No sooner does sweet corn peak than it's time to start enjoying fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes.
"This year, growing conditions were almost perfect," says Abby Shepler, Rochester Farmers Market manager. "Growers are saying it has been a while since it's been this good. Hot days and minimal amounts of rain have made for bumper crops."
A recent stroll through the market bears this out, with nearly every vendor displaying baskets and trays of gorgeous red, orange and yellow tomatoes of all sizes. Right now, these take center stage for local, seasonal eating.
Actually, these last weeks of August and into the beginning of September, tomatoes — both heirlooms and hybrids — are at their best. Most farmers grow both. The difference? Heirloom seed varieties have been passed down for decades, usually at least 50 years. They are also thin-skinned, so be careful handling them.
"These can be very temperamental," said grower Mark Timm. "They don't especially like to get wet."
Hybrids are bred for taste, and to grow a more "perfect" tomato, round and flavorful, with a good balance of sweet and acidity. Which have the best flavor? Personal preference.
Andrew Serio grows 325 tomato plants hydroponically, meaning in nutrient-rich water. In early spring, he started 240 plants in the ground in what he refers to as a "high tunnel" structure, with a plastic roof and sides that roll up. This fall, he plans to add another such structure that will hold 800 plants.
On Saturdays, he brings 400 pounds of tomatoes to the market, having usually picked 700 pounds per week. As anyone who buys from him can attest, they're delicious, and you usually have to wait in line to buy some. He grows tomatoes from seeds he cultivates himself, an heirloom combination.
"I hope to package and sell them at market next spring," he said.
Serio is also selling a smoky tomato sauce he makes from leftovers.
Longtime growers Mark and Laurie Timm of Fairview Farms are prolific in what they offer at market, and right now, tomatoes are tops on the list They have grown over 1,100 plants this season of all varieties, including an excellent selection of cherry tomatoes. Mark's favorite of that variety are the Sun Golds, "sweet and delicious with great flavor." Another favorite is the hybrid Mountain Fresh, a great "slicer," he says.
Many Hands Organic Gardens is another grower with excellent tomatoes. Though owner Marge Warthesen broke her leg in a farm accident recently, family and helpers are making sure everything gets to market. Her favorites are the Romas, especially a variety called Opalka, which is larger and meatier than others.
Romas are known for their low water content, making them especially good for sauces, quick saute dishes, or in a salad where you don't want much moisture. Whichever grower you buy from ,you can't go wrong.
Faced with so many choices, the best way to buy is to rely on your own senses — sight, smell and feel. Don't be turned off by odd shapes — those can be the sweetest, most flavorful. The best are heavy for their size and have a pronounced "tomatoey" aroma. The orange and yellow ones are often less acidic, milder and sweeter, or so I've been told. Ask the grower which their favorites are — that will help you choose.
Haven't we always been told never, ever, refrigerate tomatoes? Well, that's over. Unless you're eating them right now or today sometime, put them in the refrigerator. They will last longer and — spoiler alert — I've been doing that for a long time. Just bring them to room temperature before using.
While many choose to make sauce and can them, these days, the best way to use tomatoes is in salads, sliced on a platter with salt and pepper and maybe a drizzle of olive oil, turned into bruschetta, plain sandwiches with mayo and tomato slices, BLTs, or chopped and stirred into hot pasta. However you choose to use them, it's a pretty short season. Don't miss it.
Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.