The Birth, Life, and Death of the Perfect Summer Tomato

Here’s an ugly confession: I’m very bad with keeping up with our garden.  I always begin the summer filled with great expectations of abundant crop yields, but by the end of July find myself with a box of bolted lettuce, cilantro that has since gone to seed, various weeds, and an eternal, neverending supply of mint.

With this firmly in mind, this year I built a second square foot garden exclusively for tomatoes and peppers.  I ordered a variety of tomatoes, some of which were cherry tomatoes for a deck box, from chileplants.com, which were shipped to me in the first week of June.  Overall, I planted four tomato plants in the 4-foot square box – two San Marzano plants, one Ramapo Hybrid (which was a substitute for the very popular Rutgers VFA) and one Mortgage Lifter, which produces particularly impressive beefsteak specimens.

As it turns out, I’m glad that I only planted four plants.  Given the rain that we’ve had (so much so that I never had to break out the sprinklers this year), the tomato plants thrived, growing outward in all directions.  They were relatively quiet during the first half of the summer, but a few weeks ago I noticed clusters of San Marzanos, and a fairly plentiful supply of Ramapo and Mortgage Lifter types.  Then, about a week later, the tomato plants really start to peak, yielding a bounty of robust red fruit at an alarming rate.  This required much discipline to remind myself to check the garden every afternoon to make sure we didn’t lose any to gravity.

On Sunday, we picked a particularly ripe Ramapo and let it sit on our kitchen island until yesterday, when we finally cut into it.  It turned out to be the most perfect summer tomato we’ve ever had.

Here’s the thing about tomatoes – so long as the skin remains intact, without any bruising or blemishes, a tomato will continue to ripen on your kitchen counter for several days without rotting.  As each day passes, the tomato will continue to concentrate its flavor, becoming a pure distillation of summer, barely contained by the thin layer of protection provided by its skin.  If you can time it just right, if you can abstain from eating it until the very last moment, when the essence of the tomato threatens to burst through its fragile shell, you will have one of the most memorable tomato experiences of your lifetime.

We decided to turn this perfect summer tomato into a simple meal of tomato sandwiches.  The preparation is as easy as can be, just layer freshly sliced tomatoes onto bread that’s been spread with mayonnaise, and top with some sea salt, black pepper, and sliced onion.  The sweetness of an ultra-ripe tomato plays nicely with the sharpness and crunch of the raw onion, and the sea salt just brings the whole thing together.  The result is an instant summer memory, one so strong that it will sustain you even through the darkest, coldest days of winter.

September 4, 2009   Comments

And We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

I built my first garden box two years ago, which coincided with the onset of the first summer in our new home. Having settled in September, there was little that we could do with the property save for putting down a thin layer of mushroom soil and reseeding with better-than-contractor quality grass seed. When the warm weather finally returned, I was itching to test my newfound freedom to plant, grow, and harvest to my heart’s desire.

There was only one small problem – I had never tried my hand at gardening before. Having grown up in the inner city, where the only grass in sight was either contained in a small park, or growing between cracks in the sidewalk, I never had the opportunity to put spade to soil when I was young. When we were young, poor, married, and renting, I once planted one of those hydroponic basil plants from the grocery store in a pot on our front porch – and, to my surprise, it grew as high as my hip, bestowing upon us a wealth of pesto that summer. That gave me the reassurance that yes, I could grow things successfully, if only I had the space and resources.

So, when it came time for us to become older, slightly less poor, married homeowners, it was an imperative that I at least try my hand at gardening. I didn’t want to rip up large tracts of our backyard, though, which is already quite modest. Then, one day, I came across a copy of the book Square Foot Gardening, and it showed me the light.

Square Foot Gardening is a great solution when space is at a premium. Using inexpensive materials, you build a box, fill it with soil, then plant a different crop in each square foot. The first year I did this, I learned quite a few useful lessons about seed spacing, soil amendments, pest management, and growth rates. The thyme, sage, and chives that we planted two years ago have survived through two winters – so much so that the sage plant, once a resident of a single square foot of territory, now has grown to tower over five neighboring square feet. The chives, well-behaved at the beginning of spring, now bend under their own weight. These crops are performing too well for me to consider the risk of moving them, so this year I decided to build a second square foot garden, which, as a side benefit, gives me the opportunity to document the details here.

Ingredients

4 planks of cheap wood, 4 feet long
Screws
Weed blanket

Helpful: A drill

2 big bags of organic garden soil
1 bag of manure/humus (not hummus)
1 bale/bag of sphaghum peat moss
Maybe some more soil

I’ll begin with the raw materials. I started with four planks of wood, bought from the local big box hardware chain, which will run you about $5 per piece (you don’t need to get the good stuff). I chose 4 foot long pieces, which will yield a 16 square foot garden. Since I couldn’t remember where I put the screws that I had used two years ago, I had to pick up a box of deck screws for $7. The third and last piece of this puzzle is a weed blanket, which is a roll of dark fabric which will cost $15 to $25 depending on how much you buy.

