Eating Local: Spoiled by the perfection of a real tomato
Out in the garden, the purple-and-white turnips are as big as softballs, and the beets aren’t far behind. Three kinds of cucumbers grow in a row along the western border of the garden plot. Basil grows among a dizzying array of peppers. The carrots are getting big.
A dozen heirloom tomato plants have morphed into an exuberant tangle at the bottom of the garden. I gave up on the wire cages, which constrict the plants. Instead I hoist the vines up off the ground by tying them to ski poles pounded into the ground, which we have plenty of, thanks to Ed’s winter job as a ski patroller. The first colorful, oddly shaped tomatoes are finally ripening and coming inside to be enjoyed in salads and sandwiches, or sliced thick and sprinkled with a few grains of coarse salt.
Where to find the words to describe the flavor of these tomatoes? Deep and rich, tart and meaty, complicated, aromatic, juicy. When I brush past the vines in the garden, a strange, somewhat repellent odor rises from the leaves. It is the same savory flavor trapped inside the skins of the tomatoes.
In college I had a professor who later became a senator from Minnesota. His name was Paul Wellstone. It was the early 1980s, and he was an activist. Sometimes he canceled class to meet with farmers or migrant workers. It was a tumultuous time when farmers were losing their land to bankers and corporate agriculture. He told us farmers die rich, because while they live their wealth is tied up in valuable land and machinery.
I never forgot what he told us about tomatoes one day. They taste nothing like they ought to, he said. Big Ag had gotten hold of them and created mealy, flavorless hybrids that harvesting machines won’t crush or bruise. In other words, they were growing them for the machines and the stores, not for the people who would eat them.
Now that I grow my own, I’m spoiled by their perfection. They come to me in vivid hues of yellow or red or orange or rusty brown with greenish starbursts around the rosette. The Russian heirlooms are early and prolific. So are the Cherokee chocolates, my favorite. I turn up my nose at the cheap imitations in the chain supermarket. Unlike cabbages, root vegetables and some squash, the tomatoes don’t last forever. This year I plan to can salsa and marinara for use in the winter, but now is the season for savoring fresh tomatoes. When winter comes, I will do without.
Joel Salatin is a farmer from Virginia and a crusader in the local food movement. He spoke last month in Aspen with passion and humor about what it takes to build a local food system that works. For one, people have to be willing to eat seasonally. There’s an upside, he reminded his audience. Absence makes the heart — and palette — grow fonder. That perfect Colorado peach tastes spectacular because it has a party in your mouth only once a year, in August.
On Colby Farm we’re lucky to have many old grape vines. In September the concord grapes turn deep purple and sweet. The little green seedless Thompson grapes ripened early. Next to them are the ones Ed calls emerald beauties. Around two sides of my garden, vigorous grapevines send shoots across the fence into Eldon’s apple trees and dangle bunches of delicately colored pink grapes. Each variety bursts with sweetness and subtle complexity that doesn’t even compare to grapes in the store.
All but the Thompsons come with seeds, by the way. I’m certain Big Ag bred away the flavor along with the seeds and duped shoppers into thinking it was a good trade.
For all their variety and flavor, vegetables from the garden aren’t always the ones we’re used to cooking. What to do with all those cucumbers? I push the small ones as I pick them into a big ceramic crock in the basement where it’s cool. They slowly pickle in brine of vinegar and salt. It’s an old technique. I tasted the first pickle this week; it was crisp and satisfying.
Throw turnip greens into a heavy pan with a little lamb stock, or if you don’t have any of that on hand, a couple slices of bacon, some water and salt. Steam them for an hour, and halfway through, put the peeled, sliced turnips on top to steam. It’s a hearty dish. Last night I poured boiling vinegar into a bottle over little hot peppers from the garden as a condiment to splash on the turnips.
Coat whole beets, skin and all, with olive oil and kosher salt, and throw them on the grill, turning them until they’re cooked through. This takes time. Ed puts Alaska salmon on the grill when the beets are almost done and we eat them together. It’s our favorite late-summer meal.
Marilyn Gleason keeps it local on her Peach Valley farm. Send your responses and ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “food.”
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