Miriam Rubin: Talking Tomatoes

Tomatoes: A Savor the South Cookbook(R), by Miriam RubinWe welcome a guest post today from Miriam Rubin, author of Tomatoes: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook, which will be published next month. (We’re taking pre-orders now, though!) It’s not too early to start fantasizing about—and planning for—the summer tomatoes to come. Here, Rubin shares some of her favorite heirloom varieties.

What’s your favorite tomato?

People often ask me that when I tell them I’ve written a book on tomatoes. They want to know which other varieties I like and how many plants I grow each year. Folks want to talk tomato. My favorite subject.

I love so many tomatoes. I do try to spread the love around. I adore the tomato that’s in front of me that second. But this is the truth: for me, nothing compares to a ripe, homegrown Brandywine tomato. Cherokee Purple runs a very close second.

Brandywines and Cherokee Purples are gorgeous, big slicers with luxurious, velvety textures. Thick and meaty, they have a rich, sweet flavor and the correct balance of acidity.

My summer begins when I bite into a perfect Brandywine or Cherokee Purple—whichever ripens first. The flavor is part of my taste memory, yet still—each season—the experience is fresh and new. Tomatoes are the reason I plant my garden.

Other varieties I always grow are Amish Paste, which I prefer to regular red Roma tomatoes for making sauce. I also grow small Black Plum tomatoes and Juliet tomatoes, which are a red baby plum. To me, no tomato garden is complete without (at least) one tall Sungold cherry tomato, favorite of both kids and tomato-tasting contests. Lately I’ve become intrigued by big orange tomatoes; two I like are Kellogg’s Breakfast and Dr. Wyche’s Yellow. Rose de Berne is a favorite pink tomato. I adore Green Zebra tomatoes, they’re sharp, crisp and sweet, but I never have much luck with them. And I always grow Italian Oxheart tomatoes, a gift from a friend, with superb flavor.

How many plants do I put in each year? That depends. If you ask my husband, it’s fewer than the year before. Each February, I plot my garden on paper, comparing it to the sketch of the year before. I need to be sure that I rotate the solanaceous vegetables (eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes). Otherwise the soil could become depleted and diseases could spread. Yet I never actually decide the number of plants.

That’s up to nature. Nurture too. The year that I was working on Tomatoes, I think I had over thirty plants. I never really counted them. Some were early and stopped producing so I pulled them out. Because I had so many baby plants, sometimes I planted two seedlings in the same cage. Does that count as one plant or two? I’m not sure. Some vined together, in other cages, one plant overtook the other. Other plants went in too late and were stunted by too much heat and too little rain. I didn’t count them.

So maybe I had thirty tomato plants, maybe more, but in a normal year, without a book to do, that’s way too many. More tomatoes than my husband and me could ever hope to eat, or give away, or make into sauce, or cook down for jam. This year I will plant fewer tomatoes. Better tomatoes.

Until I start thumbing through the seed catalogs that is. Lose myself in the ripe, juicy descriptions. Until too many seeds start germinating and I feel guilty thinning the little plants. Until the seedlings grow stout, and I rotate them towards the sun, water and coax them so they grow strong. Until I have to select the best plants, choose my favorites, discard the others. That’s the hard part. Truly. That’s when I think: can you ever have too many tomatoes? Ask me later.

Miriam Rubin, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was the first woman to work in the kitchen of the Four Seasons Restaurant. Author of Grains, she writes the food and gardening column “Miriam’s Garden” for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She lives in New Freeport, Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @MmmRubin. Keep up with recipes and events for Tomatoes and other volumes in the Savor the South® cookbook collection on Facebook.