Tomatoes a-plenty

I say “toMAYto” and my husband, the Brit, says “toMAHto,” but unlike George Gershwin, we’re not calling the whole thing off!

Every year we live in hope of fresh tomatoes from the garden. What could be better than biting into a ripe, juicy tomato still warm from the sun? You might be able to get something fairly close at a farmers’ market, but supermarket produce just doesn’t compare.

Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow. One summer, when we lived in a circa-1920s second-story apartment with tall, southern-facing windows and wide window ledges, we grew them in pots outside our living room. Even though we do everything right – plant after the danger of frost is over, plant in a different spot than the previous year, make sure the plot has good drainage and gets lots of sun – we can never be sure we’ll have a good harvest. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate. Sometimes our plants are stricken with a disease or blight.

This year is not spectacular, perhaps due to cool temperatures and more than ample rain. But our five plants are producing more than enough to meet our own gustatory needs.

Just imagine a world without the tomato. No pizza. No tomato sauce for pasta or lasagne. No BLTs. No cream of tomato soup with your grilled cheese sandwich. It’s probably one of the most widely grown food crops, and probably one of the most versatile. Think of how many ways we use it: juiced, in soups, salads, casseroles, stews and sauces. There’s even a recipe for a cake using a can of tomato soup. It used to be in The Joy of Cooking, but my current edition has taken it out. I found this version on the Web, but I haven’t tried it so I’m not making it this week’s official recipe.

A Central American native

The tomato originated in Central America, and we have Christopher Columbus and the other Spanish conquistadores to thank for introducing it to the world. They took it to Spain, where it spread throughout Europe, and to the Philippines, where it spread to Asia.

Europeans were initially suspicious of the shiny fruits, which were probably golden rather than red. After all, they’re botanically in the same family as nightshade, with its deadly berries.  At first tomatoes were grown as an ornamental plant, but by the early 1600s, tomatoes were being used as food.

The earliest discovered cookbook using tomatoes was published in Naples in 1692.

The word “tomato” comes from a Nahuatl word, tomatoti. The Italians named it pomo d’oro – golden apple, which isn’t surprising since those early tomatoes were probably yellow, rather than red.

The world’s largest tomato, which weighed 7 lb., 12 oz., was grown by Gordon Graham on Edmond, Oklahoma in 1986.  The world’s largest tomato plant, at Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida, produced 32,000 tomatoes in one season. Since I have fresh basil in my garden this summer as well as tomatoes, it’s a great time to make a Caprese Salad! It’s a very easy recipe. The only other ingredients you need are fresh mozzarella, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. 

Stalking the ordinary celery

A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: This week’s blog is by guest author Louis Finkelman (aka Eliezer) Finkelman, rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. It originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

I found a cookbook that describes a classical French combination, mirepoix, as a finely-diced mixture of onions, carrots and celery, simmered or sautéed. The writer explains what each ingredient adds to the mixture. According to this sophisticated expert, the celery adds texture, but does not add much in the way of flavor, since celery basically has very little flavor.

Go to the supermarket and you can find celery that proves his point. In fact, you cannot find any other kind of celery in the supermarket. The thick, heavy stalks of celery, with their creamy color, just barely green, gently whisper the secret information about their flavor, “we taste of celery.” The green leaves have a strong, bitter flavor, but who uses the leaves of celery?

Visiting my son and his family in Israel, some years ago, I made the trip to his local Shufrasol supermarket. The celery there did not look like American celery. It had little, thin stalks, all a deep dark bright green. When we got home and used the celery in recipes, it did not taste like American supermarket celery either: rather than whispering, it shouted. It yelled, “I AM CELERY! HEAR ME ROAR!” In a soup, in a stew, in a casserole, a few snips of celery sufficed to make a bold statement.

My growing affinity for celery

I started growing celery at home, in my little backyard vegetable garden. My garden celery comes up much more like its assertive Israeli relations than the kind in American supermarkets. It comes up small, but powerful. It has an attitude.

This year, during my annual trip to the farm supply store to pick up my vegetables, I got a quick lesson in why we have such different versions of celery. The manager of the store directed me to find “ordinary celery.” I commented that “it does not seem ordinary to me. It does not taste like supermarket celery.”

American commercial growers (according to the manager of the farm supply store) irrigate their celery heavily to get those big, bland stalks. I read somewhere that growers even put shades on parts of the celery plant so that it does not develop too much flavor.

I thought about that quest for celery without too much flavor. That goes along with preferring white bread to rye or whole wheat. It goes along with cutting off the crust of sandwiches. It resonates with preferring white meat to dark. Turkeys raised for meat usually have been bred for so much white meat that they move about awkwardly. Their huge breasts so limit their motion that they need artificial insemination. All this happens in the search for less intense flavor. It all goes together. It rhymes.