Using three screws per corner, and preferably with the aid of a power drill fitted with a Phillips head screwdriver bit, join the four planks of wood together to form a square.

Take your square out to the site of your future garden (or, if it’s a nice day, just do your screwing, um, outside). Cut enough weed fabric to act as a “floor” for your square foot garden, and place the wooden frame over it. Alternatively, you can also put the frame down first, then tuck the weed blanket under the edges and corners. It’s okay if you need to cut more squares and overlap them. The purpose of the weed blanket is to serve as a barrier between your good soil and crops and the various grasses and weeds that are presently growing in your yard.

Now comes the fun part, adding the soil. Since the square foot garden is going to become a source of food, you want to select the best quality soil that’s available. I chose organic soil as my primary component, then added a bag of manure and a bag of sphagnum peat moss. The organic soil will serve as a home for your seeds and plants, but the manure will feed, fertilize and provide essential nitrogen to your growing plantlings, and the moss will help to retain moisture in your new garden so your fragile plants don’t dry out if you get a heat wave in the early days of your garden.

Empty all of the bags into your square foot garden frame, and use either your gloved hands or a spade to mix and fold until everything is evenly distributed. If you’re not planting or seeding immediately, this would be a good time to take a hose and spray down the box until the soil is saturated. If you’re a stickler for perfection, you can drill screws into your wooden box at one-foot intervals and tie twine or kitchen string to delineate each square foot plot.

Now comes the really fun part. Go to the nursery, buy some seeds and herb plants, and get down with your bad garden box building self. Take note of what you are planting – vegetables that need a lot of growing space, such as zucchini, won’t do well in a box environment. Pay close attention to seed spacing – you want to plant one (at most, two) seeds every inch in your chosen square foot plot. For my first square foot garden, I planted carrots, and did not heed the “one seed per hole” rule, and ended up with spindly carrots that looked like little orange mechanical pencil leads.

If this is your first garden box, here are some helpful hints. Plant things that you know that you’re going to welcome and use in the kitchen – so thyme, sage, basil, oregano, and rosemary are good “universal” herbs, and then branch out by choosing some seeds or plants that you’d like to try. Definitely include leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, which offer a sustainable crop of salad ingredients throughout the summer. Generally, it’s better just to buy herb plants at a nursery or garden center and replant them, since they’ve gotten a head start on growing in a greenhouse for a few weeks. The basil, especially, will be a source of pride for your green thumb, since the warm weather makes new growth on basil plants an almost daily occurrence.

And lastly, don’t ever, ever plant mint in your garden. Even though I thought I had pulled every inch of mint root from my first box, I’m still finding it cropping up in the strangest places, and nowhere near where I had initially planted it.

You can find Square Foot Gardening at Amazon, and if you pick up a copy using this link, a portion of the proceeds of your purchase will go to support The Best Food Blog Ever. Thanks!

June 11, 2009   Comments

Yes, I Made The Ratatouille from Ratatouille

I stumbled across this photo while looking through my Picasa web album that serves as the host for all of the images on The Best Food Blog Ever.  I guess I uploaded it with the intention of writing about it and never did.  Since all I’ve seen for the better part of a week, when I looked out of my kitchen window, is not-melting-fast-enough piles of snow, I decided that it was time to write out-of-season again and try to pretend that we’re not weeks away from any true sense of spring.

In case this doesn’t look at all familiar, it is the dish from Pixar’s Ratatouille, which we’ve seen twice and absolutely love.  We had a dinner party planned, and I was inspired by the movie.  So, it was on one of those warm summer evenings last year that I got the crazy idea to try to replicate the titular dish from that movie.

The actual recipe that is represented here, and which appears in the movie, is Thomas Keller’s Confit Byaldi.  It’s a colorful mosaic of red, yellow, and orange peppers, tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, yellow squash, and green zucchini.

As would be expected, you spend the majority of your time in this recipe with the preparation and assembly – slicing all of the vegetables to an exacting thickness, then layering them in tight groups of seven colors in a spiral pattern in a roasting pan.  Beneath all of this is a simple tomato sauce accented with garlic, onion, and thyme, and the whole affair is liberally drizzled with a vinaigrette before being set into an oven for a couple of hours, then flashed under a broiler right before serving.

The result?  Sure, it’s pretty, but for the effort I probably wouldn’t attempt this dish again.  It takes quite a while to slice all of the vegetables (I used a truffle slicer, and even then it still took longer than expected), and in the end, the dish tastes exactly like its components – there’s no magical transformation, no ascension to some uber-level of otherworldly deliciousness, but then again Keller probably has access to better quality produce than I do.  It’s a great showcase for seasonal vegetables, to be sure, but you’d probably achieve the same overall taste with a quick chop, a saute in olive oil, and the addition of the same herb vinaigrette.

