Tomato Update - Week 6

I am a murderer.

After planting my tomato seeds on April 6, I underestimated the growing power of an electric blanket and failed to notice that they had all sprouted within four days. I left the entire tray covered with a sheet of plastic wrap to keep in moisture, but the low ceiling inspired funky growth patterns in my cute little seedlings. I figured this was just a temporary flaw that would be fixed by nature, but it didn’t seem to go away even after days of even exposure to sunlight.

Beginning of Week 2, with funky growth patterns

But at least my plants were still alive. They didn’t look too pretty, but at they were standing upright and that’s more than I can say for them today. Am I using bad soil? Am I not watering them enough? Am I watering them too much? Am I depriving them of real sunlight? Well, maybe I was a bit of an overprotective parent but I kept my little seedlings inside because it’s dangerous out there in my Brooklyn backyard. We have one of the only yards in the area and apparently it’s the only place the wind can hang out because it turns into a tornado anytime there’s a light breeze. I was afraid the gusts would funk up my prized plants so I kept them inside. Little did I realize that depriving young seedlings of sunlight was as much a death sentence as I could give them, but I caught the mistake just in the nick of time.

Last year’s crop was probably too big for me to handle so maybe it’s good that some plants didn’t make it so I can concentrate on the strong few who did. These vines will compete for sunlight and the last thing I want to do is let them cramp eachother’s style. I only have room for four plants in my designated tomato zone, so it would be unnecessary to grow more than that. The remaining six tomato plants aren’t going to win any beauty contests but they were alive and that’s all I want.


Survivors - week 6

I can see that these wee lads are maturing because they are growing their first real leaves. This is an important step in every young tomato plant’s life because it shows some true characteristics of a mature vine. One day, they will be transplanted and only these mature leaves will show. It will be their triumph as the lonely survivors of the Class of 2011. I have to admit that it does make sense. Most of these seedlings were hatched from seeds I brought back from a tomato I found on the train tracks at Capua. The seeds survived the dangerous railroad, a long flight home, a close call with customs, and a good week or two of sunlight deprivation. They truly are fit for survival.


Mature leaves at week 6

If all goes according to plan, these little guys will go into the ground at the end of May. I have my soil mixed with fresh compost and covered with a sheet of black plastic. This will protect the soil from weeds while absorbing heat to warm soil in preparation for  my brave soldiers. 

So it all comes down to this. My seedlings have just over 2 weeks to show me they’re serious before they hit real outdoor soil. Today I caught myself looking at photos of last year’s tomatoes, hoping and dreaming that this year will be an improvement. It looks like I’m off to a rocky start, but I believe in the magic of tomatoes.


Tomato bed, made from a scavenged bookshelf, is ready for action

Return of the Tomato

Buckle up everybody, I’m growing tomatoes again. Last year’s roller coaster of emotions was so intense, I just can’t keep myself away from the constant battle between man and nature that comes with growing tomatoes in an empty Brooklyn backyard. If tomato season 2k10 taught me how to swim, this year will take me into the deep end.

The adventure started on my trip to Italy earlier this year. I planned some dangerous operations, all of which would potentially result in the testing of some popular tomato mythology. Everything worked out according to plan and now I have some tricks up my sleeve for this year’s tomato season.

Trick #1 - The Seed
I started last year’s experiment by ordering seeds from a reputable company based in California. They were great and the seeds sprouted beautifully, but I craved more mystery. BINGO! I found a tomato on the tracks of the train station in Capua after spending the day on a buffalo farm.

Our friend/guide Nino was excited to see the tomato and told me that this was “an authentic San Marzano tomato.” There are a couple problems with this proclamation, mainly the fact that January is about as far from tomato season as you can get. If I found the tomato in August, I would be far less skeptical. Then there’s the sad truth that the San Marzano variety has been cross-bred so much that there remains no such thing as an “authentic” specimen. And any picture I’ve seen of an “authentic” San Marzano tomato looks pretty different from this one. But the fact remained that these lovely Italian tomatoes were about to become rail-kill if I didn’t intervene.

The least I could do was gut my precious cargo and dry out the seeds. This occurred a few days later in the kitchen of a bed and breakfast in Palermo.

 

Trick #2 - The Soil
Every pizza enthusiast knows the refrain Italian tomatoes are fantastic because they are grown in the rich volcanic soil around Mt Vesuvius. Well I have never been much of a fan of that tune and I fell even harder off the bandwagon after our tomato taste tests last year. The Italian samples scored much lower than those from California and Canada. There are a few good explanations for the discrepancy, such as our tasters’ inherent preference for familiar products and the possibility that some cans marked as being from Italy may have been filled with lies rather than rich and tasty pomodori. Regardless, I wanted to do my best to simulate the fertile soil surrounding the stunning and stoic Vesuvio.

