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Groundwork: More Tomatoes

The welcoming late season bounty of Green Spring's vegetable garden in Northern Virginia. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

We focused on tomatoes a couple of weeks ago, but if Hollywood is known as Tinseltown, then Washington has to be Tomatotown. Everyone grows tomatoes, so we make no bones about returning to our favorite berry now that the season is reaching its fruitful peak.

Recipe Included

In my own garden, I'm growing varieties that Thomas Jefferson tended. Arguably, he popularized what had been until his day a little grown and a greatly feared member of the nightshade family. When I was at Monticello in April, I picked up seed of Costoluto Genovese and other heirloom varieties. I got them in late, which seems to have been the key to a successful harvest. Folks who jumped the gun and put in tomato seedlings in late April, early May found their plants rotting or stunted due to the cold and wet spring.

It is astonishing how many methods there are to support these vines. I find new techniques every year. Cindy Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens, has already mentioned the preferred method where she works: the use of coiled reinforced concrete mesh. I grow mine tied to thick oak stakes, taking care when the plants are young to remove the leaf axil suckers to stop the vines from sprawling early. When Cindy and the gang removed the last of the snow pea vines in late spring, she had some seedlings of the Sungold cherry tomato ready to take their place. Here's a cluster that is close to ripening, simply entwined in the pea netting on a bamboo trellis.

Spicy Sungold cherry tomatoes yet to turn their golden yellow, but close. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

There was a lot of concern in June that a disease called late blight would devastate the tomato harvest this summer. But in our region at least, the damage seems to have been slight. When it grew hot and dry in July, the plants responded by growing vigorously and without the leaf spot diseases that so often afflict the tomato crop here. "Best year I've had in years," said Cindy.

On the perimeter fence, she has grown three six-footers side by side, Principe Borghese is a small red fruiting tomato traditionally for sun drying. Hon Yeun is golfball-size and good for sauce, as is its neighbor Early Kus Ali. Cindy gave me a tomato called Ivory Egg; egg-shaped all right, but more golden than off white. It was so sweet. Next to it is Moon Yellow, which is paler in hue but tangier in flavor.

Over to you, Cindy.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: There is tomato in my recipe of the week, but okra's the main ingredient.

I love fried okra. It isn’t summer until I fry a big batch and my son and I burn our mouths as we eat them straight out of the pan. My husband never joins in the annual ritual because he thinks okra is slimy and he hates the little tapioca-like seeds. I love the way they pop in my mouth. He thinks they feel like bug eggs.

Well, my son is at college and my husband and I are trying to lose weight, so no fried okra for dinner tonight. I would eat the whole platter myself and regret it in the morning.
However, grilling okra reduces the calories and the sliminess. I haven’t converted my husband to an okra lover, but at least he didn’t make a face when he ate it.

Grilled Okra With Tomato Vinaigrette
4 servings

MAKE AHEAD: Marinating the okra for at least 1 hour or up to 3 hours is key to this dish. I served it with barbecued chicken thighs, but it is hearty enough to serve as a main course.

Serve over rice, cornbread or mixed greens. Adapted from “Beans, Greens and Sweet Georgia Peaches” by Damon Lee Fowler (Broadway, 1998).

Finely grated zest and juice from 1 large lemon (1 tablespoon; juice, 3 tablespoons)
2 large cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons coarse-grained mustard, such as Grey Poupon Harvest Coarse Ground
Leaves from 2 or 3 sprigs thyme (1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Several grindings of black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
24 okra pods, each about 3 inches long
1 large tomato, seeded and cut into small dice (about 1/2 cup)

Whisk together the lemon zest and juice, garlic, salt, mustard, herbs and black pepper in a medium bowl, then add the oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking to form an emulsified vinaigrette.

Wash the okra, drain well and place the okra pods on a cutting board. Use a sharp paring knife to puncture the okra pods, then make a slit lengthwise, on parallel sides, without cutting all the way through either end.

Transfer the okra to a shallow dish that will hold the okra in one layer. Pour 1/3 cup of the vinaigrette over it. Toss with your hands to coat; let the okra marinate at room temperature for at least 1 hour and no more than 3 hours.

When the okra is ready, prepare the grill. If using a gas grill, preheat the grill to medium-high. If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly under the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 6 or 7 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill. Have ready a vegetable grilling sheet or rack, or thread the okra onto metal skewers.

After starting the grill, add the diced tomato to the remaining vinaigrette.

Place the sheet (rack) on top of the regular grill grate, then arrange the okra in a single layer on top, or arrange the skewered okra on the grill grate. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, turning frequently, until they are browned on all sides.

Transfer the okra to the bowl of vinaigrette; toss lightly to coat. Serve over rice, cornbread or mixed greens.

Per serving: 279 calories, 2 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 27 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 567 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  September 14, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, okra, recipes, tomatoes  
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I too have had the best year ever for tomatoes,growing them in tidewater Virginia. I have been planting vegetables and berries in compost and mulching with either straw or hardwood bark. So I was a bit alarmed last week to see your article on the mulch volcano. I have BIG weed issues and depend on mulch to control them. Is it just hardwood bark that releases manganese? What about pine fines or pine mulch? I am seeing a lot of yellowing leaves this year. Thanks

Posted by: kendalegardens | September 14, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

The column on mulch volcanoes referred to the miserable practice of mounding mulch against the base of trees, not for using mulch in vegetable growing. However,even in vegetable plots, the repeated use of shredded hardwood mulch over several years in the same area will lead to harmful levels of manganese (harmful to the plants, not people). For tomatoes or other veggies I would use straw (not hay) or shredded leaf mulch.

Posted by: alltoeat | September 14, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

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