While it may seem to some that it’s all just chicken slaughter and hijinks over here at my house, we’ve actually been dealing with a slaughter of a different kind over the last month or so.
I noticed the first yellowing leaves with brown spots on my gloriously full, abundantly-producing tomato plants late-July. Being sort of a learn-as-you-go kind of gal, I thought not much of it, trimmed the leaves off, and sat back down in my garden chair, glass of wine at the ready. Typing that makes me realize just how old I sound. I’m not that old, I swear, but I am financially embarrassed, so instead of barrooms or restaurants, I can be found getting my drink on in my garden. I supervise the growth of my future food while being absolutely certain to take in polyphenols daily. They’re good for you. I’ve read that it is so. Quantity-per-day limits be damned.
When I heard reports on NPR about the dreaded late blight, a fungus-like pathogen (yeah, that doesn’t sound good) that had caused the Irish potato famine, and that was impacting tomato growers in the northeast because of the very rainy, quite cool conditions this summer, I privately gloated, for the tomato plants in my New England garden were robust. Hundreds of flowers had appeared, and while they may have been later than usual in their arrival, no fear of blight had I. In fact, I sat, sipping my nightly Negroamaro, trying to determine how, exactly, two people could possibly eat all of those tomatoes we had coming. I had already factored in giving some to friends and family. I had even calculated donations to the local food pantry. All flowery evidence pointed to JR and I still being overrun with tomatoes. I would can them. And roast them. And sun-dry them. And use them in breakfast dishes. And lunch, and dinner, of course. At this fall’s physical, my doctor would smile as I described a diet rich in tomatoes, and therefore lycopene. I would also be sure to let her know about the polyphenols. We would have two, maybe three, solid months of tomato enjoyment. Perhaps even evolving into tomato fatigue. It was going to be glorious. This tomato triumph thought of mine interrupted JR’s garden thoughts – likely to do with chicken husbandry – with the tapping of my fingers against one another, my hands held just below my chin, and an involuntary – well, seemingly involuntary – sinister laugh erupting from within. Yes. The tomatoes would be mine. All mine.
Or I would be mightily punished for my gardener’s smugness. The incurable blight had already landed on my plants, and soon thousands of spores from those few affected leaves had attached themselves to all eight of my plants. The yellow and brown spotted leaves at the bottom of the plants deteriorated to dark brown touch-them-and-they’ll-turn-to-dust crumpled paper bag-looking things, lying listless, though still attached to their stalks, the yellow and brown pre-death spreading upward, along with my panic that our tomato crop, a crop that all gardeners hold so dear – especially in colder climates, where the growing season is short, and winter acutely long – would have to be destroyed.
After an online consultation with a garden-blogger friend, I compared my plants and fruit with photos of infected plants on the Cornell University website. It wasn’t good. Many of the fruits already had the light brown blemish resembling a burn that was indicative of the blight, and the plants were more than ten percent engulfed in it, the point from which, I read, there was no return. The plants had to be destroyed.
I called JR. “They really do have blight,” I said, “I’m going to pick all of the fruit that isn’t damaged, and then we have to burn the plants.”
“Why don’t you wait until tomorrow? We’ll see how they’re doing then.”
“No, we can’t wait until tomorrow,” I replied. Now, I do have a slight flair for the dramatic, but in this case, we really couldn’t wait – the plants had deteriorated badly in just two days. Despite JR’s attempt to talk me down from my conviction that tomato-picking was the only solution, I hung up the phone and made haste to the garden, where I harvested more than 130 green tomatoes as thunderstorms loomed in the distance. Over the course of just a few, short days, the tomato plants had gone from dear friends to demon weeds; I pushed their spore-infested stalks around callously in my quest to save their fruit, where just days earlier, I had gingerly removed suckers – non-fruit producing growths that grow out of the joints of two fruit-producing stalks – from these same plants. Depressing, to say the least.
I carried piles of green tomatoes in a basket back to the house, stemmed them, washed them all by hand to remove the spores – spores so nasty that when I washed my hands, the suds were day-glo yellow – and then placed them all into brown paper bags – 5 or 6 tomatoes per bag. Any that remained suspect were sequestered in their own, private bags, and all stems were thrown into the trash.
