Seeing red in August: Late summer is time for tomatoes

Sherrel Jones shares secrets for growing Oklahoma tomatoes and tips for preparing them, plus a recipe.
BY SHERREL JONES Published: August 7, 2013

If I had to list 10 food preferences that are an indication you grew up in Oklahoma, at least two would have something to do with an appreciation for homegrown Oklahoma tomatoes: You know a truly vine-ripened tomato when you taste it, and you have made some attempt to grow them. (Yes, a patio tomato counts.)

By August, a trip to your local farmers market means you will probably come home with this versatile vegetable. Or is it a fruit? There is some confusion on this question, but we generally think of a tomato as a vegetable because of how we use it.

Use it we do. Tomatoes would be hard to live without. Think of a world without spaghetti, pizza, sassy sauces, BLTs and those cool summer salads. Or without roasted tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes with their intense tomato flavor to add pizazz to a bounty of dishes. We are practically a tomato-oriented culture.

Gathering tomatoes and tomato information to pass along as, hopefully, we head into a full-on tomato season, I talked with several tomato growers and producers from across the state. Kamala Gamble, of Guilford Gardens, is a chef with a degree in horticulture. Her extensive Oklahoma City gardens are the envy of most any gardener, food lover and chef. Gamble produces vegetables for her catering business as well as a thriving CSA, or community-supported agriculture, operation.

We talked of the difficulties that come with growing tomatoes in Oklahoma: Extreme temperatures that could keep tomatoes from setting their blooms. Too little or too much moisture, with the latter fast becoming an issue for producers here. Last year, folks that planted in March had great luck, but the early plantings this year didn't survive frigid temperatures in early May. All of these climate issues make one appreciate enjoying a healthy tomato crop.

Veteran grower Robert Stelle, who sells certified organic plants and vegetables through the Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City Farmers Market, was selling seedlings to a number of growers more than once. Some planted three times this year. The Stelles grow tomatoes year-round for the market using the greenhouse for offseason growing to supply the weekly markets.

Cedar Springs Farms, run by Avis and Phil Scaramucci, grows a bounty of beautiful tomatoes hydroponically in greenhouses from winter through late spring. Serving those tomatoes in the winter will have guests thinking you have some special relationship with Mother Nature. Cedar Springs is available through Nonna's in Bricktown and at the Urban Agrarian in Oklahoma City.

Shelly Anderson, of Anderson Organics, said her favorites are the heirlooms, with Brandywine being No. 1, followed by Cherokee purple and green zebra. She enjoys them “fresh off the vine still warmed by the sun with a little sea salt.” Anderson's favorite way to prepare them is using a variety of sliced heirlooms with fresh mozzarella, pesto, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. She said there is no need to buy imported tomatoes when we can get them year-round from Oklahoma producers.

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Tomato Farro Salad

Makes 4 servings (2 if served as main course for lunch)

2 cups cooked farro

1 to 1½ cups fresh tomatoes, cut in chunks

1/3 to ½ cup coarsely chopped red sweet onion

½ to ¾ cup chopped fresh parsley (preferably flat-leafed Italian parsley)

¼ cup olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar

¼ teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

Rinse 1 cup farro grains and place in a medium-size sauce pan with at least 2 cups water or as package directs. Bring to a boil then reduce heat, simmering for about 15 minutes until farro is cooked al dente. (It should be chewy and not mushy.) Pour in colander and rinse in cool water, then drain.

Prepare tomatoes, onion and parsley. Add to cooled farro. Pour over olive oil, lemon juice and vinegar. Stir well to thoroughly coat mixture. Sprinkle with salt and stir well. Taste and add more salt, if desired.

Serve as a side dish to accompany grilled meats or as a light lunch or snack.

Cooking notes: Do not overcook farro. Use this salad as a vehicle for adding other vegetables such as zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, artichoke hearts or olives. Try the same additions with other cooked whole grains such as quinoa or barley.

Source: Sherrel Jones, from inspiration gained at Harvard/Culinary Institute of American Healthy Kitchens Healthy Lives 2013.

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