February 10, 2009   Comments

The Glorious Taste of Summer in the Dead of Winter

If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that we all tend to take a lot of things for granted.  Nowhere is this more true than with fresh summer produce, especially when we’re looking at single-digit temperatures with wind chills in negative territory.  Now, in the dead post-holiday slump that is otherwise known as January, summer seems so painfully lost in time, no matter if you are looking ahead or recalling last year’s crop.

It was with an immense sense of victory, then, that I snuck into my stash of canned tomatoes last week.  Having raided the local farm last August, we binged on fresh tomato sandwiches until we thought we would burst, and I slipped the last, best specimens into eleven Mason jars that were shuffled into a dark corner of the basement.  At that time, I told myself that one dark, bitterly cold day, I would thank myself for doing this.

That day, and many more like it, are upon us now.  I needed a sharp reminder of summer, something to get me through until the thawing frost gives way to new spring growth.  I wanted something simple and straightforward, so I went back to an old kitchen staple – spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce.

I dashed out into the yard, the frozen blades of grass crunching under my feet, and quickly snipped a few sprigs of thyme and a branch of rosemary from the garden, which is holding up amazingly well given the weather.  Hurrying back inside, I grabbed a Mason jar of canned tomatoes off of the bookshelf that we keep in the basement.

Starting with more than a few cloves of chopped garlic, set into a pan of olive oil over low heat, I set to making a simple pan sauce.  As the oil warmed the garlic and grew fragrant, I stripped the leaves off of the thyme and rosemary, coarsely chopping them and throwing them into the pan.  Just as the garlic began to color at its edges, I splashed in some red wine, then popped the lid off of the jar of tomatoes, shaking them into the pan.  A quick stir, followed by a gentle simmer for 45 minutes, yielded a garnet mixture that held the aroma of summer, its depth of flavor enhanced by the fall flavors of rosemary and red wine.

Dinner was as easy as boiling spaghetti and tossing the drained strands into the pan of sauce, with a small mound of grated romano to top it off.  Simple, restorative, and a reminder that no matter how cold, how barren the coming weeks become, summer will eventually follow.

January 12, 2009   Comments

Garden Update for June 2008

I had my first foray into home gardening about a year ago, which was great for herbs, but the leafy greens came to an untimely end.

This year, I got smart and we’ve had a fence around the garden from the beginning.  As a result, well…we’re going to be eating lettuce throughout the rest of the summer, as you can see.

The sage and thyme survived through last winter and got an early start on growing this season.  Both had grown enough to begin blooming, but, seeing as the bloom season seems to have passed, I’ve clipped both down considerably, leaving one or two stalks for the benefit of the bees.  Also making a reappearance was the oregano which, like mint, grows like a weed, but I’ve left it alone because it’s more versatile than mint (which was dug out of the garden and now rests peacefully in its own pot).

Leaving the sage, thyme, and oregano meant that I had about 90% of the square foot garden left to play in.  I set out to complete the herb set, so I picked up some basil and a tarragon plant (new for this year).  I haven’t used either of them in my cooking so far, because I want them to grow a little more before harvesting.  On a whim, I picked up a lemon verbena plant and potted it next to the garden, and the few weeks of warm weather have perked it up considerably.  I also added chives and scallions to one corner – the chives are thriving, and I have three good scallions.  Both, I believe, are perennial, so I may never have to buy chives from the store ever again.

As far as crops go, I learned my lesson from last year and decided not to plant carrots this time around.  Instead, I again planted lettuce and spinach (the lettuce took off, and the spinach has been hard to cultivate this year) and tried my hand at broccoli rabe.
In the cool days of late spring, the broccoli rabe wasn’t very active.  The next thing you know, it’s waist high and has already bloomed, which may or may not have affected my ability to eat it – I haven’t tried any of it yet.  It is tempting, though, to consider sauteing a mess of broccoli rabe in garlic and olive oil, roasting a pork shoulder in the oven until it’s falling apart, and slapping all of it onto rolls paired with some painfully sharp provolone.

I really enjoy the level of self sufficiency that we attain during the summer months with our garden.  At this point, food shopping consists only of picking up the meats that we need from the store, and everything else that I need to make a dish pretty much comes from what we grow.  If only our homeowners association would allow me to raise chickens and cattle, I would never have to go to the store at all.

June 24, 2008   Comments

Cold Food for Hot Weather

We’re coming off of our first heat wave of the summer, four straight days of 98 degree weather which culminated in violent thunderstorms last night that finally brought some relief.