JR arrived home to find my new, shall-we-call-them-trashy, yes we shall, decorations in the living room. Our entire wood stove was covered with brown paper bags. Still skeptical about the fate of our plants, JR tried to remove all of the blighted branches in an attempt to salvage them. Three days later, we pulled them up, JR conceding that bagged tomatoes were the way to go; our only hope of a tomato harvest appearing on our plates this year.
Last week, our first tomatoes ripened. Of the rescued tomatoes, only four have developed blight – they were promptly thrown away – and more are ripening each day. We had a BLT for lunch over the weekend, and then for lunch today, I had this. A stale-frozen bread with leftover goat cheese, rescued tomato, and two pitted kalamata olives crostini. Is that too long a name? Yes, okay, it probably is. So let’s just call it “Rescued Tomato Crostini”, then, shall we? The stale, frozen bread – once thawed and heated – actually comes right back to life, though I recommend this only with good-quality bakery bread, not pre-sliced mass-produced bread.
I think we’ll have these crostini in the garden tonight, where we can take in the view of the barren tomato patch, empty but for my Trophy Tomato twig. I thought that this one, formerly bushy, plant might be able to make it, so I spared it, ripping off all of its fungus-like pathogen-infected branches, and leaving nothing but 4 small green tomatoes and a baby leaf. It has blossomed into a rather attractive tomato twig – complete with one full branch of green leaves and four new flowers. There is hope yet for months of tomato enjoyment. Only much more limited in quantity than previously expected.
- 4 (1-inch) slices stale-ish bakery bread
- 2 ounces goat cheese
- 1 medium tomato, rescued or otherwise, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces, then halved
- 8 pitted kalamata olives, halved
- kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the broiler.
- Spread one-quarter of the goat cheese on one side of each of the slices of bread. Top with one-quarter of the tomato slices, and top with four kalamata olive halves. Place under the broiler and cook until the edges of the bread are light golden-brown - careful to keep an eye on it, you know how the broiler can be - 2 to 3 minutes (depending, of course, on your broiler. Did I mention to be watching intently so as to avoid burning? I did? Okay, good. Do that, then.). Serve the crostini forth, in the garden or some other al fresco location, and appreciate the splendor of summer despite the blight it has wrought.
Dinner tonight: Yeah. It’s really hot today, so I’m thinking leftover chicken salad, these crostini, and, some of the blueberry-lemon cake I made again yesterday. If you like blueberries and lemon even a little, wee bit, I suggest you make that cake. I am committed to one per week until the blueberries go away, that I am. Estimated cost for two, including dessert: $10.15. Okay, so the chicken cost $5.32 for a whole bird. We ate half of that for dinner last night, so I’ve got about $2.66 left in chicken. I’ll use mayo – let’s say just a few tablespoons for I like a light hand with mayonnaise, and that costs around 7-cents per tablespoon, so that’s 21-cents. I’ll use dill and parsley from the garden, which is free for me, but if you were to purchase it, let’s say you’d use one-quarter of each bunch that costs $1.99, so that’s $1.00. We’ll have these on day-old rolls that were $1.25 for 8, or around 16-cents each, so that’s 32-cents. The sandwiches are then $4.19, however, I’ll bet we have leftovers for JR’s lunch tomorrow. The crostini – this is shaping up to be a bread-heavy dinner, but there we are – will cost $4.66. The bread cost $4.29 for 3 small loaves. That’s $1.43 per loaf. The four slices are about half of a loaf, so that’s 72-cents. The goat cheese is half of a package that costs $3.99. The tomato was free from our garden – or mostly free, aside from the trauma of picking that quantity green tomatoes and then destroying all but one twig – but if you were to purchase a nice field-tomato, it would cost in the range of $1.63, figuring around $3.25 per pound. The kalamatas are such a small amount, somewhere in the range of 1/2 ounce, so even at $9.99/pound, that’s 31-cents. The blueberry-lemon coffee cake (tea cake?) costs 65-cents per slice at my house – we get the full 12 slices out of that bad boy.