In the last long days of summer, paeans to the season’s most ubiquitous fruit abound. Tomatoes, in a bizarre and perhaps cruel twist, were in limited supply this summer; however those prudent enough to grow their own were able to be a little smug, or even generous with their crop. Aficionados declare the superiority of the home or locally grown tomato, scorning supermarket specimens as having all the flavor of wet newspaper. There is little better with a tomato, however, than a companion planting of basil; lauded by organic gardeners and cooks alike, they have a natural harmony that’s hard to beat.
Tomatoes were early beneficiaries of heirloom plants’ current popularity. Weary of varieties grown to travel long distances, connoisseurs began to seek types unfamiliar for decades and to trumpet their virtues. The Cherokee Purple is a big beefsteak-style tomato, valued for its unusual color, and also quite delicious. Not only do heirloom tomatoes look different, some also come with stories. The Mortgage Lifter, also known as Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, was bred in the 1930s by M.C. “Radiator Charlie” Byles from plants bearing the biggest tomatoes he could find. After 7 years, he came up with a tomato that suited his high expectations and sold the seedlings at a dollar apiece, earning enough to pay off his mortgage. The giant tomatoes can weigh in over a pound, and Byles claimed that each was big enough to feed a family of six.
Tomatoes come in an array of fruit sizes, colors and plant types. For the tomato impatient, Early Girl and Green Zebra tomatoes ripen earlier. Types suitable for containers include the compact Patio Hybrid, and Small Fry, which can be grown in hanging baskets. Another method for growing tomatoes is the upside-down bucket, with possible room for companion basil, or other plants on top. Pinch suckers, the little stems that grow in the space between side stems and the main stem, to encourage plants to direct energy to fruit growth.
Basil, similarly, has a number of varieties. Enjoy purple shades in Opal and Purple Ruffles basil, as well as a slightly different flavor. Thai basil has a slight licorice flavor, commonly used in that cuisine, while Lemon and Lime basil feature citrus notes in their flavors. Sweet basil is the most commonly used type, but don’t feel restricted, as most types can be used interchangeably. For a longer basil season, pluck the flowering tops which also encourages plants to thicken.
Pesto is a wonderful way to use up a basil largesse. Combine several handfuls of basil leaves, rinsed and swung dry, two or three cloves of garlic and a scant handful of roasted and salted nuts or seeds; pine nuts are traditional, but almonds, pistachios and pumpkin kernels each contribute unique flavors. Pound these together in a mortar and pestle or whiz in the food processor, adding a little oil and some Parmesan, if desired. Omit the cheese and stretch summer flavors into winter by freezing pesto in ice cube trays and drop them into a midwinter soup, to break the chill. Preserving tomatoes is also easily done, and home canned tomato sauce in the cupboard or a bag in the freezer equals a simple dinner some evening.
Beautiful things can be made without heating up the kitchen; another blessing of these plants. The most basic is bruschetta, eaten on good bread, which can be grilled for a smoky flavor if the grill is already going. Chop tomato and basil, mix with enough extra virgin olive oil to lubricate and a little sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Spread on bread for an appetizer or side, or toss the mixture with pasta. Thread small cherry tomatoes onto skewers with squash and chunks of beef, mushrooms, brush with olive oil and grill for kebabs. Tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella make a Salad Caprese, dress with a little olive oil and balsamic if so inclined; also delicious on a sandwich with a little pesto, toasted lightly in a toaster oven. This combination on a pizza crust is the classic Pizza Margherita.
Amy Ambrosius is a regular Garden & Greenhouse contributor.