Saturday, February 4, 2012

Pacific Northwest Dreaming

It's a beautiful, sunny Saturday here in the Pacific Northwest--such a rare treat this time of year! It's early February--way too soon to do much in my garden--but that doesn't stop me from dreaming. And dreaming at this time of year is absolutely the best, because I am not hampered by the vagaries of reality. No water issues, pests, crop failures, or disease in sight.

In my dreams today, my summer garden is stupendous! My flowers are the envy of all passersby, and my vegetables are producing so heavily that I'm hard pressed to keep up with the bountiful harvest. In this dream garden, I've tried some new-to-me varieties, and every single plant is a winner. I can't fail!

Even though we're locked in the throes of winter, I'm already gearing up for warmer days. I'm collecting, cleaning, and organizing my seed-starting tools. I have saved seeds, but I'll still get to the stores in the next several weeks to poke around and see what I can't live without. I can already tell I have a hankering for heirloom tomatoes. I think the juicy richness of the old tomato varieties put them in a different class entirely from the hybrid choices available. So, I'll try to find something I have never grown yet.

It doesn't take many tomato plants to get big results. I'm a mad tomato sauce canner in season, and I don't feel I've done my duty with anything less than 50 quarts in my pantry...but I try to can way more than that to last us all winter. When my kids were still at home I'd plant as many as 20 tomato plants, and I'd beg, borrow, and buy more tomatoes by the bushel to supplement what I picked so that by the time winter came around, I'd usually have 200 or so jars of sauce. Now I'm content with maybe a half-dozen plants, and the aforementioned 50 quarts.

When the tomatos are ripe, a pretty and tasty presentation is to slice different varieties of tomatoes and arrange them artistically on a large platter. I try to have different colors--green striped, pink, purple, orange, etc.--so just looking at the plate is fun. I drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil and vinegar (try balsamic, malt, or rice wine vinegar), dust them with fresh chopped parsley or basil (whatever I have) and salt and pepper, and they're ready to eat. Not much is better than that!

Another easy way to use tomatoes is to cut the stem end off and dig a shallow hole in that end. Next, I salt and pepper them a bit and then set them into a baking dish that has sides at least 2 inches high. I sprinkle on pine nuts into the shallow holes, add some fresh chopped parsley, and bake them at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or so. How long they bake is really a function of how big the tomatoes are. The goal is to have them hot clear through and somewhat softened but not mushy. These are really good and they look elegant on the plate.

I'm getting hungry just thinking about this!


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