Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Tomato Time: Thistletown

Despite the cool temperatures and wet weather August delivered, this month was a consistently busy time of year at the Thistletown Collegiate schoolyard garden as always, because it is the peak harvest time for lots of veggies that have been tended to with care throughout the spring and early summer season.  This year was the first year I've ever headed out into the garden on early mornings to harvest veggies in August in Toronto in a wjacket! 

This is a busy time of year because it is when certain plants, such as tomatoes, finally start producing their fruits.  This year there were some cherry tomatoes ready for harvest in late July (we harvested about 5 pounds), but the harvesting picked up significantly in August (we harvested about 85 pounds).  

And as climatologists are predicting warm weather to continue into September, large yields should continue into the upcoming weeks as the bunches of green tomatoes push along to maturity.  Of course although cold temperatures, overnight frosts, and shortening daylight hours will spell the end of the growing season for our tomato plants, we hope for many more busy weeks gorging on sweet fresh tomatoes plucked straight from the vine.  If you haven't yet gorged on vine-ripened and garden fresh tomatoes, take yourself straightaway to your nearest farmers market and load up; you won't be disappointed!
We've grown quite a number of tomato plants not to mention quite a wide range of different tomato varieties again this year at Thistletown, including Pink Bumble Bee, Purple Bumble Bee, White Cherry, Red Zebra, Yellow Stuffer, Sausage Green, Pink Tiger, Green Tiger, Yellow Pear, Tomatillo Purple.
Unripe Ground Cherry in husk 
Mature Ground Cherry

Mature Tomatillo (Toma verde)
Purple Tomatillo

Unripened Tomatillo in husk (Toma Verde)

Sun Gold  
Green Zebra
Given our devotion and love of the tomato, it is perhaps hard to believe (perhaps impossible?!), but tomatoes have not always been a culinary favorite.  In fact, it wasn't until the mid-ninetheenth century that tomatoes were consumed in North America.   In the United States of the 1700's, tomatoes, along with various other vegetables and especially fresh vegetables, were considered to be lethally poisonous, and certainly to be avoided for culinary purposes! 

According to scholars of American history, the first tomato was consumed in 1820  in Salem, New Jersey, by prominent citizen Robert Gibbon Johnson.  After planting and tending to tomato seeds imported from South America, Johnson announced to the community that he would finally prove without doubt that tomatoes were in fact not poisonous as commonly believed by eating a tomato on the steps of the local courthouse for all to witness.  And, much to the surprise of the hundreds of spectators who had gathered to observe the event and who fully expected to bear witness to his early and foolhardy demise, Johnson survived the experiment and thereby launched the birth of the enormous popularity of tomatoes in North America.

The strangeness attributed to the arrival of the tomato into North American cuisine is furthered by the archaeological evidence demonstrating that tomato plants had been cultivated by the Mayan civilizations of southern Mexico dating back between 250 AD and 950 AD.  However, whereas it is believed that although the tomato originates in the mountainous Andean territories of South American countries Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Colombia, the plants were neither cultivated nor used as an ingredient in culinary traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region.  Rather, the historical evidence suggests that tomatoes appeared as a culinary ingredient following the arrival of Spanish colonialists in South America.  They were similarly spread by Spanish colonialists thereafter to the Caribbean, the Philippines, and Europe in the 1500's.

In Toronto today, tomatoes are grown practically everywhere.  Every other neighbour is growing tomatoes, whether in a small pot on a balcony, in a small backyard plot, or upside down and dangling from the rafters in a topsy-turvey hanging planter bag.  And there is great interest in all manner of heirloom tomatoes, those varieties not commonly found in bigger vegetable retailers which have developed by careful cultivation and natural selection and have been handed down over many many years from one seed saver to another.  Yet though surprisingly easy to cultivate and amazing in flavor, the tomato relatives ground cherries and tomatillos are much less commonly cultivated in the city.

At Thistletown, ground cherries are collected (the cherries drop to the ground as they near maturity) and savoured fresh at their peak flavour when they've taken on a mellow orange colour.   Tomatillos are used by the culinary arts program to make salsa verde, a delicious condiment commonly combined with Mexican dishes including fish, pork, eggs, potatoes, rice, meat, bean.  To prepare salsa verde, simply harvest ripe tomatillo from the garden (when the paper husk covering the fruit appears full and begins to tear open), then boil tomatillos briefly until tender, and finally mix with garlic, salt, cilantro, and chile in a blender.  

To inquire about volunteering opportunities in the PACT Grow to Learn Schoolyard Gardening program at Thistletown Collegiate Institute, contact Ben at tcigarden@gmail.com.

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