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Groundwork: More tomatoes

In the garden, invasion of the body snatchers. Pity the tomato hornworm. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

We know it's almost October, but we're not finished with the tomatoes.

It's been one of those years. Recent cooler days (and nights, moreover) have actually drawn tomato vines out of the malaise of high summer, and they are putting out fresh growth and blooming. It's unrealistic to think we will see much fruit from the blossoms, especially the slow-growing beefsteaks. But the plants are telling us they are happy again after a miserably warm and dry year. The mellow days of fall will allow many green tomatoes to ripen and for green fruit to develop enough for fried or pickled tomatoes. In other words, don't yank your vines yet, although they could probably do with some grooming by cutting off diseased foliage.

At the American History Museum's Victory Garden, Joe Brunetti has seen pretty much all of his heirloom varieties perk up for the home stretch. Some of them are big with outsize stories to match: Mortgage Lifter is supposed to have been such a popular beefsteak that its discoverer, "Radiator" Joe, used the seed proceeds to pay off the trust on his house.
White Wonder is a regular old slicing tamata, except its white skin ripens to the faintest yellow. Kellogg's Breakfast is red, and apparently no connection to the corn flake guy, but there's obviously some old-time marketing mind bending going on there.

Joe picks a cluster of a cherry tomato he's growing named Matt's Wild Cherry and hands me one. It has a lovely old-fashioned, simple, yummy tomato taste: agreeably but not excessively sweet and with a little acidic aftertaste.

He's also growing a Russian variety named for the singer and social activist Paul Robeson. It's one of those really fashionable varieties, like Green Zebra, with a fruity, smoky flavor. Sadly, it's not a variety that likes the heat of Washington, and the vine has lacked vigor and certainly a lot of fruit.

Joe Brunetti inspects developing Striped German tomatoes, which will ripen until frost. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Not so for two other antique beefsteaks: Pineapple, an orange-yellow bicolor with a spicy, fruity flavor; and Striped German, a red and yellow streaked one-pounder that produces until frost.

Apart from the unremitting heat, the drought and squirrels, which take the fruits just as they are ready, the tomato vines look pretty good. This is a direct result of great soil preparation and a monthly feed with fish emulsion. Mulch and frequent deep watering have also helped.

The tomato hornworm is a large green caterpillar that will do a lot of vine feeding, until a parasitic wasp named the braconid shows up and lays eggs to hatch and feed on the poor thing. What a way to go.

Joe has pulled the corn and cucumbers, and planted three of his beds with red and green cabbage and chard. The plan is for the cabbages to start forming their heads by Halloween, at which point you can grow them through the winter under floating row covers. Some of the outer leaves may get zapped by hard frosts, but the protected head will be good for the table until March. A few hot days in late winter/early spring will cause the cabbages to decline quickly and start the process of flowering. But let's hope that next year, the weather will be a little kinder to the gardener.

-- Adrian Higgins

Tomato Orange Marmalade

Makes 5 cups

No matter what variety of tomatoes you are growing, at this time of the year most of the fruits are not perfect. After cutting out all the bruises, rotten spots or bird pecking-holes, a simple sliced tomato doesn’t have the same wow factor.

Our ancestors would have used such tomatoes to preserve the harvest for cold winter nights. They would have canned their tomatoes, but freezing the marmalade is another option. A warning: You may not be able to save any of the marmalade for winter. Served with a warm baguette and a creamy, runny cheese, it will disappear faster than our summer gardening memories.

MAKE AHEAD: For best results, refrigerate for at least 1 day before serving. The marmalade can be refrigerated for up to 3 weeks.

Adapted from an August 2003 Gourmet magazine recipe by Smithsonian garden education specialist Cynthia A. Brown.

2 cups sugar
3 pounds ripe beefsteak tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped, reserving any juices (see NOTE)
2 juice oranges
1 lemon
1/8 teaspoon salt

Have 5 clean half-pint jars at hand.

Heat the sugar in a large pot over medium heat. As it just starts to melt, stir in the tomatoes and their juices. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring often.

Meanwhile, cut the oranges and lemon into quarters. Seed them, then cut them into 1/8-inch slices. Add to the pot, along with the salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring often to prevent scorching and adjusting the heat as needed to form a thick marmalade.

Divide evenly among the jars. When cooled, seal and refrigerate for at least 1 day before using, so the flavors can develop. The marmalade can be refrigerated for up to 3 weeks.

NOTE: To peel tomatoes, use a sharp knife to cut a shallow "X" in the bottom of each one. Place in very hot or boiling water for a few minutes, then transfer to an ice-cold water bath. When cool enough to handle, discard the skins.

Per tablespoon serving: 25 calories, 0 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  | September 27, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork, Recipes  | Tags:  Groundwork; Adrian Higgins; recipes  
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