I have a confession to make. I’m an unrepentant addict. My addiction is tomatoes: little ones, big ones, ugly ones, pretty ones, red, yellow, green, or pink. I’m rather indiscriminate, except when it comes to taste. And I don’t think I’m alone. Admit it! Aren’t tomatoes the main reason you garden? Beginning in very late June, right up through October, I can be found in the garden with tomato juice dripping down my chin.
After that the tomatoes we’ve “put up” continue to feed my cravings for many months. Jar after jar of tomato basil soup, colorful diced tomatoes, and spaghetti sauce line my canning room shelves. Sealed tubs of dehydrated tomato slices line the counter, and packets of roasted cherry tomatoes fill the freezer. Jars of spicy tomato jam and peach/tomato/pepper salsa wait patiently to perk up our winter meals.
I regularly grow 25-30 tomato plants a year for our family of three which may seem excessive until you know that we all happily eat tomatoes all day long. A big bowl of mixed cherry tomatoes shines like jewels on our table throughout the summer and is always empty by evening. I’m never done trying new tomato recipes for dinner. New tomatoes always sneak into my seed orders and get planted out in the garden.
So how do I choose which tomatoes to plant? Descriptions in catalogs are hard to judge by. They can’t all be the “largest, juiciest, best tasting, most popular” tomatoes on the planet. You need to identify what is most important for you and your garden. Then you need to try lots of tomatoes! In the early days of our garden we went to harvest festivals and tomato tastings to try lots of varieties. I read voraciously in books like Amy Goldman’s Heirloom Tomatoes, and Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier. Since then we just keep trying tomatoes that are new to us while hanging on to the ones we know we love.
The things we’ve decided are important to our family include:
- Taste, taste, taste! We like most of our tomatoes to strike a balance of sweetness and acidity, and to have complex flavor profiles. We love the smokiness of black tomatoes, and the surprise of citrus undertones in some of the bi-color or yellow tomatoes.
- A variety of colors and flavors in small cherry and grape tomatoes to keep that bowl on the table full each day
- A steady variety of tomatoes ripening together so that our tomato basil soup is a complex and tasteful work of art impossible to duplicate from batch to batch.
- Early tomatoes to get a jump on the season along with ones that take a little longer to start production but weather the period from late summer into fall more reliably.
- And, with one notable exception, open pollinated tomatoes from which we can save our own seed and develop lines that thrive in our particular garden.
I used to make and can tomato sauce, which effected which types of tomatoes I grew. But I’ve since started dehydrating tomato slices in large quantities, which expands the tomato varieties you can then turn back into sauce with a little water and an immersion wand. Because of this only a few of the tomato plants I grow each year are actually paste or sauce types anymore.
- Amish Paste is a large, meaty, full flavored tomato good for sauce or paste.
- Opalka is rich flavored, sweet and slightly smoky, great for roasting or sauces
- Cour di Bui, with its true tomato taste, is a meaty pink tomato great for dehydrating
Salad tomatoes are small at 2-4 ounces and tend to produce early giving me that first “fix” of the season eaten out of hand or on salads. Our two favorite are:
- Juane Flamme, a beautiful orange jewel that is sweet and fruity
- Green Zebra which is sweet yet zingy with green-on-green stripes
Our favorite early season tomatoes include:
- Cherokee Chocolate which is a more stable selection of Cherokee Purple
- Pink Berkeley Tie Dye’s taste is superb and it’s the tomato that caused my addiction!
- Rebekah Allen has a nice sweet/tart balance and is our earliest producer.
My huge beefsteak tomatoes are in full swing by mid-summer, cranking out an abundance of color and flavor that combine into the most interesting meals imaginable. African Queen and Red Rose are our red/pink giants, Carbon’s deep flavor beats the socks off of many other black tomatoes, and Hawaiian Pineapple has a fruity citrus flavor that is amazing. Green Giant was a new find last year and has converted me back to at least this one green beefsteak. And after almost giving up on Lillian’s Yellow to come into production it proved well worth the wait with the best flavor of any pure yellow we’ve ever tried. We even had to put away the touch of salt on these last two beauties as it masked their natural flavor too much when eaten fresh.
And what about the bowl of tomato gems that grace the table? After years of trial and error, we’ve narrowed the selection down to Cherry Roma, Sugar Cherry, Black Cherry, Napa Chardonnay, Sunrise Bumblebee, and Sungold (the only hybrid tomato we grow). Why a hybrid? Sungold quite simply has the brightest and most interesting flavor profile of any cherry tomato we’ve ever tried. There are many open pollinated selections of this tomato, but we’ve found them to be either inconsistent, unstable, or just not up to the original in flavor.
What tomatoes are making your list of favorites? Why do you like them, and how do you use them?