Capturing the peak of tomato season

One is never truly without tomatoes in Vermont this time of year — hornworms nonwithstanding

BRATTLEBORO — Hornworms have eaten all my tomato plants.

They are fat and green, and their “horns” look like little thorns that protrude from the end of their bodies. They are the same color as the plants, and I did not notice them until they had managed to decimate entire branches, all the leaves and most of the fruit. It was very, very sad.

The worms I found on my tomatoes had rows of what looked like tiny rice kernels on their backs - the small, white eggs of the braconid wasp, a parasite to hornworms.

When newly hatched, the braconid wasp larvae then feed on the worms, which eventually die.

Mature braconid wasps are very beneficial to the garden and are frequently purchased by gardeners to eat aphids, another destructive species.

As cheerful as this cycle of nature is, it has left my garden tomato-less.

But one is never truly without tomatoes in Vermont this time of year. It is the peak of tomato time, and there are so many luscious, fat, small, red, green, yellow, pink, peachy tomatoes everywhere that I might not even miss my own.

* * *

The re-emergence of flavorful and sometimes fragile heritage-breed tomatoes - after years of over-bred hybrids with cardboard textures and no taste - is a reflection of our desire to reconnect with the past and our local geography.

I am lucky that I live near Lilac Ridge Farm and Amanda Thurber's lovely, green, and intelligent thumb.

The Thurbers have taken their family farm and brought it successfully into our time by merging contemporary agricultural philosophy and practice with tradition and flavor. Nowhere is this more clear than in their selection of tomatoes.

When I told Amanda Thurber about my horn worms, her eyes crinkled with a smile, and she told me that the horn worms help thin out the leaves on her tomato plants, allowing for the fruit to get lots of sun and ripeness.

She has rows of tomato plants, and she does not stake them; I suppose this method works for her, but for my tiny plot, it meant disaster.

I was about to sulk home when she handed me a small yellowy-pink tomato, which I popped into my mouth.

Oh, yes.

This was a peach tomato, a Wapsipinicon peach tomato to be exact, named after the river in northern Iowa. Lovely and blushed with rose, its flavor was sweet, slightly spicy and, yes, very fruity like a peach.

I returned a few days later and found other wonderful varieties: The Cosmonaut Volkov. The Jaune Flamme. The Indigo Rose. The Green Zebra. The Big Mama. The Mountain Princess.

Jaune Flammes are small, apricot-fleshed tomatoes that High Mowing Organic Seeds, a wonderful source for heirloom vegetables in the Lamoille County town of Wolcott, described as “a zingy little French heirloom that will burn a torch in your heart after just one bite.”

How could one resist?

Cosmonaut Volkovs are Ukrainian in origin and were developed by Russian-space-engineer-turned-avid-gardener Ivan Mikhailovich Maslov, who reportedly thought it one of the best of the hundreds of tomatoes he tried in his garden. It has a high yield and a well-balanced, sweet - yet tangy - flavor. Maslov named it after cosmonaut Vladislav Volkov, who perished while returning from the first space station in 1971.

The Green Zebra is a vibrant green with yellowish stripes like a zebra. It is actually a variety developed in the 1980s, so it really can't be called “heirloom.” But it is unique in both flavor and appearance. It has green flesh and a very rich and acidic taste, and it looks beautiful when presented simply, sliced with other red tomatoes.

Indigo Rose tomatoes are “black” tomatoes with a purple-red skin when ripe. They are small and acidic with an almost plummy flavor. When cut, their color varies from orange to the deep purples of anthocyanins, which have strong antioxidant properties.

Rose tomatoes are a beautiful beefsteak variety with a dusty rose color and a luscious, meaty taste. They are related to Brandywines and were initially developed by the Amish.

Mountain Princess tomatoes are prolific bearing heirlooms from West Virginia that are orange-red, mild, and versatile.

Big Mamas are tomato-paste tomatoes, which are very large and meaty, with a great flavor, and they can be made into a creamy, thick sauce.

* * *

Needless to say, I came home that day with an abundance of tomatoes.

That night I took a large white platter. I cut up some of each kind of tomato into slices, some into quarters. I left some cherry tomatoes whole and arranged them willy-nilly, overlapping them into a jumbled pile of contrasting color, size, and texture.

They were almost too beautiful to eat.

But an equally beautiful bottle of olive oil called to me from the counter. A generous pour, and a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt flakes from England, comprised the only garnish.

No basil. No pepper. No vinegar. No mozzarella. Nothing but tomato, salt and oil, crusty bread, and some red wine: a heavenly tomato dinner that deserves to be eaten at least once a summer.