Appearance over substance

In a way, that quest for less intensive flavor matches the quest for perfect appearance. No doubt, the big, creamy, thick celery has a certain visual appeal that the small, thin, dark green stuff cannot match. The huge red strawberries in the market all look beautiful; sometimes they taste like strawberries, too. The only apples available in the supermarket look like wax models of apples: big, flawless, shiny. They come in bright red or bright green. Though growers have identified hundreds or thousands of different varieties of apple, our selection at the market usually gets restricted to the three or four prettiest. I will not even mention tomatoes. Some of us do not share the preference for bland and pretty. Those who seek intense, complex flavors have to look for produce at ethnic shops, or farmers’ markets or just grow our own.

When it comes to people, too — do I have to spell this out? — we might make an effort to overcome our resistance and put up with people who have too much flavor and too imperfect an appearance. We might find our best companions, our wisest guides and our most promising students. They might make our lives more interesting.

Editor’s note:  A mirepoix is a mixture of two parts onion, one part carrot and one part celery, roughly chopped and cooked slowly in a bit of oil until the onion is translucent. This recipe, from a contributor named Gordon on the website, uses a mirepoix with braised chicken breasts. You can cook up mirepoix ahead of time and use it to add to soups or stews. The photo with the recipe is by naples34102, another Allrecipes contributor. 

Student gardeners grow stoplight salad and more

Now that the weather north of the Mason-Dixon Line is getting warm enough to at least think about gardening, I thought it would be a good time to run this article by Detroit freelance writer Amy Kuras. It originally appeared last January in Model D, an online newspaper, and is reprinted with permission.

Over the last two years, schoolyards at Detroit Public Schools all over the city have begun sprouting raised garden beds. Not only do these beds grow produce that nurtures students’ bodies, the gardens nurture their minds as well, being used in lessons across the curriculum from science classes to math and language arts.

The gardens are part of the Detroit School Garden Collaborative, a partnership between the Detroit Public Schools and The Greening of Detroit. The DSGC got started in 2012, with funding through the Healthy and Hunger Free Schools Act. Betty Wiggins, the executive director of the office of school nutrition for DPS, earmarked some of the funds the school district got from the government to start the program. When the gardening season gets started this April, the program will be active at 51 schools.

The school district provides six raised beds and clean soil to fill them, along with seedlings to plant. The principal at each building assigns a key teacher to helm the program and implement the curriculum. The district also provides a garden attendant to help the teacher keep the garden weeded and watered and assists with some of the lessons. And at some schools, they hire students age 14 and up to be garden assistants, who help tend the garden through the summer months and get to participate in field trips to see agricultural producers all over the state.

The district produces most of its own transplants for the garden beds as well, from a greenhouse maintained by students at the Randolph Vocational Center. Some classrooms also produce their own transplants in half the beds, the key teacher can grow whatever produce they want to use; in the other half, they grow what’s called “stoplight salad” — red tomatoes, yellow squash, and green zucchini. That goes on the menu at the school, so the kids are actually eating food they helped grow. It also goes to charter schools for which DPS is the school food authority.

Helping students eat better

“The overall goal is to have an impact on what these young people eat,” says Zaundra Wimberley, DPS director of school gardens and farms. “We want to have an impact on their thought process that an orange or an apple or a red pepper is just as viable a snack as a bag of Cheetos.”

Barbara Lothery, a fifth grade homeroom teacher at Nichols Elementary-Middle School in Indian Village and the co-lead teacher for the school’s garden club, says her students demonstrate a much greater awareness of where their food comes from and the impact it has on their health. “They’re so eager to even taste food that they may have been scared of before, or never liked,” she says. “One day we had some spinach and one little boy asked ‘Is this how real spinach tastes? I’ve only ever had it from the can.’ It blew me away.”

Lothery and her co-teacher, Angela Link, have around 10 kids in third through eighth grade in the garden club, and they also use the garden for lessons in math, science and language arts. Greening of Detroit created the curriculum they use. Lothery also emphasizes the career aspect for her students – that even though they are living in an urban environment, they can grow up to pursue careers in agriculture and make money doing something they enjoy.

The garden also illustrates how growing your own food can bring a healthier diet within reach for students whose families may struggle financially. Some parents have begun growing their own food at home, Lothery says, and one student told her she’d seen the price of organic spinach at the store and couldn’t believe they got it for free right out of the beds at school.

Nichols Elementary-Middle’s garden has drawn support from the surrounding neighborhood as well. The Indian Village Garden Club raised funds and brought volunteer muscle to build six additional raised beds at the school; they also helped use extra soil to create supplemental gardens around the fence line of the school. Volunteers helped Lothery construct a rustic classroom for the children, as well — they sawed pallets into tables and created stools out of a trunk from a tree that was cut down in the neighborhood. One volunteer even came in to teach the children about composting, Lothery says.

Community benefits

Community connections are one of the more important goals of the program, says Tepfirah Rushdan, Greening Of Detroit’s urban agriculture manager. When school is out for the summer the garden attendants will reach out to the community to distribute the produce that is ready to be harvested. At Nichols, their extra food goes to a senior center; other garden bounty goes directly to the neighborhood residents, at no charge.

