The Joy of Tomatoes: Preparing for Spring Planting
by Hélène Tremblay-Boyko
With any luck we are now passed the rigours of winter, and what a roller coaster time it has been! During those cold snaps in early 2022, my thoughts were turned to spring planting. While most of the vegetables I cultivate are seeded directly to the garden, there is one crop we have successfully started in the house before transplanting: tomatoes. By the end of April or the beginning of May, it is time to get those seeds sprouted and started.
Although tomatoes have mixed benefits, they generally do quite well in our Saskatchewan soils and weather conditions, and they are so versatile! For the latter two reasons, they hold a preferential place in my garden.
Tomatoes are technically a fruit, but due to their low carb (fewer than 5 grams per medium tomato) and sugar content (around 2.5 grams per 100 gram of tomato),1 they are often cooked and prepared as a vegetable and generally appear in main courses. Added to salads, in salsa, or sliced up with olive oil and garlic, roasted or cooked in sauces, soups and paste, they add great flavour to any meal. They can even provide a wonderful savoury snack when dried into tomato chips. In addition, tomatoes come packed with nutrients and many health benefits.
Tomatoes, the major dietary source of the antioxidant lycopene, provide around 80% of this carotenoid in our Western diet. In fact, tomatoes processed in sauce and paste, for example, contain substantially more lycopene than fresh tomatoes. This is likely due to the reduction of water content in sauces and paste. It has also been shown that consuming tomato products in association with healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, improves the absorption of lycopene. Because of this, your best all-around source of lycopene is in homemade tomato sauce. Cooked and canned tomatoes make it easier for other nutrients to be absorbed as well. These include other antioxidants such as chlorogenic acid and beta carotene, in addition to vitamins C and K and potassium and folate. Unfortunately, nutrients such as vitamin C can be destroyed by heat.
Lycopene, the most abundant carotenoid in tomatoes, has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. According to an article published on the U.S. Library of Medicine website,2 lycopene is “the most potent antioxidant among various common carotenoids, and, as such, protects normal tissues and cells by scavenging free radicals.” Since chemically based lycopene comes with significant side effects, plant-sourced lycopene has been shown to provide similar protection with negligible side effects. The article goes on to state that increased ingestion of tomatoes and tomato products that contain lycopene is associated with decreased risk of chronic diseases including cancer. Observational research has shown that lycopene may reduce the risks of lung, stomach, and prostate cancer, while still others report that it might help prevent pancreatic, colon, throat, mouth, breast, and cervical cancer. Researchers agree that further investigation is needed to determine how this occurs.
Among its other health benefits, health experts have indicated that lycopene may help lower levels of LDL cholesterol3 and blood pressure. Lycopene may also help reduce gingivitis and periodontitis as its antioxidant properties fight free radicals, however, the high acidity of tomatoes may damage the enamel on teeth. The fluid (95% water) and fibre in tomatoes may help reduce constipation, but the acid content may trigger or worsen acid reflux and indigestion. Lutein and zeaxanthin, also found in tomatoes, may help protect eyes from “blue light” made by digital devices, and may help ease headaches from eyestrain and reduce risk of age-related macular degeneration. Finally, there is some evidence that tomatoes may ease inflammation, boost immune response, and prevent clotting and strokes.
So… where to start? Ever since we have had a garden, we have grown our own tomatoes from green house starts. We have found that the taste of home-grown tomatoes is far superior to the mealy taste of store-bought tomatoes. A few years ago, my husband decided to try starting tomatoes in the house rather than purchasing starts so we could avoid tomatoes which had been treated with chemical fertilizer. With only a couple of seed starting trays divided into individual cells, we began our adventure. Any container with drainage holes can work, even egg cartons or yogurt containers with holes poked through their bottoms.
At first, we thought we should start the seeds as soon as possible, even in March. That was a mistake. The plants became too tall and unwieldy before we could get them into the garden. They should be started only about six weeks before the last expected frost, so we delayed starting the seeds. It is recommended that sterile starting soil be used, rather than regular garden or potting soil. We easily found this at our local hardware store. After filling the trays and patting down the soil, two seeds are placed in each cell by creating two small depressions and dropping a seed into each one. The seeds are then covered with more starting soil and patted down. A spray bottle can be used to mist the soil and keep it moist, not wet. Then the trays or containers are covered with plastic to prevent the soil from drying out. At this point, light is not necessary.
Once the seeds have germinated, it is time to give them light and remove the plastic cover. “Although you can start your tomatoes on a sunny windowsill, you’ll get better results growing them under some type of LED grow light. Winter and early spring sunlight isn’t nearly as intense as summer sunlight, and there are fewer hours of daylight. Insufficient light can lead to weak, spindly plants. A light garden with adjustable lights is ideal for seed starting.”4 In our first years we just used light from the windows, however, after our daughters gave us a grow light garden stand for Christmas, we found a great improvement in our success rate. Seedlings are kept a few inches below the lights and benefit from superior light and longer exposure. Continue keeping soil moist but not saturated.
