Tomato or Tamato, no matter how you pronounce it, the fact is Missouri grows some of the best varieties of this annual favorite. Indigenous to South and Central America the word tomato comes from the Aztec word Tomalt. They were first brought to European cooking in the 16th Century and have since then become prominent in cuisines of Italy, Greece, Spain, Southern France, and of course Mexico where they originated. Known as “pomodoro” by the Italians, which means golden apple, tomatoes are also called “pommes d’amour” in French means love apple.
Tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from green and purple to yellow and crimson red. There are many varieties; some that are better for eating raw and some that are at their best when cooked. Once thought of as poisonous because they belong to the nightshade family, the fruit itself is obviously harmless although the leaves and stems are toxic.
Tomatoes can be classified as heirloom or hybrid. According to Tim Reinbott, the Director of Field Operations for CAFNR at the University of Missouri, heirloom tomatoes must be grown from seeds that have not been crossed with any other varieties for at least 50 years or longer. Heirloom tomatoes are not known for their beauty since they are often misshapen; however they do ripen into many different colors and when it comes to flavor and taste, heirloom varieties have some of the best flavor. To be classified as an heirloom, the seeds for the annual planting are saved and passed down from many generations. Reinbott says that hybrid varieties, unlike heirlooms, are interbred in order to improve their disease resistance, thickness of skin, and yield. By creating new hybrid varieties, taste and flavor is sometimes sacrificed to improve other qualities.
When it comes to selecting tomatoes that will be grown at home one should consider the harvest season for when the fully ripened tomatoes will be ready for picking. Some gardeners like to have the bulk of the tomatoes to ripen at roughly the same time and others wish to have tomatoes ripen at different times so as to make them available throughout the growing season. This characteristic is known as the determinate or indeterminate variety of plant. The determinate types is when all of the tomatoes on the vine grow to maturity and ripen at the roughly the same time. The indeterminate type is when the vine bears tomatoes all season long in lesser quantities and they consequently ripen at different times. Missouri has a good climate for both determinate and indeterminate types. As far as general tips for home growers Reinbott offers this advice:
- When it comes to keeping the tomato vines disease free sanitation is very important. To do this wipe down the steaks, cages or anything that touches the vines with a 10% bleach to 90% water solution
- Mulch the vines with a thick layer of straw or leaf mulch. This helps with water retention as well as disease prevention
- When low branches touch the ground make sure to stake them up or trim them
- Tomato plants love the heat but do not do well in wet conditions. When the growing season is rainy tomatoes tend to have a lot of problems
- One of the pests that can damage tomatoes is the hornworm. If you find them on your plants it is best to hand pick them off and dispose of them
- Blossom end rot is another common problem for tomatoes which is attributed to a nutrient deficiency. To guard against this, use calcium nitrate around the roots of the vines
Tomatoes come in a vast array of varieties many of which grow well in Missouri’s hot humid summers. They can be loosely categorized into four major groups: salad, plum, cherry, and beefsteak tomatoes. Each group of tomato has its own specific characteristics which pertain to the sweetness/acidity level, thickness of skin, amount of seeds, and amount of water that the tomato contains. Tomato colors span the spectrum from red, orange, yellow, purple, pink, black and green when fully ripe. Some varieties are best grown on the ground, some staked or in cages and some grow well in pots or containers.
Salad tomatoes are normally 2 to 3 inches in diameter and are used in salads, sandwiches and salsas. Heirloom and hybrid varieties include Arkansas Traveler, Creole Original, Djeena Lees Golden, Oh Happy Day Hybrid, Green Zebra and Garden Peach.
Plum Tomatoes contain less seeds and water then salad tomatoes. This makes them an excellent choice for sauces and soups. This is also the type of tomato that is used to make tomato paste. Plum tomatoes along with cherry tomatoes are delicious when dried or slow roasted in olive oil with garlic and herbs. Some varieties are Roma, Amish Paste Tomatoes, Amos Coli and San Marzano.
Cherry and grape tomatoes bear fruit in clusters and can be grown in pots. Served most often in salads, cherry tomatoes are a good starter plant for young children who love to eat the tasty ripe tomatoes when harvested. Varieties include Chadwick Cherry, Fox Cherry, Pearly Pink, Black Cherry and Blue Cream. Some of the best are Super Sweet 100’s, Sun Sugar, Sun Gold and Sugary.
Beef steak tomatoes are prized for their size and mild flavor, usually used in sandwiches. These behemoths can weigh as much as 1 to 3 pounds. Due to their gigantic size, they have a longer growing time when compared to the other types of tomatoes and special care has to be taken since they are so large. Some types of beefsteak tomatoes are: Steak House hybrid, Mortgage Lifter, Big Rainbow, Cherokee Purple, Brandy Wine Pink and Missouri Love Apple
Three of my favorite ways to serve tomatoes are as a smoked tomato relish (great with grilled steaks), as a slow roasted tomato in olive oil known as a tomato confit in culinary terms (best served on croustades with chopped olives and herbs or as a garnish for grilled fish or chicken), or in a cream of roasted tomato soup garnished with goat cheese and chive mousse. No matter how they are served, when homegrown tomatoes are picked at the peak of their ripeness and prepared carefully with top quality ingredients, they will be the hit of any summer get-together or dinner party. It is no wonder why they are called love apples.