Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Summer in the garden: sunflowers and tomatoes

Summer has finally come to our garden here at 7,000 feet above sea level in the south-central Rockies. By that I mean that the sunflowers in every possible permutation have opened their yellow and rust and brown faces, and the tomatoes are laden with fruit. I always plant a row of sunflowers somewhere in the garden, trying for as many varieties as possible (though I eschew those bred to lack pollen, because that cheats the bees and beetles, who depend on the pollen to feed their young).

Every year sunflowers pop up in different spots around the kitchen garden and yard on their own, and surprise us with their charming variety, their genes a mix of the wild Helianthus annus, the native annual sunflower, and whichever variety the bees crossed them with. Their heads grow heavy with seeds, much to the delight of the goldfinches, those warbling songsters of the yard, and the pine siskens and chickadees too. We even see yellow warblers and other insect-eaters gleaning their hairy stems and rich heads for tasty insects. The sunflowers make better habitat for the birds in our yard than feeders, because they're spread out and the spilled seed never rots or breeds disease organisms. (It's also not concentrated enough to attract the local squirrels, deer or black bears, all "pests" at seed feeders.)

And the tomatoes: all six varieties of tomatoes are finally ripe. The first ones to ripen are always 'Pompei,' a heritage Roma-type tomato, long and narrow and great for cooking because they have a rich flavor and not much juice. (That's them in the left-center of the bowl in the photo.) They're also delicious sliced in a salad of fresh garden greens, especially when they're just-picked and still warm from the sun. We savor the first Pompei in early July.

Next to ripen are the yellow pear tomatoes, thumb-size, pear-shaped as their name and sunny yellow (in the center below), perfect for eating fresh like the fruit that they are. Sometimes we find our friends in the garden, standing next to the raised bed with the tomatoes and eating the yellow pears right off the vines. They are great with crackers and cheese and a glass of wine, or halved on a fruit salad.

This year the chianti rose ripened next, their fat and round and juicy fruits a gorgeous shade of pinkish-red that really does look like wine. (The pink, round tomatoes on the right hand side of the bowl.) Another heritage variety, these may be my favorite for their sweetness and silky texture, and the fact that they seem to have no acid at all. They're not the prettiest tomatoes - their skin is so thin that they always split - but they take the size prize. I harvested one that weighed in at nearly two pounds this summer. Cut into wedges and served with fresh basil and mozzarella cheese drizzled with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, they are heaven!

Next to ripen were the cost0luto, which win the prize for looks: these small, somewhat flattened tomatoes are scarlet and ribbed with smooth, slightly shiny skin, as if they've been waxed. (The costolutos are in the lower left quarter of the bowl.) They have the richest, most intensely tomato flavor of any variety we've ever grown. Then came the persimmon, small orange globes as bright as their name and bursting with bright flavor too: they are citrusy and perfect for eating fresh or cooking.

The last of our six heritage varieties of tomatoes to ripen are the perhaps the best: black Krim, a black-russian type tomato, named because their tops stay a dark green shade that looks black, while the lower half of these beefsteak tomatoes ripen to a dark ruby red color. (The two black Krims are in the upper left, the one on the right bottoms-up.) Their flesh is smooth and velvety, and their flavor instense and sweet. And they are huge, almost as big as the Chianti rose tomatoes.

We're only about a month from the first hard frosts, which usually comes in late September. But in that time, I plan to savor the summer tastes of tomatoes eaten fresh from the vine, and the sight of sunflowers in every shape and color pivoting their heads to follow the sun as it moves across the cloudless sky. Here in the mountains, we revel in summer, perhaps because it doesn't last long. Here's to tomatoes and sunflowers!

And thanks, as always, to seedswoman and cook Rene Shepherd of Rene's Garden Seeds for the fabulous varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetables that delight and sustain us from the kitchen garden.

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