Once the roots have begun to fill the cells, it is time to re-pot them in individual containers, taking care to bury the stems. They remain under the grow lights until daytime temperatures and wind conditions allow for hardening off outside during the day. When the nighttime temperatures dip too low, they can easily be brought in. We prefer this to covering the plants in a bright, sunny spot in the garden. Generally, we feel it is safe enough by early June to put them out in the garden, although different regions in the province would likely enjoy earlier transplanting. Again, it is a good idea to bury the stems and remember to keep the tomatoes well watered.
By late summer and early fall, the tomatoes should be starting to ripen. There is nothing like that burst of flavour! Once the risk of frost approaches, it is time to start harvesting in earnest. So, what to do with large quantities of ripening tomatoes? Last year, I invested in a tomato press. The best investment in gardening paraphernalia I have ever made! As the tomatoes ripened, we put them through the mill and ended up with a beautiful jewel-like red pulp which I then boiled down to paste (with a splash of olive oil) or processed as seasoned tomato sauce. As our bumper crop began ripening faster than we could process, we began dehydrating them into delicious tomato chips.
Seasoned Tomato Sauce (tried and true!)
6 quarts chopped tomatoes or tomato pulp
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp oregano
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
Add all ingredients to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer 2 hours, stirring occasionally. If the tomatoes have not already been pressed, process mixture through a food mill and discard seeds. (I find this process easier before everything is HOT so, before I had the tomato press, I just kept the seeds and skins.) Return to saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until thick, stirring frequently.
At this point, you may choose to freeze your sauce in plastic containers or can it. If you are canning, ladle into hot canning jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space and add 2 tbsp lemon juice or 1/2 tsp citric acid. Remove air bubbles, wipe rim and screw threads, and adjust lids and screw bands to finger tight. Process. Boiling Water Bath: half pints or pints 35 minutes; Pressure canner: @11 pounds pressure, pints and half pints 15 minutes, and quarts 20 minutes.
Tomato Side Dish
Slice desired number of tomatoes into a dish with edges. Sprinkle with minced garlic, salt, pepper, and dried or fresh basil and/or oregano to taste. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Enjoy!
Slice tomatoes in sandwich-size thickness, about 1/4”. Place on dehydrator trays and set temperature to 140 degrees. (This does not work as well in an oven.) Dehydrate until crisp, not leathery. Store in airtight containers to keep dry.
How to Use Dehydrated Tomatoes
Tomatoes rehydrate quickly so they can be used dry as they soften up with the moisture from other ingredients and leave little pockets of “tomatoey” taste in your dish. However, if you do need them soft you can rehydrate by soaking in either warm water or good quality oil (olive oil is most common) for about 10 minutes.
Salads and Sandwiches
Rehydrate the tomatoes by marinating in a bit of salad dressing, then enjoy tomatoes in your salad in the winter or on a sandwich. You can also puree them into your salad dressing to make a tomato vinaigrette.
Minced or Crumbled Dried Tomatoes
• Add to deviled egg filling
• Mix in scrambled eggs
• Use as a garnish with fish, chicken, or vegetable dishes
• Add to biscuits, cornbread, savoury muffins, or waffles
• Add to filling for stuffed peppers or squash
Puree dried tomatoes into a powder and store in a jar. Use it to boost tomato flavour similar to tomato paste. Mix with water to form a paste. Tomato powder can be used in place of tomato paste when just 1 or 2 tablespoons are needed in a recipe. It is easy to end up wasting a can or jar of tomato paste when just a bit is needed. Avoid waste with tomato powder.
Sprinkle with tomato powder to boost flavour on tasteless tomatoes.
Mix 1:1 with some grated parmesan cheese and sprinkle on popcorn or corn on the cob.
Dried Tomato “Pesto”
1/2 cup dried tomatoes, 3/4 cup water, 1/4 cup nuts (pine nuts, almonds, walnuts), 1/4 cup green herbs such as basil, cilantro, or parsley, 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (optional)—pulse in food processor 3–4 times. With processor running, drizzle in olive oil until you reach the consistency you like (typically between 2–4 tbsp). Season with salt and pepper.
Use on pasta, pizza, as a sandwich spread, or sauce for vegetables or eggs.
1 Tomatoes 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits (healthline.com)
Hélène Tremblay-Boyko is a local farmer and gardener, passionate about food
issues. She and her husband, Al Boyko, operate a certified organic mixed farm, marketed online as BreadRoot Farm on The Farmers’ Table platform. They raise grass-fed, certified organic beef cattle as well as a variety of certified organic cereals and oil seed crops near Canora, SK. For more information see The Farmers’ Table display ad on page 9 of the 27.6 March/April issue of the WHOLifE Journal.