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October 4th, 2012

Debbie’s Tomato Tasting

DebbieLeungAs another mostly-annual tomato-tasting party approached, we knew that this year’s record-setting stretch of warm, dry days here in Olympia, Washington, had to end soon. Hopes for ripe tomatoes were high in this region where growing tomatoes is always a challenge. But as equinox approached, reality set in. Evening temperatures dropped into the 40s and we remembered this year’s cool, wet spring that seemed to last into midsummer. Like most years, we awoke on party day to gray skies, scattered showers forecasted for the afternoon – drats!!! My hope was to not repeat past parties where, huddled on the covered back deck with tomato juice dribbling down our fingers and chins, a constant drizzle chilled us to the bones.

debtomato1As people started to arrive, the weather seemed to improve. Many contributed their best homegrown tomatoes for the tasting.

With a crunchy baguette sliced thinly to cleanse the palate between tastes and volunteers ready to slice and dice tomatoes, we gathered outside. Many folks had wandered through the garden while we waited for everyone (and tomatoes) to arrive, and I was barraged by questions about the “black tomatoes.” So to introduce the tasting, I told the story about the ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes and the experience of our test group, but we didn’t taste them first—no need to start with disappointment.

debtomato3The heirlooms ‘Prudence’ and ‘Moskovitch’ were grown by neighbors in cloches to minimize blight and maximize heat potential. A riper specimen might have improved the blah response to ‘Prudence’. Many liked ‘Moskovitch’, with its tangy, citrusy zing. Sweet and dependable ‘Juliet’, a mini-Roma-type, is favored by a gardener friend and was grown outdoors in the open without fussing. People generally liked its firmness and flavor. My next-door neighbor brought full-sized Romas. The not-quite-ripe sample got muted comments that included sweet and firm with the texture of melons.

In contrast, little ‘Cherry Roma’ got people excited. They loved the crunch, the acid, the splash in the mouth, the burst of concentrated flavor. People also liked ‘Black Cherry’, a test variety, for its wide range of flavors, a complexity that included a limy tartness with a savory flavor that “stays with you.”

debtomato4

Clockwise from upper left: ‘Indigo Rose’, ‘Momotaro’, ‘Sungold’, ‘Early Cascade’, ‘Black Cherry’

‘Early Cascade’ is my standard, usually a small, dependable slicer. A few were ripe weeks ago, but the not-quite-ripe samples got expected responses, including “a little supermarket-y.” The flavor of ‘Momotaro’ makes it worth growing for me even though it ripens only in the best of seasons. Tasters agreed even with the barely-ripe sample. Animated descriptions included smoky, meaty sweetness, great for sandwiches. Also “a mellow, understated pleasantness.”

The sun peeked through the clouds as we tasted ‘Early Girl’, my neighbor’s standard for ripening and being blight-free in our drizzly climate, and ‘Indigo Rose’. People found ‘Early Girl’ agreeable and the eating quality of ‘Indigo Rose’ horrid, “definitely flashy in appearance but not in flavor.” They hadn’t yet colored up to the shoulders, but flavor at full ripeness could still be a question.

debtomato2‘Sungold’ got passed around last as in year past, like a comforting dessert that everyone loves.

We concluded that here in the Puget Sound region of western Washington, growing cherry tomatoes are where it’s at. Our growing season is very long, but conditions that favor tomatoes are short and unstable. Ripening slicers takes short-season varieties, weather luck, and fussing with microclimates and plastic.

debtomato5Eleven-year-old Emily summed up the event. The tomato lover travelled 75 miles with her parents and grandparents for the rare occasion to eat her fill of tomatoes. Her favorites? ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Cherry Roma’, and ‘Moskovitch’. She helped polish those plates clean.

debtomato6Postscript: As people left, they asked what I would do with all the leftover tomatoes. Sauce! My lazy method, easy enough to make even after a long day of party preparation and socializing, starts with quartering the tomatoes, skins and all. Throw them into a pot to simmer. Stir occasionally, especially in the beginning as the tomatoes in the bottom of the pot cook first. When the tomatoes are soft, use a hand-held blender to dissolve the chunks and skins right in the pot. Continue to simmer until it thickens as desired.   —Debbie Leung, Olympia, Washington

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