That’s why I took a ride 1000 meters up the slopes of Mt Vesuvius and grabbed a handful of soil.

Yeah, I know. I grabbed mostly rocks and chunks of hardened volcanic debris. But let’s be honest with each other — my experiment will not be the most scientific endeavor imaginable. I spent some time lining my pocket with a plastic bag to contain whatever I managed to scoop, but the operation was complicated by the gang of van drivers watching my every move. But it all worked out and I escorted my bits of sacred volcanic ash back to Brooklyn.

When time came to plant my salvaged seeds, I sprinkled a bit of the finest debris atop some of my lightly packed tomato nests. Of course I didn’t grab any actual soil and there surely isn’t enough to run a comparison, but if a dusting of Vesuvian dust results in crazy-amazing tomatoes I will certainly be the last one laughing.

#3 - The Defense
I had some major issues last year with unwanted guests chomping down on my sweet red beauties so this season I’m upping my game with a jug of wolf urine. Thank you, Internet! That’s right, the Information Superhighway seems to have sources for all sorts of animal urine off every exit. Apparently vicious tomato-killing critters are not cool with hanging out in backyards that get whizzed in by wolves [Wait, am I?]. I’m not sure Brooklyn vermin have ever seen or even know that they should fear wolves, but I’m willing to take the chance.

I’m pretty excited about this year’s batch! Hopefully everything will work out and I can can some ripe beauties for winter use. Let’s just hope I don’t end up with a backyard that smells like Wolf wee-wee and rotten tomatoes.

Tomato Taste Test Part II

Exactly eight weeks after our crack team of pizzaphiles and tomato enthusiasts congregated in my back yard to dive into the highly-controversial world of canned fruit studies, an even larger and hungrier gang gathered for round two. The weather was colder and the group of tasters was larger, so our venue was shifted into the Lower East Side’s cozy Pizza a Casa, a pizza (and now pasta) training center and supply store. After analyzing the method used for round 1, we tweaked the process a bit.

Here’s how the test went down. I brought unlabeled cans to Pizza a Casa for Mark and Jenny to distribute into identical serving boats. Prior to delivering the goods, I marked each can with a letter (A-O). Each serving boat was marked with the letter from its corresponding can.

Tasters were each given a unique tasting order, so no sample was relegated to the first or last position. We graded sweetness, acidity, texture, color and overall flavor on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. We tasted 15 samples but one tomato appeared twice to act as a control. Any tasting sheets whose findings for these two identical tomatoes were drastically different were ignored in the final tally. Two sheets were disregarded for this reason; one additional sheet was ignored because it didn’t have data for most of the tomatoes.  This left eleven data sheets to be included in the final tally.

 

I have to admit, our roster of tasters has been really exciting for both taste tests but this round was incredible. Here’s the roll call:

Roberto Caporuscio (Keste)
JoAnne Ling (Scott’s Pizza Tours)
Brooks Jones (Me, Myself & Pie; Paulie Gee’s)
Mark + Jenny (Pizza a Casa)
Adam Kuban (Slice)
Rachel Cohn (author; tomato lover)
Louis Colluccio (Coluccio & Sons)
Megan (tomato lover)
Jason Fierman (I Dream of Pizza)
Michael Glazer (Pullino’s, Paulie Gee’s)
Michael Park (food writer)
Sara Bonisteel (food writer)
Al Santillo (Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza, Elizabeth NJ)

I did not participate in the tasting because I already had too much interaction with the cans. The group was stacked with killer taste buds and pizza palates so I was content to let ‘er rip and wait to tally the results. It was funny to watch because everyone was so intense. These people were so focused it made me uncomfortable. I wanted to toss a whoopie cushion under somebody’s chair but I held back. Good thing too, or someone might have blogged that the tomatoes were giving them gas to save face.

The results of the test were super interesting because the two highest rated samples were both products of Canada. Crazy, I know. But it’s also heartwarming. Most probably expected the Italian tomatoes to come out on top, but that was not the case. Next time you’re in the canned tomato aisle of your local grocery store, keep your eyes peeled for Luigi Vitelli and give them a whirl. They scored highest in all five tasting categories and took home the prize for overall flavor. Way to go, Canada!

For the rest of the results of our taste test, check out the full writeup on Slice. It even has a link to the raw data so you can make your own observations. If you missed the results of Round 1, you can check those out on Slice as well.

