Tomatoes and Peppers: The Summer Players in The Kitchen Garden
The true divas of the garden, tomatoes freak out at just about anything: too much rain, not enough; they feel crowded, they feel neglected, overmothered; the air just doesn’t seem right. But, like any celebrated VIP, the tomato has earned her spot as the superstar of the stage.
In late May, the plants go in. It’s a voodoo-like process complete with mixing bowls and potions, lucky hats and an array of pointy objects. In June and July, it’s watch and wait. And groom. One’s inner Vidal Sassoon is conjured up with a snip-snip here, a snip-snip there, then a step back to observe movement and balance. The obsessive ritual can go on for weeks.
August arrives and it’s the first harvest. The kitchen nearly vibrates in anticipation. The magnificent reward is an inch-thick slab of Brandywine or Beefsteak. Even the knife has been dreaming of this. And then the glut begins. We go from divvying up two ripe cherries among four people to tossing a sea of mismatched heirlooms into the basin. Soon all sense of decorum is abandoned. San Marzanos get made into jam and Green Zebras get churned into sauce. Who cares what color goes best with spaghetti?
IN THE GARDEN
Everyone has a wives’ tale about adding fish heads, eggshells, even aspirin to the soil, but all agree that tomatoes need their space: about two feet from each other. Set potted plants on their side to face the sun for a day before planting so that their tops turn upward. Gently tweeze the bottommost leaves and plant deep enough that only the top fluff of green peeks out from the ground.
Diversify your tomato plot. Choose varieties based on color, use and shape. Always put in a Sungold because when the big guys fail these sunnies never let you down. Plant one variety for disease resistance, although inexplicably, that’s always the one that gets hit the hardest. Choose an heirloom or two purely from your heart.
IN THE KITCHEN
Find a Sicilian and marry them in hopes that they might someday teach you how to make sauce properly. Cook Tomato Jam, preferably following the recipe from the Blue Chair Cookbook, just to remind yourself that tomatoes are a fruit. Crush crystals of the inexplicably sulfuric Amethyst 9x Korean Bamboo salt with a mortar and pestle and sprinkle liberally on a plate of sliced heirlooms. Nirvana achieved.
• Sungold—The most dependable and delicious tomato there is.
• Green Zebra—Monstrously sweet. Mind-bending color.
• Cesare's Canestrino di Lucca—From Chef Casella’s hometown of Lucca, Italy.
• San Marzano—The Le Corbusier of plums. Well-proportioned, leathery and classic.
• Cherokee Purple—Beefsteak could use the competition.
• Paul Robeson—Smoky, radical, a cult favorite.
• Cossack's Pineapple Ground Cherry—Sneak this nontomato in.
The pepper garden falls neatly into two categories: hot and not. On the “not” side, the frying pepper reigns supreme. Fall in love with festive varieties with cartoon names like Carmen, Banana, Lipstick and Jimmy Nardello. Frying peppers make great grilling peppers too. In the end, it doesn’t really matter—you’ll never remember what you planted anyway. Prepare the “nots” as the mood strikes.
The “hots” can also be subdivided: tolerable, warn your guests, and army warfare. I prefer the tolerables like poblano, padron and paprika for their versatility, but Americans seem to have a fascination with “the hotter the better.” Each year the seed catalogs take the Scoville heat units up an order of magnitude. Habaneros are for sissies these days; the Carolina Reaper is the new Scotch Bonnet.
IN THE GARDEN
Pepper plants always get bigger than you think they will. Compounding the issue, peppers are usually sold in packs of six. Do as I say and not as I do in your pepper patch: plant one-sixth of what you think you should.
IN THE KITCHEN
Peppers beg to be turned into projects. Grill, or preferably smoke, 10 times more than you’ll eat, dehydrate the leftovers until crispy, then grind up a coffee mill and make your own spice. Ratatouille, that spongy, unctuous side dish worth avoiding like the plague in a restaurant, transcends its class when meticulously diced and sautéed, vegetable by vegetable, using everything fruity and ripe from the summer garden.
• Cornito Rosso—Perfect for the grill. The pintsized version of Carmen.
• Jimmy Nardello—Yo, Jimmy! Sugary sweet. A favorite in the Northeast.
• Pimiento de Padron—Who needs to go out to eat? Blister in a pan. Add Maldon salt.
• Hinkelhat—A Mennonite heirloom, not too hot. The name means “chicken heart.”
• Scotch Bonnet—The “hell” in Chris Schlesinger’s infamous “Pasta From Hell.”