Right now, many gardeners are waiting for their first tomatoes of the season.
They check daily, looking for the shade of red that means it’s time. They shoo away birds, search for caterpillars and anticipate the glories of homegrown tomatoes.
Other gardeners, though, are happily enjoying juicy, red, perfect tomatoes already.
These are the gardeners who planted cherry tomatoes, small but flavorful hybrid tomatoes which have a longer and very robust growing season.
“The little tomatoes will produce all through the summer,” Kay McRay, greenhouse manager at Tom’s Thumb Nursery in Galveston, said.
“If you can keep the plants healthy through the hottest part of the summer, sometimes they’ll start producing again in the fall. Some people start new plants in the fall, and they could still be picking tomatoes in December.”
McRay said the cherry tomatoes are popular even with the green-thumbed staff at the nursery.
“I know of several people who don’t even plant big tomatoes any more,” she said. “They like how easy and productive the little ones are, especially for container gardening.”
The nursery usually stocks several varieties of cherry tomatoes, though stocks are running low.
“We sell tons of them,” McRay said.
Customers are particularly fond of the Sweet Hundreds and Sweet Millions varieties. One Sweet Million plant can produce as many as 500 1-inch tomatoes.
Cherry tomatoes emerged in the 1970s as a result of hybridizing by Israeli agriculturalists, who were looking for a hardy tomato that would grow in the desert.
After producing the cherry, a small almost perfectly round tomato, they kept crossing varieties to make even smaller and intensely flavorful varieties.
“They just stair step up in size,” McRay said. “There are grape tomatoes, and some even smaller than grapes.”
Having approached the end of the line for making them smaller, scientists now are working to bring other colors to market. Yellow grape tomatoes are now available, as well as heirloom mixtures of red, purple and yellow.
Whether it was coincidence or cause-and-effect, cherry tomatoes appeared at just about the same time as self-serve salad bars, and the two seem inseparably linked.
The mini tomatoes also have moved beyond the salad bar to bring their intense bursts of flavor to other dishes. They pair well with other early-summer produce such as zucchini and peppers and are easy to cook with since they don’t require peeling or chopping, and can be added by the handful to vegetable dishes 10 or 15 minutes before the end of cooking time.
Because they contain less water than their full-size counterparts, cherry and grape tomatoes can be oven-roasted to concentrate their flavor, much like a sun-dried tomato.
Once dried, the tomatoes can be frozen for later use. Like sun-dried tomatoes, they also will keep in the refrigerator in a jar with olive oil covering the tomatoes.
Whether frozen or stored in oil, the dried tomatoes bring the taste of summer in months when fresh homegrown tomatoes are hard to find. With cherry tomatoes, though, there are fewer of those tomato-less months each year.
MAKES: 1 cup
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1⁄2 cup red wine vinegar
1⁄4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon pepper
Pinch ground cloves
Put all of the ingredients into a saucepan and place over high heat. Bring to a boil, stir to dissolve the sugar and cook until the tomatoes have broken down and the mixture is slightly thick, about 10 minutes.
Pour the mixture into a food processor and pulse until smooth. Let cool to room temperature before refrigerating. Place in a decorative bowl to serve.
(SOURCE: Recipe adapted from “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral,” by Barbara Kingsolver)
Zucchini and Tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow or white onion
3 small zucchini, sliced into 1⁄2-inch rounds
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the onion and cook until golden. Add the zucchini and cook 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the tomatoes and cook until they burst, about 10 minutes.
(SOURCE: Recipe from “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” by Deborah Madison)
MAKES: 1 pint
2 pints cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon dried basil
Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
Line a large-rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Slice the tomatoes in half. Toss them with olive oil, salt and basil.
Spread the tomatoes on a single layer on baking sheet.
Bake for 3 hours, or until edges are dry and the body of the tomato is almost dry.
Store in the refrigerator or freezer.
(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy Dan Bond)