While most people look forward to vacations and school getting out between the months of May and June, I’m bursting at the seams with anticipation to see red — as in the start of tomato season.
There’s nothing like the first tomatoes plucked from the vine, slightly firm to the touch and still warm from the sun.
Even though my puny potted tomato plant isn’t yielding much yet, nearby Artesian Farms is. For weeks now I’ve been watching its tomato vines grow larger and bushier and develop the shiny green fruit that’s now bright red.
I was excited last Thursday when I saw folks in the field hunched over picking fruit. That was my cue the farm was open for U-pick.
Artesian Farms U-Pick Tomatoes is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 2710 College Ave. E., behind the Circle K in Ruskin. From now through the middle of June, you can pick grape tomatoes and a variety called Florida 47. I call them Ruskin tomatoes.
On Sunday, it took me a whole 10 or 15 minutes to fit as many tomatoes as possible into a five-gallon bucket. Most were the size of softballs; it was easy to do. Heading back toward my car I was curious to find out how my fellow tomato worshippers were going to consume their sudden glut of Ruskin tomatoes.
So I waylaid Freida Fortson and her sister-in-law, Cathy. They were eager to share information as they were loading up the back of their pickup truck.
Freida said she’ll stash most of her tomatoes in the freezer. First she washes them and takes off the stem tops and places them spaced apart on cookie sheets lined with wax paper. Then she freezes them overnight.
The next day she pops them whole into Ziploc bags and back into the freezer like large frozen meatballs.
“The ones I don’t freeze I’ll use to make tomato gravy,” she said.
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “Gravy?”
I thought I’d heard it all, but truthfully I’ve never heard of tomato gravy.
She said that’s what she grew up on. Tomatoes, onion and a little bacon grease combine to create one of her favorite tomato recipes, especially over steamed white rice.
I later learned that in the South, tomato gravy is used to smother everything from grits to meatloaf and pork chops to buttery biscuits.
Of all the foods that define “Southerness” it sounds to me like tomato gravy may rank right up there with grits.
I’ve included a recipe. If bacon drippings aren’t in your diet regimen, you can substitute olive or vegetable oil. But oh, the flavor those bacon drippings do impart.