The Salad Days Approach
by Jeff & L. Lewis

It’s less than a week until the first day of spring, which means that, in the warmer parts of the country, tomato season is about to begin. For us, that essentially means the year is about to begin in earnest—the dreary tomato-less months are a purgatory that gardeners must face prior to summer’s tomato heaven, when backyard vines produce fruit that put farmers’ market tomatoes to shame, let alone those tasteless thick-skinned varieties that sully supermarket produce bins. We take our tomato growing very seriously, lavish affection on each plant and worry ourselves silly when we see a wilted branch or discolored stem.
We will be upfront with you. Our goal in this article is to proselytize for the tomato, so that you too will become obsessed with them. Like us, we hope that you will grow at least ten plants for each member of your family. We pray that you will plant them in your walkways and driveway, rig up elaborate support structures for them, and ultimately tear out your lawns or move to more tomato-friendly homes as your passion grows.

Notice how this portion of our tomato crop has eclipsed our back yard.
We expect nothing less from you.

This week, we will introduce our favorite varieties, with hopes that their names and images will seep into your subconscious so that in a couple of weeks, after we provide further planting advice, you’ll be unable to resist the tomato’s allure. So here they are, the five tomato varieties that should be in every garden—or, at least, every garden in a temperate California climate. We’ve listed them in order of preference if you are unable—heaven forbid—to plant fewer than five in your yard.

Sungold

Have you ever tasted manna from heaven? No? Well, we have—by the handful, straight off the vine. Manna The Sun Gold has an intense sweet-tart flavor with the complexity of a larger tomato but the concentrated, crisp-skinned goodness of a cherry. The Sun Gold’s bright orange fruit are marvelously accommodating, seamlessly making glorious your pasta sauces, crudités plates and fresh salsas while also waiting patiently in the wings, in its raisinesque oven-dried incarnation, to add zest to your winter soups, sandwiches and just about any savory dish you can cook up.

Oh, yes: it is also incredibly hardy, fruits early and continually and will make your every day from June till November just a little bit brighter. This is the only hybrid (non-heirloom) variety we’ve ever loved, and we would like to hug the genius who developed it.

Brandywine

If you haven’t tasted manna, perhaps you have been lucky enough to experience the “old-fashioned tomato flavor” that elderly mid-westerners are always going on about. While we can’t attest to a first-hand knowledge of what that old-fashioned tomato flavor is supposed to be, what with the fact that we’re only in our mid-thirties, Lynn’s seventy-year-old father asserts that the Brandywine has it—in spades. A big, juicy, wonderfully flavorful beefsteak originally grown by the Amish, the Brandywine is generally considered the gold standard of heirloom tomatoes, and you’ll never find a better slicing ‘mater for caprese salad. No matter what they would have us think, it is not plain, and must, I think, break some Amish rule about extravagance.

Stupice

With all due respect to its quality, which is just dandy, the miracle of the Stupice is its profligacy, extravagantly lavishing hundreds of Roma-type tomatoes on its fortunate keeper. Even better? You will be harvesting your first Stupices just two months after you plant, and will not see your last till winter is rearing its chilly head. Stupices even thrive in cool, foggy weather, fruiting well in such socked-in spots as San Francisco’s Richmond District. Perfect for sauces but also tasty in fresh preparations, this Czech heirloom will do you proud.

Green Zebra

Yes, all tomatoes are pretty, but Green Zebras are the young Liz Taylor of the tomato world—traffic-stoppingly beautiful, perennially ogled and simply irresistible. Leaf-colored skin with yellowish-orange stripes and a chartreuse interior, these petite, tangy saladettes are a delight. Gorgeous in any fresh presentation—a salad plate, a salsa, a bruschetta topping—they are slightly less appetizing when cooked, as the color turns a rather muddy brown. The flavor is always tart and clear, however, and can perk up a mix of lesser-flavored fruits. Green Zebra plants can be a mite temperamental, requiring a little extra attention and staking, but are well worth it.

Aunt Ruby's German Green

A lesser-known variety than the first four, and one we’ve only known about for a couple of years, Aunt Ruby’s has vaulted, Bubka-like, past many of our old favorites to claim a well-deserved spot on our Top Five list. This tomato has it all: huge, mouth-watering fruits the color of pippin apples, with the slightest yellow-pink shading on the blossom end when perfectly ripe. The juicy interior is in shades of light green, with dark-green seed pockets. And the flavor—o, the glorious flavor!—is of near-Brandywine caliber.


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Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Lewis