“We want the garden to be part of the culture of the school, just like the gym or the cafeteria,” she says. Rushdan says she’s been struck by the effect being in the garden has had on children who might have some issues with behavior in a traditional classroom.

“They are the same ones sticking their hands in the dirt and pulling a wheelbarrow,” she says. “It’s a return to nature for a lot of student who don’t get the exposure to nature that their suburban counterparts may get.”

Lothery says she’s been extremely pleased with the reception her school’s garden has received from parents, volunteers and the community. “Everyone has been amazing,” she says. “Our garden is called the ‘Garden of Love,’ and everyone who comes over is just beautiful.”

The Model D article didn’t include a recipe for Stoplight Salad, but here’s something similar. I saw many different vegetable combinations online under the terms “stoplight salad” and “traffic light salad.” All you need to do is combine red, yellow and green veggies: tomatoes, cukes and yellow peppers, say, or tomatoes, green peppers and yellow squash, with a simple oil-and-vinegar dressing. One recipe even laid the salad out like a stoplight, with mounds of chopped green, yellow and red veggies in a vertical row on a bed of lettuce.


Blessings of growing your own: from lettuce to rhubarb crisp

In Judaism, there’s a blessing for everything, including the eating of food from plants: “Blessed are you, God, ruler of the universe, who creates food of the earth.” It seems especially appropriate when eating food you pick from your own garden because you can see the direct connection between the food and the earth.

There is something spiritual, almost magical, about growing your own food. You throw some tiny seeds onto the soil, and a few weeks later you can pick something delicious and nutritious.

Today, I’m giving you a delicious—and easy—recipe for rhubarb crisp. But, first, take a moment just to consider the joys of gardening. Do you share our passion? (Please, add a comment below.)

Do You Love Gardening This Much?

I never had a vegetable garden growing up. My mother hopefully planted a few blueberry and bush cherry shrubs, as well as a dwarf apple tree, but we never got any fruit from them. My first home as a married woman was in a ticky-tacky graduate student apartment building at Temple University in Philadelphia.

We lived on the ground floor of the mid-1960s era building. Our two windows looked out on the back of the building, a parking lot—and a small strip of lawn outlined by a cast iron fence. Someone on the resident activities committee had the bright idea to turn that little strip of grass into garden plots, and we eagerly signed up for one.

But, the apartment building had been constructed on the site of demolished Philadelphia row houses, and the little garden plots were full of broken bricks and hunks of concrete. We spent many hours digging and screening the soil. One hapless neighbor pulled an entire marble doorstep from her plot. Finally the soil was deemed suitably rock-free, and in went the tomato and pepper plants and the lettuce and cucumber seeds.

One night a few weeks later we were just getting to sleep when we were awakened by the gleam of a flashlight and cries of glee outside our window. “Oooh, look at that!” one neighbor called out. “Wow, is that a carrot?” marveled her roommate.

We had to ask the resident activities committee to decree that gardening be done in the daylight hours only. Since then, we’ve always had some sort of vegetable garden, even if it was only a few potted tomatoes on the windowsill of our second apartment, which was on the second floor.

The Long Odyssey
of the Prized Rhubarb Plant

In our garden, we now grow tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, beans, zucchini, eggplant and more. A few years ago we bought a rhubarb plant, and this year, for the first time, it produced enough rhubarb to eat.

Rhubarb developed in Asia, where for millennia it was valued for medicinal purposes. As an import to Europe, it was more valuable than cinnamon, opium and saffron. Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, a Castilian diplomat, wrote in the early 1400s of his stay in Samarkand, “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand (in Uzbekistan) was from China, especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls and rhubarb…”

Rhubarb had become very popular as a tasty dish by the 1700s. By the early 20th century, Americans were consuming 30 tons of it every year. But I had never even heard of rhubarb until I was at least 10, maybe older, and then it was something in stories about early American life, not something people I knew actually ate. I recently read a convincing theory that rhubarb fell out of favor in the latter part of the 20th century because of sugar rationing during World War II. Rhubarb is inedible without a lot of sweetener. With sugar in short supply, practical cooks in the 1940s turned to fruit, such as apples, for their pies and crumbles.

The edible part of rhubarb is the stalk; in fact, the leaves are toxic. The stalks, which resemble celery stalks, can be green tinged with pink or bright red, depending on the variety. Don’t try to eat them raw; they need to be stewed or baked. A surfeit of rhubarb can be easily frozen, either in whole stalks or cut in pieces. You can cook it directly from the freezer, without defrosting it first. Here is a simple recipe for Rhubarb Crisp that we made with the first batch we picked. I adapted it from a recipe I found on, contributed by “Selfie,” a cook who proudly declared: “Mom’s recipe! Easy to make and easy to eat.”

Do you have a great rhubarb recipe to share? Or a comment about some other old-fashioned but newly discovered food? Are you looking forward to cooking with produce you’re growing yourself? Let us hear from you!

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