Seeing red as tomatoes ripen, fall and scatter

September 01, 1999|By Rob Kasper

INTO EACH gardener's life, some cherry tomatoes fall, as a form of punishment. Picking cherry tomatoes is a pain, often in the knees, which is where the pain hit me recently. I had been bending over and collecting some of the 10,000 or so cherry tomatoes that had ripened, seemingly overnight, in my garden.

When you harvest big tomatoes, you can hold them in your hand and admire your work. If you pluck a ripe, well-grown tomato from the vine, you feel like a skilled worker, benefiting from hours of toil.

But gathering cherry tomatoes makes you feel like a cog in a wheel. It is all about numbers, speed and large quantities. Instead of proudly holding one massive tomato in your hand, you try to shake several of the tiny tomatoes loose from the plant.

Forget pride. You want a massive harvest, a rain of tiny tomatoes, to fall into your waiting bucket. Usually, several of the ripest cherry tomatoes miss the bucket and disappear into dense tomato plant undergrowth. You end up chasing them through the foliage like a mad bounty hunter.

Pursuing fugitive fruit is just one of the frustrations that occur when you attempt to reap the tiny tomatoes. Another is dealing with the feeling that your job is never finished, that you are on a tomato-picking treadmill.

When you harvest normal-size tomatoes, you can stand back, look at the plant and feel like you have accomplished something. When you stand back and look at a cherry tomato plant, all you see are your failures, ripe ones that you missed. They are hiding in the zucchini, lurking in the mint.

Harvesting cherry tomatoes is such an unpleasant duty that by the time you have collected a mound of them, you feel obligated to reward yourself for your labors.

Recently, I used a bunch of cherry tomatoes to try out Boog's Bloody Mary concoction. Former Baltimore Oriole first baseman Boog Powell passed along this recipe to me several months ago when we made hot pepper sauce in his Baltimore-area home.

The idea is to transform the tiny tomatoes into miniature, vodka-soaked hors d'oeuvres. A few days ago, I consulted with Boog, by telephone, on the procedure.

Following his instructions, I skinned the little tomatoes, which, as he promised, was easier when they were dipped in boiling water. But I cooked the tomatoes too long. They got soggy.

The next time I tried the procedure, I dipped the tomatoes into the hot water for 10 to 15 seconds, then plunged them into ice water. The skins cracked, but the tomatoes were firm and flavorful.

I peeled off the skins and put the skinless tomatoes in a bowl in the refrigerator. Then, I put the vodka in the freezer.

In a small bowl, I prepared a mixture of lemon juice, kosher salt, Worcestershire sauce and a shake of Tabasco sauce. I toyed with the mixture until it developed the flavor I wanted. Basically, for every teaspoon of lemon juice, I put in a squirt of Worcestershire.

When everything was ready, I took the bowl of peeled tomatoes out of the refrigerator. I poured the chilled vodka into a bowl. And I set out the bowl filled with the Worcestershire-lemon juice mixture.

Then, I got a box of toothpicks, the long ones, and started spearing. I skewered several tomatoes with a toothpick. I dipped them into the bowl of vodka and then into the bowl of seasoning. I popped the tomatoes in my mouth.

The first batch of tomatoes, the ones I had overcooked, had a somewhat disappointing flavor. They tasted stewed. I kept eating them, however, and soon I was stewed as well.

I eased up on the cooking time with the next batch -- and on the number of tomatoes I ate.

The tomatoes were wonderful, and I was more adept at controlling myself. When I was no longer able to skewer a tomato, I knew it was time to stop.

I called Boog to thank him for giving me a way to get rid of my cherry tomatoes. He said he was happy to help. "It gets a little sloppy," he said. "But it is a good way to start off a party."

Boog said he and his wife, Janet, had fixed the recipe several years ago for a party they gave at their winter home in Florida. "It is a good recipe to try outside," he said.

Boog added that he hadn't made the recipe for several years because he quit growing cherry tomatoes. "They are such a pain in the knee," he said. Or something like that.

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