A Vine Thing 

The tomato worth eating

Wednesday, May 26 1999

Q: Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

A: Both. Botanically, it’s a fruit but legally, it’s a vegetable. Legally? Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1893 ruled that because a tomato is eaten during the course of a meal — and not for dessert — it could be classified as a vegetable and therefore could be subjected to import tariffs like other vegetables. (Fruit was exempt from tariffs.)

—From www.mrtomato.com

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I’m not saying I’m better than you, but I do have 18 tomato plants growing in my garden. In raised beds. Come late June, I’ll be harvesting La Romas, Celebrities, Cherokee Purples, Brandywines (black and red), Mr. Stripeys, Pineapples, Sandul Mondovans, Champions, Sweet 100s, Early Girls, Better Boys, Big Boys and Yellow Pears. I wanted to plant a Mortgage Lifter too, because I liked the name, but my husband was leery of more heirlooms. They just aren’t as hardy.

Fifteen years ago, putting in my first summer garden, I wanted it all. In a 15-by-40-foot plot, I planted three kinds of summer squash, carrots, cucumbers, a couple of tomatoes, cantaloupe, eggplant (Japanese and regular), peppers, onions, garlic, four varieties of corn, green beans (French and Blue Lake) and herbs of every variety. In July, I picked vegetables by the basketful. It was impossible to keep up with the volume. Zucchini ballooned up to watermelon size; green beans became knobby and fibrous; corn developed kernels the size (and approximate texture) of marbles. The one thing — the only thing — in the garden that I kept up with was the tomatoes.

Today I am a wiser gardener. The garden we put in last month has only the tomatoes and a few support vegetables and herbs — eggplant to combine with tomatoes in pasta sauce, green beans for tomato-and-green-bean salad, poblano chiles for stuffing with tomatoes and goat cheese, and basil for all of the above.

If you don’t garden, it’s possible that you don’t really know an essential truth. While a squash is a squash whether you pick it or purchase it, a tomato 10 minutes off the vine is not the same foodstuff as a tomato you buy at Ralphs. The kind of tomatoes you buy at a farmers’ market, day-old, vine-ripened ones, are certainly better than the hard and tasteless gas-ripened kind you’re probably accustomed to. But a tomato still warm from the sun, the kind you can smell from across the room, one that’s sweet and juicy and bright red throughout, one whose leaves still smell like soil, whose stem still has green hairlike fuzz: That’s a tomato worth eating.

It would have been better to have planted your tomatoes in April (did I mention my 18 plants in raised boxes?), but it’s still possible to sow in time for a good August harvest. If you don’t have much garden space, go to any nursery and buy a "patio" variety that will be happy in a large pot. But if you have a yard, go to a good nursery like Burkard’s in Pasadena, which has dozens of varieties to choose from. Pick up a few of the standards (Celebrity, Sweet 100, anything with Boy or Girl in its name), but also try some heirlooms, varieties that were hybridized before growers sacrificed flavor for tougher skins and hardier plants. The flavors of the resulting tomatoes will vary subtly — some juicier and sweeter, others denser with more acid — but they are worth learning to judge and to appreciate. Look for seedlings that don’t have roots growing out of the pots, as they may be rootbound, which can stunt growth. When you get them home, dig some amendments into the soil (redwood compost, say), water the plants whenever they’re dry (but not before — every two to five days, depending on weather) and wait. You will be sorely tempted to pick your first tomato when it’s still a bit orange, but hold off until it’s really red, until its sugar and flavor are fully developed. You won’t be sorry.

It doesn’t much matter how you eat a real tomato. Chomp into it as you would an apple. Cut a bunch of them in half, drizzle on some olive oil, throw on a handful of chopped garlic and basil, roast them for an hour in a hot oven and toss them with pasta. Or pick a mess of cherry tomatoes (yellow and red together look nice) and toss them with a garlicky-basily balsamic vinaigrette: Then, just before you serve them, add crumbled chèvre and some thin slices of a La Brea Bakery baguette.

And if you’re lucky enough to have more tomatoes than you can use or give to friends, take your extras, slice them in half and put them cut side up on a cookie sheet in the oven at the lowest possible temperature. Leave them in all day (in a really slow oven about 10 hours), turning them occasionally. By evening you’ll have fabulous dried tomatoes that you can put in olive oil and store in the refrigerator for those dark months from October to June when fresh tomatoes just aren’t worth eating.

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