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Making the best of a tough tomato harvest

First We Eat: This summer was disastrous for growing tomatoes as well as many other crops

Just a few of the tomatoes picked from my garden.

War contributes to the transportation and appropriation of goods around the globe. For instance, tomatoes were among the plants and animals that ended up in Europe in the unequal exchange of goods, disease, slavery, land theft, and genocide between New World and Old, beginning in 1492 and culminating in1650, called the Columbian Exchange. This event led to the emergence of some remarkable Mediterranean dishes, many centring on the tomato, and making them among the world’s most popular fruit for home gardeners like me. My tomato growing is bittersweet, knowing the history of the plants.

Tomatoes are fragile. A frost warning for tonight means that I will cover the fruit still hanging on the vine. Not that there’s a lot — this summer has been as disastrous for tomatoes as it has been for most other crops.

I planted 30 plants — among them Black Krim, Sungold, Marzano, Early Girl, Sweet Million, Brandywine, Whippersnapper, yellow-striped Green Zebra, and heritage beefsteak, plus five “mystery plants” purchased from tomato maven and author Sara Williams at her annual Tomatoes for Tanzania sale in Saskatoon. Because we were flooded in 2011, and my mother’s and grandmother’s garden was eventually covered by a berm that encircles the house to keep ensuing (perhaps unlikely) floods from drowning our old house, most of my gardening takes place in containers and raised beds. The tomatoes inhabit a funky assortment of receptacles adjacent to the herb bed on the north side of the house. They get sun, shade, shelter. I had hopes of a bumper crop.

At her sale, I asked Williams for some tips. On her advice, I made eggshell tea from crushed eggshells to aid in calcium absorption and reduce the risk of the dreaded blossom stem end rot.

Then the heat dome inflated over Western Canada. A heat wave that lasted most of the summer set in, and my tomato plants, by then setting blossoms, began to look stressed. On days that hit upwards of 30 C, it became impossible to keep the plants’ water level on an even keel.

A harvest vastly smaller than I expected — albeit with very few incidences of blossom stem end rot — meant that I had to go looking for additional fruit to feed my tomato habit. (Each fall I like to make roasted tomato sauce — more on that in a minute — and my paternal grandmother Doris’s southern Ontario sweet and spicy tomato chili sauce, dynamite with eggs and grilled pork. That recipe another time.)

Fortunately, my mom’s neighbour operates a bustling market selling homegrown vegetables, canned goods, and baking. She had bags of green tomatoes — beefsteaks, she thought. Now I have tomatoes ripening in my kitchen, bananas strategically placed on each tray to facilitate the process. In a week or two, I expect to make roasted tomato sauce for my freezer; I save the smaller tomatoes for use in our daily salads.

This sauce is money in the bank for a busy cook — it is ready RIGHT NOW, needing only thawing, as the best-ever pizza sauce, pasta sauce, soup base, and all-purpose ingredient in any dish requiring tomato sauce, from Bolognese to butter chicken.

Last fall, and again this summer, that tomato sauce featured prominently in al fresco pizza suppers enjoyed in the shade of the maple tree. Having the sauce in my freezer meant that my prep time was reduced, allowing me to enjoy a glass of wine with our friends. After more than a year of isolation, those pizzas symbolize the beauty and collegiality of the table, antidote in small part to the violence of how tomatoes came to European cooks. So first we eat. Then we pour another glass of wine and debate ways to grow the best tomatoes.

Roasted Tomato Sauce 

This “oven-queen’s special” minimizes splatter and mess while producing a sauce bursting with fresh tomato flavour. One “quarter sheet” baking pan (about 13 x 18 inches) makes 6-8 cups of sauce. For Tomato and Lovage Soup, sauté minced lovage and add to the sauce, thinning with stock as needed. Vary endlessly. 

  • 3 lbs. ripe tomatoes, halved or quartered depending on size
  • 1-2 onions, minced
  • 1 head garlic, peeled
  • Olive oil to drizzle 
  • Salt and pepper to taste 

Set the oven at 375-400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the tomatoes in a single layer on the pan. Sprinkle the onion and garlic on top. Drizzle with olive oil to taste, then sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for about 45 minutes, or until the tomatoes are collapsed, charred nicely along the edges, and cooked thoroughly. Transfer in several batches to a food processor and blitz briefly, leaving the sauce a bit chunky. Freeze in whatever volume seems useful to you. In my 2-person house, I use 2-cup containers.

Photo: dee Hobsbawn-Smith

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