Tomatoes are a fruit and part of the nightshade family (like potatoes and eggplants), but they are served and prepared as a vegetable, which is why most people consider them a vegetable and not a fruit. Tomatoes come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes: large red beefsteaks are slightly irregular; globes are red, medium-size and round; plum tomatoes are egg-shaped and red or yellow (grape tomatoes are baby plums); cherry tomatoes are small and round, etc. There are many heirloom varieties that are not marketed widely but come in red, yellow, green and even purple, as well as striped. Native to South America, and brought to Europe by Spanish explorers, the tomato took some time to be accepted because tomatoes were thought to be poisonous, like other members of the nightshade family.
In the Garden
Buying transplants or starting seeds indoor early, gets tomatoes off to the best start in the garden when warm weather finally arrives and it saves several weeks in growing time. Some gardeners transplant their tomatoes soon after the soil is prepared for spring gardening, when there is a high risk of damage from freezing. Be prepared to cover early set plants overnight to protect them from frost. For best results with very early plantings, consider black plastic mulch and floating row covers for heat accumulation and frost protection. For best results with minimal risk, plant when the soil is warm, soon after the frost-free date for your area.
Every country of the world have a different climate and seasons, like the Caribbean only has dry and wet seasons, while others have summer, spring, fall and winter. The Caribbean people are more aware of when it is the best season, but for those other countries, the fall harvest and early winter are best bets for the storage of tomatoes, late plantings may be made from late spring until mid-summer, depending on the length of the growing season. These plantings have the advantage of increased vigor and freedom from early diseases, and they often produce better quality tomatoes than later pickings from early spring plantings. Time late plantings for maximal yield before killing freezes in your area (up to 100 days from transplanting for most varieties).
The space required depends upon the growth pattern of the variety and method of culture. Space dwarf plants 12 inches apart in the row, staked plants 15 to 24 inches apart and trellised or ground bed plants 24 to 36 inches apart. Some particularly vigorous indeterminate varieties may need 4 feet between plants and 5 to 6 feet between rows to allow comfortable harvest room.
Tomatoes should be firm and fully colored. They are of highest quality when they ripen on healthy vines and daily summer temperatures average about 75°F. When temperatures are high (air temperature of 90°F or more), the softening process is accelerated and color development is retarded, reducing quality. For this reason, during hot summer weather, pick your tomatoes every day or two, harvest the fruits when color has started to develop and ripen them further indoors (at 70 to 75°F). On the day before a killing freeze is expected, harvest all green mature fruit that is desired for later use in the fall. Wrap the tomatoes individually in paper and store at 60 to 65°F. They continue to ripen slowly over the next several weeks. Whole plants may be uprooted and hung in sheltered locations, where fruit continues to ripen.
In the Kitchen
Tomatoes are, of course, delicious raw, sautéed, grilled, stewed, and added to many preparations. Use a serrated knife or very sharp non-serrated knife to slice or chop tomatoes or prick the skin to get a slice going. Cut tomatoes lengthwise from stem to blossom end to retain more juice in each slice. To peel tomatoes, blanch by dropping them into boiling water for about 30 seconds, or longer for firm tomatoes, then plunge into a bowl of ice water until cool enough to handle. Cut an X on the stem end and use a paring knife to pull skin away. Skin will pull away easily if the tomatoes have been blanched long enough. To seed tomatoes, cut the tomato in half horizontally. Holding a half in the palm of your hand, squeeze out the jelly-like juice and seeds over a strainer and scoop out remaining seeds with your fingertip. Do not throw away the juice, sieve it and use it in another recipe or drink it.
Tomatoes are excellent for canning, freezing, and drying. With a forced-air dehydrator, you can make your own sun dried tomatoes. Use plum-type Romas, with their thick, meaty flesh and low percentage of water for best results. Once they are dried, tomatoes should be packed in airtight containers. They should not be packed in oil for longer than one or two days, and they should be stored in the refrigerator. Commercially prepared sun-dried tomatoes in oil have been treated to prevent bacteria growth.
Some favourite recipes with tomatoes:
- Fresh Garden Salsa
- Fried Green Tomatoes
- Grilled Tomato Kebabs