How to grow and prepare tomatoes

A chef and a gardener give advice on growing and cooking tomatoes. Plus a delicious recipe for tomato pie.

Courtesy of Anne K. Moore
Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in American gardens. They may be grown from seed or set out into the garden as plants.
Courtesy of Robert Shober
A delicious way to prepare home-grown tomatoes is Savory Tomato Pie, whose flavor is enhanced by cheddar cheese and fresh basil.

Tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes and in all kinds of flavors. I [Anne] grow my own so that I can get that perfect taste, picked on that perfect summer day. Well, maybe not perfect, but that is how I remember my childhood tomato experience.

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed, and seed is available in hybrid and heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are all the rage right now, but remember, they are susceptible to more garden diseases then the hybrids, which are bred to withstand many of these attacks.

Good tomatoes in the South

My own personal tomato favorites are hybrids Better Boy, Park’s Whopper, Delicious, Big Beef, and heirlooms German Giant, Black Krim, and Cherokee Purple. As you can see, I like my tomatoes big. I also like a small one, Sun Gold hybrid. It is yummy.

If you want to obsess over tomatoes, order the catalog from Tomato Growers Supply Co. You will be hard pressed to keep your list below 10.

You can buy several packets of tomato seed and plant just a few of each. To keep the seeds for use in future years, seal the packets with tape and store them in a container with a tight-fitting lid somewhere cool indoors. Seeds should remain viable for three to four years.

Growing tomatoes from seed

Sow the seeds according to the packet directions six to eight weeks before your expected last frost. Tomato seeds germinate best at around 59 degrees F. (15 C)or above. I have found that a seed germinating heat mat is well worth buying.

Start the seeds indoors in cells or trays of sterile soilless mix. When the seedlings reach three inches tall, transplant them to four-inch pots.

The transplants can go into your garden when there is no more danger of frost and nighttime temperatures stay above 45 degrees F. (7 C).

Digging a shallow, inclined trench for each plant, instead of a deep hole, will keep the roots nearer the surface where they will stay warm. Remove all but the top cluster of leaves. Lay the tomato plant in the trench. Bury the roots and stem in the upward-sloping trench with only the section of stem above ground that has leaves. Roots will grow all along the stem, giving it a good anchor.

Tomatoes need consistent water when mature, a quart a day, to ward off blossom end rot.

You should be harvesting sweet, tangy fresh tomatoes seven to weeks after you move your plants outdoors.

Savory Tomato Pie

I grew up in a region of the South that had a black belt of rich soil. The taste of our garden-grown vegetables -- and especially tomatoes -- could not be compared to any place that I have lived, or visited.

We let our tomatoes ripen on the vine, and when Mother wanted to use tomatoes, she just walked out to the garden and picked them. Oh, for her tomato sandwich with that freshly sliced tomato between two layers of white bread slathered in mayonnaise with salt and a bunch of pepper!

Something magical happens when tomato mixes with mayonnaise and salt. It is in the juice of the tomato being pulled out by the salt, mixing with the mayonnaise and making its own delicious dressing.

My children love savory tomato pie and even though I can think of many recipes to use tomatoes, I thought you might like this one. [Click at the right base of the first photo above to see a picture of the tomato pie.] If you would like the recipe for cornbread salad made with tomatoes and mayo, sautéed tomatoes, or other tomato recipes, please e-mail me through my website and I’ll be happy to send it to you.

Tomato Pie

1 prebaked 9-inch pie crust*
1-1/2 to 2 ripe tomatoes, peeled
1 tablespoon dried basil or 3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1 small to medium sweet onion, finely chopped
1-1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
3/4 to 1 cup mayonnaise
Salt and pepper to taste

*Blind bake the pie crust according to package directions.

Slice peeled tomatoes into 1/2 to 3/4-inch slices. Set tomato
slices on a paper towel to drain while chopping onions.

When ready, place tomato slices on pie shell, making only
one layer of tomatoes. Top the tomatoes with the chopped
onions. Sprinkle with basil. Salt and pepper to taste.

Mix cheddar cheese and mayonnaise. Spread mayonnaise mixture
from edge to edge on top of the onion mixture. Bake at 350
degrees F. for 35 to 40 minutes or until top is bubbly and pie is cooked through.
Wait 20 minutes before serving. Serves 6.

Linda Weiss and Anne Moore, who blog at Diggin' It about food and gardening, are friends who met while Linda was the food editor and Anne was the garden editor for South Carolina Homes & Gardens magazine. They now write articles for the ETV GardenSMART television show website, where Anne is the horticulture editor, gardening consultant, and e-newsletter editor. Anne has written for magazines and newspapers. She is a member of and a recipient of a Silver Award for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association. Linda is a personal chef. She attended Le Cordon Bleu of Paris’ catering program. She has appeared as a guest chef on numerous television shows, has been a culinary educator for 10 years, and a food writer for a number of magazines. She is a professional member of The James Beard Foundation and the Southern Foodways Alliance. She has written a cookbook, "Memories From Home, Cooking with Family and Friends."

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