* * *

The next day, the recipes got only slightly more complicated; these unique and delicious heirlooms deserve a pretty straightforward treatment that focuses on their flavor. You can offer these dishes individually or put them together for an exclusively tomato-themed menu, which is a lot of fun to cook this time of year.

Chilled tomato soup

Here is a chilled tomato soup that is quick to make and requires no cooking - just forethought to make it in the morning for serving that night.

I like the color of red flavorful tomatoes for this recipe.

For 2 small servings, combine in a food processor or blender and process until smooth:

• ½ pound of tomatoes

1 teaspoon of celery salt

1 tablespoon of Spanish sherry vinegar

2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

• ½ cup of loosely packed basil leaves

Add fresh cold water if the mixture is too thick. You will be adding some cream at the end, so you want a thickish texture, one similar to puréed sauce.

Add salt and pepper to taste and chill for at least 4 hours, or up to 8.

When ready to serve, stir well, divide into two soup bowls, and gently pour into the center of each:

• ¼ cup of heavy cream

Do not stir; garnish with:

• ½ teaspoon of shredded basil

The contrast of the white cream and the red soup and the green basil is lovely. This is a peasant soup, textured and unrefined.

Individual caramelized tomato tart tatins

This is not an easy recipe, but it is one that is within easy reach, at least if you have some time for the tomatoes to roast in the oven. It is worth every single second of your time.

For 4 servings, preheat the oven to 275 F.

Generously butter four ½-cup ramekins.

Thaw and then refrigerate:

• ½ sheet frozen puff pastry

Melt in a heavy oven-proof skillet over medium heat:

1 tablespoon of butter

3 tablespoons of sugar

The pan needs to be just large enough to hold 4 heirloom tomatoes, halved, in a single layer.

After the butter and sugar are melted, then deglaze the pan with:

3 tablespoons of sherry vinegar


• ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 healthy pinch of salt

1 grind of black pepper

2 tablespoons of finely chopped basil

Pick big, juicy heirloom variety of fruit, perhaps Mountain Princess or Cosmonaut Volkov. Halve the tomatoes and if they are very wet, very gently squeeze out the seeds. Place the halves, cut-side down, in a single layer in the pan.

Roast for 2 hours until the tomatoes have cooked down and are concentrated and collapsed.

Remove from the oven and raise the temperature to 400 degrees F.

Place two roasted tomato halves in each buttered ramekin. Remove the thawed puff pastry from the refrigerator and cut it into circles slightly larger than the ramekins.

Press the dough down gently on top of the tomatoes. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet, and bake for 18 to 20 minutes until the puff pastry is brown and completely cooked.

Remove the ramekins from the oven and let them cool on a rack for 5 minutes. Use a sharp knife to release the tarts from the ramekins and invert them on serving plates.

Garnish with a spoonful of crème fraîche. These are perfect with grilled steak or roast chicken. They can also stand on their own with some freshly dressed greens on the side.

Caramelized tomato sauce

Tomatoes are technically a fruit, but we don't normally use them for dessert. Here is a caramelized tomato sauce that magically transforms tomatoes into a sweet and complex sauce for ice cream.

You want great seasonal plum tomatoes for this, not the kind that are available year-round. Lilac Ridge and Walker Farm have some beauties, and I am sure the farmers' markets are filled with them, too.

For 4 servings, peel and seed:

6 plum tomatoes

Cut them into quarters and let them drain on kitchen towels while you prepare the following:

Grate the peel, then squeeze out the juice into a small bowl:

1 organic orange

Sprinkle into a heavy skillet:

6 tablespoons of sugar

2 tablespoons water

Heat over medium-high heat until the sugar begins to caramelize. (If you have never made caramel before, you can search for instructions online.) Swirling the pan helps the sugar melt, but be very careful, as hot sugar not only can burn quickly in the pan, but it also can burn you.

To get a lovely caramel usually takes 8 to 10 minutes of steady cooking. When the mixture is a deep golden brown, remove from the heat, and very carefully add the reserved juice and zest, which will cause drama and steam and sizzling.

When things have calmed down, add the tomatoes and:

• ¼ cup of Grand Marnier.

Cook, stirring occasionally for 2 to 3 minutes, until the mixture has thickened. Let this all cool a bit and then generously spoon it over vanilla or sweet cream ice cream.

The idea of tomatoes for dessert does seem ridiculous at first but this dessert is really remarkable.

* * *

Growing flavorful tomatoes and using them in your kitchen is one of the great joys of the late-summer garden. The destruction of my few plants by horn worms was terrible, but that is just part of the reality of gardening.

Next year, I will be on the lookout early in the season. In the meantime, my thanks to those serious farmers around me who overcome so many obstacles to grow so many beautiful vegetables, especially tomatoes.

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