On Monday, it was so hot that I had absolutely no desire to cook anything, nor did I want to venture out into the heat to pick something up.  Whatever I made, I wanted it to be cold and really easy to make with things that I already had in my kitchen.

My solution was cold peanut noodles (you may see variations of this recipe as cold sesame noodles, but seeing as the bulk of the recipe is peanut butter…).

A quick search on the internet turns up lots of recipes for cold peanut noodles, and they all basically read the same.  Some of the recipes can get complex, but especially when I’m in a rush, I’m going for the most straightforward preparation possible.

Here’s a quick and dirty mockup, based largely on a Tyler Florence recipe that I found on Epicurious.  Feel free to adjust proportions and add items as you please.

Cold Peanut Noodles for Hot Summer Weather

3/4 lb of spaghetti

2 Tbs soy sauce
2 Tbs rice vinegar
1 Tbs sesame oil
1/2 Cup peanut butter
1/2 Cup water or stock

Protein of some sort – tofu, cooked chicken, cooked beef, really anything


Put a pot of water on to boil.

While you are waiting for your water to boil, put everything else into a small saucepan and set it over medium heat.  Whisk everything together, bring to a simmer, and turn off the heat.  Sauce is done.

Make your spaghetti.  Drain it, and run some cold water over the noodles to cool them down.  Tumble the pasta into a serving bowl and toss it with the sauce, adding your protein if you are using it.

This is good at room temperature, or even cold right out of the refrigerator.

Additional Hints:  I like to make this super spicy, which you can do by adding hot sauce, or sambal if you have it on hand.  It’s a spicy red chile mash that you can find in Chinese grocery stores, and some supermarkets.  Other neat additions would be chopped cilantro or cucumbers.

June 11, 2008   Comments

Re: Memorial Day Weekend

As much as we would have liked to get away last weekend for Memorial Day, it just didn’t seem worth the price of gas to book it down to the beach.  Given the fantastic, utterly perfect weather, we maximized our long weekend at home by picking up some perennials and planting them into the flower bed in front of the house.

Oh yes, there was something else, involving pork.

On Saturday, my neighbor held a small Memorial Day weekend gathering to inaugurate his new grill.  Seeing the opportunity to smoke some ribs without the production of having a lot of people over at our own place, I offered to bring barbecue.  The offer was gladly received, and on Friday we picked up about four racks of spareribs.

Here’s the thing about true barbecue – you need time and heat, and the actual mechanics of the process are more art than science.

Last summer, I treated myself to the only smoker that I will ever need to buy – a 200lb behemoth of welded steel, with an offset firebox and enough cooking area to feed a large party.  At the start of spring, I went and picked up a couple of boxes of hickory, and a recent Costco run yielded a nice double-pack of charcoal.  To say that I was ready for barbecue season would be an understatement.

On Friday, I filled a contractor’s bucket with water from my garden hose, and sunk about 8 logs of hickory into it.  For barbecue, it’s important to soak your wood before you begin, because if the wood is too dry, it will burst into flames instead of smoldering gently, which is what you need it to do in order to get a decent smoke going on.  I also whipped together a double batch of my rub, which is a mixture of cane sugar, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and a few other things which I am conveniently forgetting to list here.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and took the spareribs out of the fridge to let them rest on the kitchen counter (you don’t want to put cold meat into a hot smoker, because there’s a chance that creosote, a black tar-like substance, will condense onto your meat).  I took some time to clean out the smoker from the last session, emptying it of ash, and lit a bunch of charcoal in my chimney starter.  When the charcoal was ready, I dumped it into the firebox, opened up all of the vents, and let the smoker come up to about 225 degrees.

While the smoker was warming up, I cut the sparerib racks into manageable pieces (I would prefer to leave them whole, but with so many ribs, I had to use rib racks to hold the smaller pieces upright).  A heavy dusting of rub on both sides, and they were ready.  I carefully moved them into position in the smoker and closed the lid with a thud.

The best part of barbecue is the first addition of wood to produce smoke.  I fished out a nice-sized piece of hickory from the water bucket and put it on top of the charcoal in the firebox.  Within moments, faint wisps of blue smoke started piping from the smoker’s stack.

Put simply, smoking barbecue meat requires a sustained temperature of 180 to 220 degrees, fired by wood and charcoal, for several hours.  It’s a nice day spent at home, that’s for sure.  So, for most of the day on Saturday, I tended to the smoker, adding charcoal when the temperature got too low and wood when the smoke subsided.

By the time we delivered the final product next door, the ribs had gone for about seven hours, and were so tender you could pull the bone out with a gentle tug.

In case you are wondering about the picture, another thing that benefits barbecue is a good baste, or mop.  This time, I decided to make a mop of cider vinegar, onion, garlic, and Victory Hop Devil beer.  Good times.

May 29, 2008   Comments