them out with little bowls of celery salt and a hot sauce, and then dip gingerly. “People just love it,” she said.