Tom-A-to, Tom-AH-to

There’s an ad jingle in my memory cells that goes something like this, “Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can? You know who, you know who, who, who.” For some reason, the word Sacramento sticks in my mind along with it.

When I was in the Sacramento, California, area recently, I learned that tomatoes are a huge crop there. A lovely painted vintage-style sign at the tomato processing plant in Woodland verifies that fact.

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Surrounding Woodland are farm fields as far as the eye can see. No doubt many of those perfectly aligned rows get planted with the red fruits every year.

California grows 95 percent of the more than 12 million tons of tomatoes produced in the U.S. Those fruits come to our tables as fresh tomatoes, canned, paste, sauces, juice and ketchup. The state’s Central Valley is the heart of tomato country. The tomatoes are processed – cooked, crushed, diced, canned, etc., right there in the Central Valley.

The plant I saw in Woodland is among the few processors left in California. DSC_0226 (2).JPG

Statistics I found from 2008 show that there were 225 tomato growers in the Central Valley, farming some 277,000 acres, and working with 16 commercial canneries.

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But, in case you didn’t know, the tomato is not native to North America. It is said to have originated in South and Central America. It made its way over to Europe in the 1500s. Not surprisingly, Italians were the first to start growing and eating them. Not too long after that, other countries began growing them, but only as items of curiosity. Using them for food had not really caught on yet.

It wasn’t until the 1700s that tomatoes started to be grown in the young United States. Farmer-gardener that he was, Thomas Jefferson naturally took to growing them. But there was still widespread belief that they were poisonous, as members of the nightshade family.

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Now we know better. Tomatoes, which are mostly water with a little bit of fiber, are  highly nutritious, providing vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K1, lycopene, and beta carotene, among others. And, how about they are just plain delicious! Who doesn’t love a fresh tomato sandwich? Where would pasta be without sauce?

But even as bountiful as the tomato crop appears, and as endless as our appetites are for tomato products, it remains a risky and costly commodity to produce. Tomatoes like sun and heat, but not too much. California is known for a long growing season, but also for a lack of water. Fuel to power mechanical harvesters, fertilizer and water eat into any farmer’s profits. Throw in unpredictable weather.

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Thankfully, we now have small and organic farms growing heirloom tomatoes in almost any state that we can buy locally and at our farmers’ markets. We don’t have to depend on big footprint, long-distance crops, at least part of the year. I, along with millions of other Americans, plant my own in my frontyard garden every year. DSC_0834.JPG

Each season is an exciting unknown: which varieties will I try? Which ones will taste best? I know that plants sold locally will do fine in my zone. My favorites have been Black Krim and Green Zebras, but I always aim to pick at least one new one to try.

Once thought to be poisonous, tomatoes are beloved and devoured by the tons. The perfect tangy, juicy tomato is the Holy Grail of our summer gardens. Let’s hope that no matter how our climate evolves, we’ll always have tomatoes.

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The Color Purple – Veggie Style

cauli2I’ve been toying with this fantasy for a while, off and on. What if I planted a vegetable garden based solely on color? After all, color figures largely in my flower garden.

With apologies to Kermit, it IS easy being green. Celery, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, all green. String beans, peas, kale, chard, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, all green. What do most kids and many adults refuse to eat? Anything green!

Every year, when I plan my edible garden, I try to incorporate something different; something that I haven’t grown before. The old standards do well and I like them, but let’s face it. There’s a lot more to the fruits of this planet than what we eat all the time.

After just a little thought, I realized it wouldn’t be dcarrotsifficult  to create a one-color vegetable garden. I’m talking about the actual fruits of the plant. Fruits as in vegetables. Get it? For the most part, the leaves would still be green.

So I begin with purple. I made a list of every purple or nearly purple vegetable that I knew of. In some instances, a few might be called “red,” or some “red” vegetables are in fact more purple looking, so I have included them in my list. In the process, I discovered a few more, though I might have difficulty finding them in the store.

beetsBut seeds, that’s another story. All sorts of exotic seed sources exist. Seek and ye shall find.

That’s not to say that everything purple will grow in every region. Remember, it’s a fantasy garden.

Here’s a list of purple foods that exist in reality, and are possible to grow, somewhere, in no particular order:

Broccoli
Cauliflower

cauliCarrots
Beets
Onions (red)
String beans
Cabbage (red)

Kale

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Kohlrabi
Turnips
Eggplant
Potatoes
Sweet potatospudes

Radishes
Peppers
Corn

 

Asparagus
Garlic

Tomatoes

Radicchio

 

 

That’s a pretty full plate of veggies! And with a few surprises. I never knew there was purple asparagus, and I’ve seen many heirloom tomatoes, but I don’t recall coming across purple ones.

spud2The inside of a cooked purple sweet potato

Where does purple cauliflower get its color? The answer is anthocyanin, which contains flavonoid compounds. Purple cauliflower also contains glucoraphanin, a compound found in cruciferous vegetables. Both substances are said to fight cancer and are significantly lowered in value by cooking the cauliflower. I might have to rethink how I eat this vegetable!

I’ve eaten many foods on the list, including the potatoes, cabbage, kohlrabi, beets, beans, onions, carrots, kale and eggplant. I have to say that they all taste the same as other colors, but imagine the visual impact at a meal!

The next time you are in the grocery store, cruise the vegetable offerings with new eyes. I bet you will be amazed at how many foods you have never noticed. But they’re always there!

The Picking of the Kale

March should be called “hump month.” It straddles winter and spring. It has a little of everything. Winter’s cold hand is still on our shoulders, but spring’s warm breath is in our nostrils.

But more than that, my kale lets me know that the season is changing over. It’s time to give last season’s crop the heave-ho and get ready for this season’s vegetable garden. All winter my kale provided me with enough leaves for dinner, whenever I wanted it.

Today I noticed that all my plants were starting to go to seed, so, time to pick it all! There was more than I thought. I started to pick the small, tender leaves and quickly realized I would have to make several trips to the kitchen to deposit my haul. I’ll leave the plants standing until I’m ready to till the garden. Perhaps the flowers will please some passing bees.

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Kale flower

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