Canned Tomato Taste Test Results

The results of our first blind taste test of 16 canned tomatoes have been posted on Slice! We tried a variety of tomatoes from local grocery stores, supermarkets, pizzerias and restaurant supply stores. Tasters include Roberto Caporuscio (Keste), Adam Kuban (Slice), Brooks Jones (Me, Myself and Pie), Jason Fierman (I Dream of Pizza), Nick Sherman (Pizza Rules) and tomato researcher Erica Mole.

Check Out The Results of Round 1

NOOOOOOOO!!!

It looks like I flew too close to the sun. My beautiful tomato garden has been destroyed. Who’s to blame? I’ll tell you who: nature. For the past three days, New York has experienced weather more suited to Seattle. It’s constantly damp and gross, which is not good for adorable tomato plants. To be quite honest, I hadn’t checked on them for days. Rain means I don’t have to water them, right? NOPE! Rain means I should have thrown a tarp over them to stop wicked infiltration of unsolicited irrigation. I looked out the kitchen window this morning and saw this…

Those plants are supposed to stay vertical. I carefully tied the indeterminate vines to stakes with strips of pantyhose, as not to cut into the plants and prematurely end their lives. It looks like the weight of water droplets along with gusting winds was enough to take the plants down.

This is the reason great tomatoes are grown in Southern Italy and California’s central valley. Those regions don’t get rain in the summer, so controlled irrigation is possible. We’ll have to wait for next year to test the assumption that volcanic soil from Mt Vesuvius creates perfect growing conditions, but what good is soil below if your plants are at left vulnerable to nature from above?

Upon closer inspection, I found evidence of destruction left by yet another of nature’s dark warriors: rodents. It looks like a real jerk scampered around taking a single bite out of each ripe tomato.I know the photo seems blurry but I just wanted you to experience what it looked like through tear-filled eyes.

I was afraid this might happen so I’m glad I picked a few tomatoes while they were ripe, but it looks like the plants are out of commission unless I can fix them up tomorrow after the rain stops. In the meantime, I grabbed any untouched fruits and brought them inside. Now I have to learn how to can tomatoes. Sounds like a great project for tomorrow!

Here they are, the lonely soldiers who made it through the Great Tomato Ravaging of 2010. I’ll have more updates after tomorrow’s plant fixing / tomato canning operation is complete.

Tomato Update: They’re Turning RED!!!

I know I know - they are supposed to turn red, but this has been a long and tedious process so I am entitled to celebrate. People freak their baby’s first haircut or the funny position in which they found their dog sleeping, but I have no baby and I have no dog. Instead, I have nine tomato plants growing in an improvised plot behind my Brooklyn apartment. What started as a handful of seeds is now taking up significant space in my backyard. Some of the plants remain barren but others are starting to show me they mean business and I’m ready to cash their lycopene-filled checks at the bank of my belly.

I still have a few weeks to go before these suckers are ready to eat, but I’m really excited that they are starting to ripen. I see more baby tomatoes popping up every day and I think things are going to really kick in as we approach August. Some helpful YouTube videos showed me how to prune the plants and I have been paying careful attention to extraneous branches that grow off the main vine. The idea is to pinch off the unwanted bits so that all sugar is diverted to the tomato-bearing arms. It’s my first time growing tomatoes so I’m trying to do everything I can to learn the ropes in preparation for next year’s garden.

  

The photo on the left shows a couple San Marzanos just hangin’ around and turning red, much to my delight. A mysterious variety ripens in the other photo — on of my neighbors must have forgotten that she left this plant in the backyard so I assumed responsibility and it is now producing the loveliest fruit of the bunch. I’m pretty amazed because the bulk of growth happened when I was out of town for a couple of days, thus unable to obsess over watering and pruning.

Perhaps patience is the secret ingredient for a successful tomato crop, but my built-in recipe includes heaping helpings of nervousness and torment. I’ve just heard too many horror stories of unwanted backyard guests enjoying tomato season more than the humans who made it possible and I’m getting more afraid of the inevitable tomato thief with every day that passes. Because as the tomatoes ripen and turn red, they become even more appealing to The Enemy. I’ve read a few tips about keeping rats away, from cayenne pepper spray to Irish Spring soap. You can see the chicken wire cage I built in the photo above, but I’m not convinced it’s going to do much. If I disappear for a couple weeks, it just means I’m sleeping with the tomatoes.

If you have any tips for keeping The Enemy out, I’m all ears.

Tomato Update - GROUNDED!

