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Groundwork: Tomatoes

Roasted Tomato Bruschetta, ideal for using up small and cherry tomatoes; see the recipe below. (Cindy Brown)

Adrian Higgins is away. Cindy Brown of Fairfax County's Green Spring Gardens takes the helm in his absence.

In polite society, one does not discuss religion or politics. I will add one more topic: tomatoes. People are passionate about their favorite varieties, methods of cultivating and training and, of course, recipes. Growing tomatoes brings out the latent scientist and engineer in the normally grounded gardener. I eagerly address many vegetable-related topics, but I hesitate before accepting a chance to speak about tomatoes. It is an intense subject.

I am a purist. I order seed from a reliable source, don’t start my seeds before mid-March and never plant them in the garden before soil temperatures reach 60 degrees. I plant them deep, leaving only three to four inches above ground, and I mulch immediately. Most tomato diseases are soil-borne; the mulch helps prevent the soil from splashing on lower leaves. The mulch also keeps the plants evenly moist; blossom end rot is caused by uneven moisture levels.

Recipe Included

I believe true tomato growers should never bother with the flimsy tomato cages sold in big-box stores. Go for the gusto; create your own from rolls of concrete-reinforcing wire. Then pound in stakes beside the cages to keep everything erect.

Fertilize the tomato plants a couple of weeks after planting them (I’ll let you decide what to use, but I prefer organic choices), when they start to blossom and once more when production starts to lag, usually mid-August.

I won’t even touch the heirloom-versus-hybrid debate. I choose varieties that are disease resistant, indeterminate and delicious. We usually have one surprise favorite at Green Spring; this year it is Hong Yeun. Each tomato measures only two to three inches, but the plants are prolific. They are bearing dozens of sweet tomatoes every week.

No matter what variety of tomatoes you grow, rotate the place you grow them every year. Diseases build in the soil if you plant tomatoes in the same space year after year. I live in a townhouse, and space is limited. So this year my tomatoes are in the front yard. You should see the double-takes they get from the neighbors; they are probably waiting for me to go on vacation!

I can never have too many large tomatoes, but I always seem to be overwhelmed with small patio and tiny cherry varieties. You can’t stuff them with chicken or tuna salad, and they always slide off my tomato, peanut butter and mayo sandwiches (don’t grimace until you try one – on white bread, of course.)

-- Cindy Brown

Roasted Tomato Bruschetta

4 small appetizer servings

Here's a great way I've found to use all my tiny tomatoes. It's versatile: almost as delicious with good-quality, out-of-season tomatoes as it is with tomatoes straight out of the garden. Roasting draws out the tomatoes' sweetness; the herbs give them extra zing. You can swap out the mozzarella cheese for goat or blue cheese. You can serve over greens instead of bread. The roasted tomatoes are also great mixed with pasta, arugula and Parmesan cheese.

12 2- to 3-inch tomatoes
20 cherry tomatoes (I used Sungold)
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon minced rosemary (4-inch sprig, tough stem removed)
2 cloves garlic, minced, plus 1 whole clove, skin removed
6 tablespoons olive oil
4 slices Tuscan bread (or other good-quality rustic white bread)
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 ounce ball fresh mozzarella, sliced thinly

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds and pithy membranes. Place the tomatoes cut side down on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels; allow to drain for at least 10 minutes.

Combine the pepper, salt, rosemary, garlic and olive oil in a large bowl; whisk to blend. Add the tomato halves, stir to coat with the oil mixture, and let stand for 15 minutes.

Remove the paper towels from the cookie sheet and discard. Place the tomato halves, cut side up, on the cookie sheet. Position the cherry tomatoes on one side of the cookie sheet and the larger tomatoes on the other side. Drizzle with the remaining marinade.

Roast the tomatoes until they are softened and browned on the bottom and on the edges. The cherry tomatoes will take about 15 to 20 minutes to roast; the larger tomatoes will need around 25 to 30 minutes. Watch them closely as they near the end of the cooking time; tomatoes can burn quickly. Let the tomatoes cool while preparing the toast.

Set the oven to broil.

Place the bread slices on a rack and put the rack several inches under the broiler. Brown both sides of the bread, broiling for about 1 minute on each side, watching carefully to prevent burning. Remove the bread and rub the whole garlic clove on one side of each piece of bread. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on each piece of bread and top with a slice of mozzarella cheese. Generously top each slice with roasted tomatoes; garnish with torn basil leaves, if desired. Serve immediately.

By Jane Touzalin  |  August 31, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: gardening, tomatoes  
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