Archive for May, 2007

The Tomato Dance

At Mariquita Farm we’re getting lined up to do the “Florida Weave.” This probably sounds like the name of a square dance, but actually the “Florida weave” describes a common way to stake up tomato plants.In the Central Coast, April 15th is generally considered the “frost-free” date. From the 15th on we’re unlikely to suffer any overnight freezing. Mother Nature makes no promises about the temperatures she’ll cast. This year, on the morning of the 20th there was snow on the top of the Sierra De Salinas south-west of Soledad, and I can remember various frosts on the Pajaro Valley floor after the 15th over the years, but I always start to plant my frost tender tomato vines in mid-April. A month after we plant the tomatoes it’s time to start tying them up.

Not all varieties of tomato require tying. Determinate tomato breeds set most of their flowers at once, so the harvest, when it comes, is relatively concentrated. Determinate tomatoes are often harvested by machine. Because tomatoes destined for mechanized harvest need to be tough and rubbery to withstand the rigors of being picked by a blunt instrument many determinate tomato breeds are designed to have fruit that can be beaten off the vine green, then ripened artificially with ethylene gas, before being cooked down into tomato paste for canning. But I don’t grow tomatoes for industrial processing. I prefer to grow the so-called indeterminate tomatoes, which flower over a long period.

As indeterminate tomatoes flower they keep growing….and growing….and growing. Tomatoes evolved in tropical South America as short lived perennials with a rampant, vining habit. One wild tomato type that is still available to gardeners is the so-called currant cherry tomato. Currants have fruits that are hardly bigger than peas, but the vines can reach over twenty feet. The old fashioned, heirloom breeds of tomatoes that I plant still show off their origins as rampant, perennial tropical vines by sprawling over a wide area if they’re not restrained. To avoid treading on the tomato plants, to make harvest easier, and to assure that the fruits are not laying on the dirt it is necessary to introduce a little discipline into the life of an indeterminate tomato.

So we pound wooden stakes at ten foot intervals down the tomato rows while the plants are still young. As the vines grow, we lash lines of twine from stake to stake, passing first on one side of each pole, then on the other side, so that the foliage is supported between the taunt strings in an upright fashion. That’s the Florida Weave. As the plants grow up we spin more twine higher and higher up the poles, so we end up with linear walls of tomato foliage. The workers can walk easily down the rows to inspect the plants, repair the drip irrigation tubes that run along the rows at the base of the plants, or trap for gophers. Breezes can pass between the rows, keeping the plants dry so that any threat of losing plants to humidity loving mildews is mitigated. Eventually, clusters of colorful, flavorful fruits will hang by the cluster, well above the dusty ground, and easy to pick. I’m planning on a bountiful harvest, but in the end, I remind myself that success isn’t only up to me. Farming is always a dance, and nature calls the tune.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

Tomatoes and Basil and Padron Peppers: Upick and Mini Market plans for the summer:

Mariquita has many heirloom and sauce tomatoes planted, lots of tender basil and loads of pimiento de padron peppers, and friarellis too! We plan to have many upick Saturdays (maybe the occasional weekday too) in August, Sept. and October. We also hope to host mini 2 hour markets throughout the city in different neighborhoods with canning portions of the same items. Stay tuned! If you have a great driveway that would make a good one-time only Mariquita Mini Market later this summer, let me know. Thanks!


Make It Quick!

My son, Graydon, was about three and a half when he came running half naked through the kitchen one morning while I was cleaning up. “I’m hungry Papa, so make me lunch!” he shouted. “Make it quick, and make it crunchy!” I told him to eat a carrot.

Children can be wiggy about what they eat, so the carrot, with its inherent versatility, is an almost perfect food. For kids that need to everything be “theirs,” eating a whole baby carrot can be a satisfying experience; when a larger carrot split into pieces is absent there’s the chance of being served a smaller piece, or fewer pieces, than a rival sibling. Orange seems to be a comforting color for food, too, whereas all kinds of suspicious, sickening things are green.

Of course, with baby carrots the young diner always faces the potential trauma of being confronted with a flawed or crooked root. Food corporations handle this existential issue well by taking larger carrots and mechanically lathing them into perfectly rounded facsimiles of baby carrots, thus achieving a level of uniformity that many children find comforting.

And then there’s the whole issue of carrot flavor to consider. For centuries the carrot’s natural sweetness was enough to make it an attractive vegetable to people and beasts. My donkey comes to the fence every time she sees me, because she hopes to get a carrot. If you want to see an “Oscar level” expression of disgust, just look into my indignant ass’s face when she expects a carrot and I offer her a handful of cabbage leaves instead.

Flavor is still an important component of the carrot eating experience, though these days it is customary for many cooks to focus more on the flavor of the dip they serve with the carrot than the natural flavor of the root. Many consumers only eat the pre-bagged, pre-peeled “baby” carrots. These “value added” carrots are treated with an antiseptic solution for “long life” in refrigerator storage and they often smell like a high school swimming pool, so it helps if the dip is flavored strongly enough to over-ride any lingering chlorine essence.

My favorite “baby carrot” is a variety called “Minicor.”. They have been developed to be harvested young so they plump up fast. They are small, but they’re not really babies, as in “infantile”—more like adolescents. Sometimes the so-called baby carrots don’t always have the depth of flavor that comes with mature, deeply rooted winter carrots, but they have their own charms. When I was a kid I didn’t like to eat cooked carrots—actually, I didn’t think there was anything nastier on earth than a cooked carrot, but I now that I’m old and grey and most of my taste buds have died, I like to cook baby carrots. Here’s my favorite recipe:

Put the carrots in a pan (washed, not peeled) with a pat of butter, a pinch of salt, and a splash of white wine, and steam them till they’re halfway cooked. Then remove the carrots from the flame, garnish them with minced fresh parsley and tumble it all around. The heat of the carrots will wilt the minced herbs, the melted butter helps the savory herbs cling to the roots, and a delicious aroma rises up. I like to apply a final twist of black pepper, and serve the carrots warm.

Carrots are members of the Umbellifer family, along with cilantro, chervil, fennel, parsley, and celery. Many members of the Umbelliferae make excellent garnishes for carrots. If you buy your carrots fresh by the bunch, and not embalmed in a bag, then the greens, minced finely, might make a pretty good garnish themselves. Stir the garnish into the baby carrots just as you remove them from the heat, so the garnish wilts and releases it’s aroma without cooking down into sludge.

If you have any kids in the house who turn up their noses at any flecks of green garnish contaminating the purity of the orange carrots, or if you cook for a partner who is close to “the child within,” remind them how lucky they are to be alive in the modern era. In the infancy of humanity, when all of us wandered naked through the forests, it was the carrot’s greens that we ate, since the carrot plant’s roots had not yet been improved by agriculturalists into a sweet, quick, crunchy snack crop.

And dip? Well, The first dips that humanity discovered was probably yogurt made from donkey, horse, yak, sheep, cow, or camel milk, with some crushed herbs and salt mixed in. That still sounds pretty good, even if it requires a little work. Back in the stone age, the quick-fix, emotionally satisfying, commercial, salty, pre-made dips that come in plastic tubs or packets were still far off in humanity’s adult future, along with tax deadlines, hydrogen bombs, and this laptop computer I’m writing to you on. Convenience took a long coming.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

salad dressings

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