Summer days can be counted by their numerous pleasures: soft grass, warm breezes, and of course, homegrown tomatoes
. At this wonderful time of year, cherry tomatoes dangle like tiny suns from their vines. Pretty heirlooms fill harvest baskets, and heavy beefsteaks ripen from green to deep red, signaling that it's time to stop and enjoy the greatest reward of vegetable gardening: cooking with food you've grown yourself. To celebrate this delicious season, we called upon three gardeners—who also happen to be brilliant chefs—to dish on why they love to grow and cook with tomatoes.
Deborah Madison: Cooking with the Seasons
"I am never tempted to buy a tomato at the store," says cookbook writer and Organic Gardening contributing food editor Deborah Madison. "I don't even see them." Madison, who began her career at the famed Chez Panisse and was the founding chef of the iconic Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, lives at around 7,000 feet in Galisteo, New Mexico, where she admits that growing heat-loving tomatoes, and just about anything else, can be difficult.
To meet the challenges of gardening in dry, clay soils and at a high altitude, Madison commissioned a local carpenter to build raised beds of sustainably harvested cedar, each equipped with hoops and a cover that helps protect crops from weather and pests. Come spring, she plants a variety of heirloom tomato seedlings, procured from local nurseries and farmers. "I have better luck with the smaller-sized tomatoes, because my garden is on the shady side and they seem to mature more quickly and more reliably," explains Madison.
She also likes growing varieties she sees at the farmers' market and always includes a few larger tomatoes, even though they often produce few fruits. "There are so many amazing varieties of tomatoes. I am really fond of the big old beefsteak tomatoes, like 'German Striped'. I also like the peach-type tomatoes for salads. Peach tomatoes have a matte skin and seem to do quite well for me here in New Mexico. I love the pleated tomatoes like Italian 'Costoluto Genovese' that look like little silk evening purses."
Other favorites include 'Oxheart', 'Nebraska Wedding Tomato' (once ceremoniously hung in Midwest churches as a harbinger of a prosperous and fruitful marriage), and 'Golden Jubilee'. "I don't care for most yellow tomatoes because they are so low in acid," Madison says. "But 'Golden Jubilee' is more acidic than most, and its tartness makes it good to pair with cheeses." For dressing, she prefers sweet marjoram, red-wine vinegar, and olive oil to the old standard of basil, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil for bringing out the flavors of different tomatoes. "Marjoram's high aromatic notes can be a nice change," Madison explains.
While flavor and color are certainly important considerations when choosing varieties, Madison finds that picking ones that do well where you live is the secret to successfully growing tomatoes. And the best way to discover those varieties, she says, is to visit local farmers' markets and see what the farmers are growing. After all, says Madison, "There is no substitute for a locally grown tomato, picked right at its peak."
Hot Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes
3 cups cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 shallot, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons best olive oil, or more to taste
2 tablespoons salted capers, soaked in water and drained, or brined capers, rinsed
1/3 cup pitted Nicoise olives
6 basil leaves, torn or slivered
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound small shell-shaped pasta
A few drops of balsamic vinegar (optional)
1. Bring a pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, mix the tomatoes in a large bowl with the shallot, garlic, olive oil, capers, olives, and basil. Season with a little salt and pepper.
2. When the water is boiling, add salt and cook the pasta. Drain the pasta, shake off the excess water, add the hot pasta to the tomatoes, and toss. Taste for salt, add pepper and a few drops of vinegar if you like, and serve.
Makes 4 servings
From Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen