Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011 Tomato Blind Taste Test Results

    We conducted our annual blind taste test of our tomato varieties this past Tuesday.  We compared 15 varieties of paste and slicing type tomatoes including a couple small varieties that would probably better be described as salad size.  We left the cherry/grape tomatoes for a separate tasting to do later.  In addition to Eric and Melissa, Nora took part for the first time this year, and our two visitors took part, too, so we had 5 tasters altogether.  The tasters were blindfolded and asked to score each tomato with a number between 1 and 10, then each taster's 4 highest scored tomatoes were tasted again and ranked from 1 to 4.  A new variety for us this year scored the most #1 rankings (from Nora and both of our visitors): 'Thai pink,' a small, pink, oval tomato about the size of a very small egg.  The other #1 rankings went to 'San Marzano redorta' (the banana pepper shaped paste variety) which also scored a #3 ranking and 'Amish paste' (the red "oxheart" variety) which also scored a #3 and a #4 ranking.  'Amish paste' has the most #1 rankings from the last 8 years total. 'Mr. Stripey' scored two #2 rankings this year.  'White queen' and 'German Johnson' each scored a #2 ranking.  'Azoychka' (the bright yellow variety), 'vine peach,' and 'Peron sprayless' (the medium-large regular round-shaped red tomato) each scored a #3 ranking.  One of these years we're going to invite you all up for a taste test, but you'll have to do your own this year.  You might be surprised what you really like best when you're blindfolded.  One of our visitors discovered that she really likes the white/yellow varieties, which she never would have bought before.  And we were all very impressed with the odd little 'Thai pink.'

Monday, July 25, 2011

Processing tomatoes

   It's peak tomato season, and today the kitchen was a furnace of tomato processing (making the heat outside not feel so bad).  There were tomatoes roasting in the oven, a crock pot simmering sauce, and two water bath canners going, full of whole canned tomatoes.  Canned jars are now cooling on the counter filled with the colorful array of the tomato rainbow.  But the effort of capturing this peak tomato flavor will be well worth it for all the other nine to ten months, when we can open a jar of tomatoes and taste summer.
   Here's a quick preview of how we preserve:
   For most of our tomato processing, we prefer to use the "paste type" San Marzano redortas.  As our tomato patch is as much for ourselves as it is for you, we grow about seven times as many of the San Marzanos as our average, far more than any other variety, and this despite the fact that they're poor sellers.  With their almost solid flesh and their low seed and juice content, we think they're the perfect type for canning whole, for roasting, for making sauce or paste or ketchup, for drying, for salsa...  But as we wind up with cracked tomatoes and extras of every variety, they all find a preserving purpose.  We mostly use the slicing  types for juice -- the ripe-green or the cherry tomatoes make really good, out-of-the-ordinary juice -- but roasting is a quick way to process tomatoes, so we'll use any varieties for additional roasting tomatoes, too.
   The most basic way we preserve tomatoes is to can them whole.  Simply drop the whole tomato (as is) into boiling water for about 30 seconds.  You'll see the skin start to crack.  Remove the tomatoes and cool in cold water.  At this point, the skin will easily slip off.  Then we core them and put them in jars.  We can them as recommended by the Ball Book of Canning in their own juice in a water bath for 1 hour and 25 minutes.  Instead of canning, these whole peeled tomatoes could easily be slipped into a freezer bag and frozen.
   A couple years ago, we were introduced to roasting tomatoes, and it has changed the way we enjoy tomatoes.  We'll load a couple cookie sheets with mixed tomatoes cut into about one inch pieces.  Then we might throw on some garlic or quartered onions, drizzle with oil, and sprinkle with some salt.  Then we'll roast them at 325 for about an hour or until the pieces are concentrated but not burned.  At this point we might enjoy them as an appetizer with bread or cheese, or we'll put them as is in jars and can or freeze.  Or we'll puree them together with the onions and whatever else we added for a thick sauce, then run them through a food mill to take out the seeds.  It's thick and has a wonderful roasted tomato flavor.  Sometimes we add herbs and more garlic and onions.  Then we'll can or freeze the sauce.
   Drying tomatoes is a great way to concentrate tomato flavor and store it in a really small space.  We run several loads in our dehydrator then store the pieces in the freezer just in case they didn't get dry enough.  Then we'll pull them out as we need for meat or bean dishes.
   We make a lot of juice which we really relish in late winter and early spring.  Simply cut off any bad spots from the tomato then quarter, put in a large pot and cook until soft.  We have a small hand food mill we'll then run it through to get out the seeds and peel or we have a larger Victorio strainer that is useful for large quantities.  We especially enjoy separating the different colored tomatoes to end up with the different colored juices.
   And finally we make salsa.  This is basically chopped tomatoes, peppers and onions with some vinegar added.  Cilantro, of course, is a normal addition, but cilantro is a cool season crop, so we can our salsa without cilantro and then add fresh, chopped cilantro in the fall, early winter, or spring as we enjoy it.
   We'll probably have another big day or two of tomato processing in the next week (maybe two), so if you'd like to come help out and learn firsthand how we preserve our tomatoes, let us know, give us your phone number, and if we can plan ahead well enough, we'll get in touch and invite you to spend some time in our very hot kitchen with us!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Potato and onion harvest

Harvesting potatoes was a community event this year.  Especially with the record harvest this year, we were grateful for the help.  Here is Steve plowing out the taters.
We even had some young people join in the pickup.
Lea, our current WWOOFer from France picked up pounds and pounds of them.

Piles of Kennebecs and Red Pontiac in an outbuilding.
Melissa pulling our Yellow of Parma onions.
A pickup full of onions.  Next step, the outbuildings to hang them cure.


    A few months ago we read about some then newly publicized studies showing that higher levels of exposure to organophosphates (a class of chemical pesticides) in pregnant mothers corresponded with lower IQ scores in their children at age 7. Here's one article on the subject:
   These were interesting studies to us, not just because they highlighted yet another unforeseen and imprudent risk of using chemical pesticides, but especially because they drew our attention to unexpected types of risks. We consider it old news that chemical use is responsible for various forms of cancer and other diseases that will make you sick or kill you -- the only new news about chemicals making us sick is connecting each new generation of chemicals to the specific illnesses they cause -- but it's a little different to think about pesticides causing problems that aren't illnesses (like lower IQ's.) Last year we heard from a beekeeper that pollinates low-bush blueberries in Maine that consumption of low-bush blueberries and a pesticide used on them has been linked to much higher levels of behavioral disorders like ADHD in children. (Low-bush blueberries are different from the blueberries grown locally; if you want to avoid pesticides, local blueberries are actually a much better choice than peaches or apples, for example. Frozen blueberries and other blueberries from up North would be the ones to avoid.)
    So what do we conclude from these kinds of reports? First, we conclude that the problems stemming from chemical use in agriculture are far, far too complex to try to navigate piecemeal. Trying to ban or avoid just the "bad chemicals" that we hear about in the news, etc., surely won't leave the "safe chemicals but rather simply other bad chemicals that cause less expected problems or chemicals that are more difficult to link to the problems they cause.  In other words, we believe the only reasonable response is to avoid chemical agriculture (and lawn care, home pest control, household chemicals, etc.) in general.  Regaining control of those things for which we've become dependent on the corporate system is the only response we find promising. For us that means, of course, not using any chemical pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.) in our own farming and accepting the ensuing costs and losses as our new baseline, but more to the point it means doing as much as we can for ourselves (instead of simply doing what's most profitable and then feeding that money back into the consumer economy), wild harvesting and buying directly from people we know (that likewise aren't using chemical shortcuts) those things that we aren't growing ourselves, and re-learning how to eat locally so that more and more we can do without the kinds of supermarket foods that we've grown up thinking of as staples. This means, for example, accepting the time and commitment it takes to hand milk or tether out a cow, even though supermarket-scaled dairies can produce milk far more cheaply. It also means we don't compare the cost of local, unofficially-organic strawberries to conventional strawberries (knowing that even five cents for a truckload of sweet, red lowered IQ's and behavioral disorders is no bargain), or compare the appearance of unsprayed apples to conventional apples, or the taste of homegrown fruit to chemical-intensive peaches, but rather we compare the cost of local, unofficially-organic strawberries to picking wild blackberries, and we compare the unsprayed apples to the alternative of unsprayed Asian pears, and we simply do without chemical-intensive peaches altogether and let that motivate us to plant more figs and to try making melon ice cream instead of peach and to freeze more blueberries for this winter.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


  A tomato plant for the most part looks like a tomato plant.  For months, we've been looking at long rows of these green plants.  Now suddenly the plants are giving forth their signature colors and shapes.  We do have a map of the tomato patch, but it's been more fun to let the fruits form and then color.  This way we recognize the arrival of our old favorites and meet for the first time our new trialed ones.  But we don't look at them long - tomatoes are for eating!
  When tomatoes are this beautiful, they simply need to be served as is.  A favorite side dish of ours is a plate of sliced tomatoes - with the whole spectrum of colors.  Starting from the bottom of the rainbow, we have our repeat favorite 'Cherokee puprle.'  It's often the first to disappear from the platter with it's tempting maroon/purple fully ripe color and rich flavor to match.  Next, greens: ripe tomatoes can be green - they actually get a bit of yellowish hue which, in addition to the softness, clues you they are ready.  Our greens this year include a smaller salad one 'green zebra' with its delicious tart bite and yellow stripes.  'Aunt Ruby's German green' is a new full-size green slicing tomato that Melissa's mom saved seed from for us and we're trying for the first time this year.  In the orange/yellow spectrum we have 'Djena Lee' a very pretty, slightly oval shaped yellow-orange tomato.  'Azoychka', a Russian heirloom, ripens to a taxi cab yellow with a hint of citrus flavor.  We love the way it contrasts, in taste but especially in color, with the red tomatoes.  Another very unusual tomato is the 'white queen,' which is such a pale yellow that it's really about white.  And then we get to the reds and pinks.  'Akers West Virginia' has been our long-time favorite large red slicer, the one that says put me on a slab of mayonaise lathered bread.  With homemade mayaonise (very easy to make), even our kids love this regular lunch time meal.  'German Johnson' the pink version of a large slicer, are a locally recognized favorite and for good reason.  They come on early and big.  'Peron sprayless' and 'Illini star' are reds, and a bit smaller than the previous big guys, so they can go for a sandwich or something smaller.  But if you're undecided on color, 'Mr. Stripey' is the tomato for you.  It's a gigantic, gorgeous red tomato with yellow stripes or is it a yellow tomato with red stripes.  Either way, cut crosswise it's a treat for the eyes.  But don't stop there.  Eat it up and we'll have more for you next week.
  In the just for fun category this year, we're trialing 'vine peach', a seed gift from a friend.  And true to their name they are covered with a peach-like fuzz and a peach-like color enough to really make you think you're holding a ripe peach in your hand.  'Thai pink' is a smallish "plum tomato" new to us this year from the same seed-saving friend.  And we love our cherry tomatoes.  Just mentioning the names and you certainly can envision a bowl-full of mini color balls - 'orange cherry', 'red pearl', pink cherry, 'black cherry', Harry's yellow grape, and 'tommy toe,' a well-known red heirloom.
  And finally, what we refer to as our processing or 'winter' tomatoes - 'Amish paste' and 'San Marzano redorta'.  'Amish paste' actually is a wonderful multi-purpose tomato.  If we had to grow one tomato, it would be this one.  In fact, a neighbor who claims not to really like tomatoes, now only grows this one.  A repeat winner in our blind taste tests, it excels fresh in the summer and is a winter treat out of the jar on pizza or pasta.  We can't say enough about 'San Marzanos' either so we just planted about a quarter of our tomato patch to them!  They are big.  Forget hours peeling baby romas to can.  One of these equals 5 romas, with much less trouble and double the flavor.  They are nearly juiceless and seedless (which can make seed saving an effort) so canning them is a joy.  Their meatiness means that they don't cook down nearly as much as other tomatoes, so for making a sauce or anything you want to thicken up, a pound of these San Marzano seems to be worth two pounds of slicing tomatoes.  Stick 5 or 6 peeled tomatoes in a quart jar and they are ready to go into the canner.
  All our tomatoes are open-pollinated varities grown from seed we saved (except for the ones we are trialing for the first time).  They are put through a rigorous taste test each year to make sure they perform where it counts the most.  Let us know what you think as you enjoy this year's tomato season!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Helping Visitors

We've had a string of visitors come stay on the farm and help out this year, starting with Gildas (pictured weeding the strawberry patch), followed by Tim (whose picture we failed to take -- didn't mean to leave you out, Tim!), then Zeke (pictured milking the cow), and most recently Melanie (tying up onions).  Thank you again for the help!  We very much enjoyed the time we got to spend with each of you on the farm.  Keep in touch, and come visit whenever you get the chance!