Sometime in mid-March I planted a bunch of seeds I purchased from Tomatofest in California. Seedlings of several varieties sprouted: San Marzano, Super San Marzano, San Marzano Redorta and Roma. I spent weeks keeping their Styrofoam cup homes in direct sunlight and out of harsh temperatures. There were several times I thought the plants had stopped growing, only to find major developments the next day. This week, I took a big step and transplanted my little darlings into the Earth.

My neighborhood in Brooklyn has an industrial past, so I don’t trust the soil in our yard. I brought in some soil through some friends who are doing a massive gardening project in NJ and let it warm up in the sun for a few days. The next challenge was finding something to put the soil into, so I kept my eyes peeled and found a bookshelf on the streets of Soho right outside Lombardi’s! I dug up a hole in the yard in an area that gets the most sunlight and nested the bookshelf/raised bed into its new home. I’m only using the frame of the unit, so there is no back and only one shelf in the center for support.

These tomatoes are supposed to have lots of room, so I kept the plants super spaced out. I’m probably giving them too much space but I really want them to have a shot at survival. I covered the soil with black plastic to keep weeds out and moisture in. It will also help to keep the soil warm, which will make the tomatoes happy!

I’ll be modifying the setup a bit over the next few weeks, adding bamboo support posts for the plants and some chicken wire around the outside of the raised bed.These things have survived longer than I thought they would so I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll make it to harvest in late August. 

Italy Trip Part II: Fruits of Campania

Southern Italy is pizza territory. This is the place where pizzaioli are born into pizza-making families, raised with the highest level of appreciation of what has become their most valuable export. The ingredients that are essential to true neapolitan pizza are produced in the region around Naples called Campania. The area’s natural resources that lead to the birth of pizza are now protected by the European Union. I had the pleasure of meeting with several gastronomes (food lovers) who helped me to understand the incredible effort that goes into making a neapolitan pizza.

The first, and only meeting I had scheduled before boarding the plane to Italy, was with Enzo Coccia. Never before have I met a man so passionate (in a very serious way) about pizza and the traditions associated with the dish. Enzo owns Pizzeria La Notizia, which is located in an area outside of Napoli’s already pizza-packed central district. Besides operating the pizzeria, Enzo also runs Pizza Consulting, which provides a series of private courses in neapolitan pizza production. The course is extremely intense and detailed, so it is more popular with pizzaioli looking to improve their skills than home cooks looking for a cooking lesson. But I wasn’t there to learn how to make pizza. I was there to learn more about its ingredients!

(Enzo and me in the center, flanked by two Pizzeria La Notizia employees)

Before I could even ask a question about tomatoes, Enzo was on the phone with the owner of a San Marzano tomato company. Just as I was about to inquire about the region’s extra virgin olive oil, Enzo’s phone magically dialed a friendly olive grower. Within five minutes of phone calls, Enzo had fully booked the rest of my time in Italy with visits to various farms, orchards and dairies. If Enzo had his way, I probably would have had to push my flight back another week.

The first appointment was with Sabato Abagnale at Il Miracolo Di San Gennaro, a San Marzano tomato producer in the tiny town of Sant” Antonio Abate near Naples. San Marzanos are hearty plum tomatoes whose DOP status with the European Union gives them protection against “name fraud.” So a can of tomatoes bearing the name “San Marzano” must also bear the EU’s DOP stamp to indicate that it was grown according to strict standards in Campania. However the production at Il Miracolo Di San Gennaro do not conform to these standards because, unlike DOP tomatoes, they keep the skins on the fruit. Sabato explained that 85% of the flavor of a tomato is lost when the skin is removed.

I only wish I was visiting Sabato during tomato season (August – September) so I could witness the harvest. Unlike “industry” tomatoes, Sabato’s are harvested only when the fruits are ripe. Other producers mix over- and under-ripe tomatoes but Il Miracolo Di San Gennaro uses only ones that are a deep red. The popular strain of San Marzano DOP is actually a hybrid that makes them better suited for mass production. Sabato somehow managed to find the original strain, which is what you’ll get if you can track down this extremely rare brand of tomato ($10 – $15 per 28 oz. can in US).

We did a taste test to compare them with a a can of store-bought plum tomatoes.

On my way home, I managed to hop out of the cab at the front entrance to Pompeii, the ancient city buried by the 79 AD eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Enzo stressed the need to visit this historic site, which became obvious when I noticed this 2000 year old bread oven. It looks exactly like every brick oven I saw in Naples.

As much as I had learned about the revered San Marzano tomatoes of Campania, there were still quite a few products I needed to investigate. The road to extra virgin olive oil and mozzarella di bufala still remained untouched, but thanks to Enzo Coccia I was looking forward to more meetings with producers of Italy’s finest natural foods.