On Buying Tomatoes

Once tomatoes shed their reputation for poison, they became the most versatile vegetable in American kitchens. While tomatoes are available year-round any fool knows that they’re best in season and locally grown. Any produce vendor in the American South is going to keep at least one big bin usually right up front and center full of field tomatoes grown by small truck farmers and delivered every morning. When you’re buying from one of these people–and it’s the only place you should buy tomatoes in the summer–it’s hard to go wrong, but there are a few things you should bear in mind.

Use your common sense. Choose uniformly firm fruit, without any squishy spots, bruises or dark spots. The most commonly-grown field tomatoes in central Mississippi and likely throughout the mid-South are Big Boy, Better Boy, Celebrity and (Arkansas) Traveler, all of which are more or less red-ish the Traveler tending to pink. Most of the old-school produce vendors will occasionally have “cherry” tomatoes of some kind or the other in season, but you’ll have to find markets that support specialty growers, such as the Mississippi Farmers’ Market, to get the varieties such as Cherokee, Krim or any of the various yellows. You can of course always get good green tomatoes for pickling or frying.

Remember that the tomato is a climacteric fruit, which means they ripen (i.e. become softer and sweeter) after harvest. The biochemical process involved is that climacteric fruits give off large amounts of ethylene gas whereas non-climacteric fruits give little or no ethylene gas. Non-climacteric fruits, once harvested, never ripen further; you can find an extensive list here.  Tomatoes sold in the winter and for the most part any sold in big chain supermarkets are picked green and “gassed”, sprayed with ethylene during shipping, which forces coloration, but not sugar production. When you buy from the produce stand, however, pick a few to use immediately and a few on not-quite-ripe side to ripen naturally on your kitchen shelf. Turn the tomatoes stem-end down to ripen, since the blossom end will mature first and the firm stem end will better support the fruit.

You shouldn’t have to refrigerate unsliced summer tomatoes at all. If you don’t stack them, they’ll keep for several days, and you should eat them at such a pace that they don’t need refrigeration. Remember with every bite you take that autumn will be here all too soon, and winter right behind.

 

 

Pepper Season

Peppers in Mississippi don’t carry the same cachet they do in parts of Louisiana and Carolina where their cultivation and consumption has become a fetish.

That’s not to say that we don’t have our share of connoisseurs here, for indeed we do, even eccentrics who will trot you out to a raised bed in their back yard in order that you might make appropriately appreciative noises over their ghosts. You’ll even find reapers and habaneros at a farmers’ market which I find more evident of their ease of culture than their demand for the table.

The staples prevail. Topmost are the thick-walled bells, best smaller than a fist, dark and tight. Country-style lunches should always include the crunch and zest of fresh sliced onion and sweet banana pepper to cut fat-stewed vegetables. Jalapenos here tend to be woody with more heat than taste, but deseeded and minced they’ll serve in a pico or pureed in a thin salsa. Poblanos should have a larger role in our kitchens, as should all the mild thin-walled capsicums. The thick-walled cherries are regrettably still a novelty.

The Mississippi pepper season begins in earnest when the thin cayennes come to market, as they did today in the form of two mesh baskets filled with spindly green pods marked to sell for a dollar each. At such a price my jaw dropped. The vendor, apologizing (!) said she’d have red ones soon, which she’s sure to mark up, but the greens are just as good if not more so, even dried. We’re finding less and less of the long cayennes now, so if you find a vendor, woo them, fawn and flatter, because cayennes will get you through the winter in the form of sauce or vinegar. Tabascos will too, and they grow well here, in my experience better than cayennes. The meatier tabascos make a better mash for red sauce, but both are equally good simply destemmed, pierced, packed into a jar with salt and filled with hot vinegar.

For two years now I’ve been growing pequinos first sent as a cropped plant from a friend in Austin. In the landscape of my mind where all sorts possibilities entertain themselves, the fiery little pequin is what I remember called a bird’s-eye pepper, not the Asian variety.  Pequinos grow at a glacial rate from seed so must be pruned and overwintered.

The Christmas Bramble

The Fairchild household is in an uproar over Dabney’s marriage, but however peculiar the match, the proprieties must be observed, standards maintained, and that includes lavish decorations for rehearsal supper. At one point during the hustle and bustle the matriarch Ellen says, “I thought in the long run . . . we could just cover everything mostly with Southern smilax.”

Most of those who read Welty’s Delta Wedding probably skip over Ellen’s references to smilax without taking the time to find out what smilax is, likely thinking it a type of fabric or paper, but had they bothered to look it up, they’d have found that smilax is a coarse evergreen vine whose many varieties proliferate throughout the South in woods, fields, roadsides and back yards. Evergreen and durable, the vines have long been used for greenery in the home during festive events and holidays, and not just in the South. In the stage version of Harvey, the opening scene describes the home as being “festooned with smilax”.

Members of the enormous lily family, smilaxes are close relatives of asparagus, and they’re just as edible, just not as toothsome. In fact, before the invention of artificial flavorings, one species, Smilax ornata was used as the basis for sarsaparilla and root beer. (S. ornata was also registered in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a treatment for syphilis from 1820 to 1910.) Linnaeus named the genus Smilax after a nymph who was by reason of some divine infraction transformed into a brambly vine (her lover Croesus for the same reason was—unfairly, it seems to me—transformed into a crocus).

Indeed most smilaxes are “brambly”, profuse with thorns, a notable exception being Smilax smalii (previously lanceolata), which only has thorns around the base of the stems. Steve Bender says one name for this plant, Jackson vine, comes from ladies in Alabama who would decorate their homes with the evergreen when Stonewall Jackson came to town, but frankly I have a hard time swallowing that. Most people just call it, as Ellen Fairchild did, Southern smilax. People once often trained smilax vines around their porches for evergreen framing, but is no longer cultivated because of an undeserved reputation as invasive.

Smilax takes readily to use in wreaths, swags and garlands. Like any plant cutting, the vines last longer when kept in water, and must be discarded when dry.