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Tomato mania sweeps through Wine Country

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In early September, as the light shimmers intermittently with its golden autumn glow, our farmers markets are awash in colorful tomatoes.

If the weather cooperates, so it will be through October and into November. Some farmers will likely have tomatoes until Thanksgiving. If you’ve been concerned about tomatoes because of our cool and sometimes even chilly weather, worry not. It will take an early freeze or heavy rains to end the season prematurely.

This year, more than ever it seems, local tomatoes are ripening at different rates, depending on when exactly they were planted and in what microclimate. In some gardens, tomato plants are already exhausted and are sinking back into the ground while others remain tall and stately, with green fruit that has not yet ripened.

When it comes to the heavy hitters — the farmers with the largest tomato crops — one is experiencing a season much like previous ones and one got a late start.

“We started picking about three weeks later than usual,” Dan Magnuson of Soda Rock Farms in Healdsburg’s Alexander Valley said recently.

Because of mid-spring rains, Magnuson couldn’t get into the 5 acres he farms until late May, when he was finally able to get his nearly 50,000 plants into the ground. He attended his first farmers markets of the season in early August, but it wasn’t until later in the month that his widely praised heirloom tomatoes were ready.

The farm is just now hitting its stride, with all crops — including basil, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers — as well as tomatoes later than has been typical.

Magnuson focuses on 15 to 20 varieties of tomatoes, including several cherry varieties. The hybrid, Early Girl, is the first to ripen, as it is for many farmers. Among his favorites are Rainbow, Cherokee, Pink Brandywine and Orange Jubilee. He prefers tomatoes cooked, for pasta sauce and soup, but he also enjoys them chopped with fresh mozzarella and his farm-grown basil.

Magnuson himself attends the Healdsburg Farmers Market on Saturdays and the Windsor Farmers Market on Sundays. His youngest daughter, Rachel Magnuson, attends the Community Farmers Market at the Santa Rosa Veterans’ Hall on Saturday, and her sister, Katie, who is the oldest sibling, offers the family harvest at the Larkspur Farmers Market, also on Saturdays.

During the week, Magnuson delivers his tomatoes to local markets, including Shelton’s Natural Foods Market in Healdsburg; Pacific Markets, in both Santa Rosa and Sebastopol; and to Harvest Markets in Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Soda Rock tomatoes are also sold in several Whole Foods Markets in the Bay Area.

Lazaro Calderon’s The Patch is typically the first local farm with ripe tomatoes, and this year’s arrived right on time, though it was the hybrids, not the heirlooms, that ripened first. For the first few weeks, there were plenty of Shady Lady tomatoes, a low acid variety, along with Early Girls and Beefsteaks.

Soon, Calderon’s favorites, Red Zebra and Old German, were ripening, along with Vintage Wine, Golden Cherokee and several other heirloom varieties. Green Zebra is the last to ripen, as it does not do well in a hothouse early in the year.

The Patch now consists of two properties, the original just east of the town square in Sonoma, and a second one in Santa Rosa. There are just over 5 acres planted with tomatoes; sweet peppers, onions, two varieties of green beans, eggplant, figs, onions, potatoes, summer squash and sweet basil among the farm’s other crops.

The farm is typically the last with fresh tomatoes, too, and they should be available until Thanksgiving. The Patch can be found at numerous farmers markets in the North Bay. Its farm stand, located at 280 Second St. East, Sonoma, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily until Thanksgiving.

These two farms are among the best known and largest producers of tomatoes in Sonoma County, but there are dozens of others selling their harvest at farmers markets and farm stands, Some specialize in just a few varieties and others offer a wide array of both hybrids and heirlooms.

Cliff Silva of Ma & Pa’s Garden, who sells thousands of tomato starts each spring, was also fairly early this year, with a delicious red tomato, about the size of a golf ball. It is called the Fourth of July, and it lived up to its name, with early July fruit. The plants are still producing.

Armstrong Valley Farm, Russian River Organics, Front Porch Farms, Bernier Farms, Carrot Top Farm, Min-Hee Hill Gardens, Triple T Ranch and Farm, Ridgeview Farm, Hector’s Honey, Laguna Farms, Orchard Farms, and several others throughout the county include tomatoes among their diverse harvests. Some will wind down soon, others continue into mid- and late fall.

When it comes to finding your favorite tomatoes, the best way is to talk to the farmer. Some tomatoes are tart and acidic, others are sweet. Some have complex, slightly spicy flavors. None is necessarily better than another; it is simply a matter of personal taste.

No matter the weather, the smoke or the late start in mid-spring, the North Bay is tomato rich. You have several weeks to indulge before tomatoes are just a delicious dream and until a new harvest begins to unfold next year.

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Pico de gallo, which translates loosely as “roosters beaks,” is the simplest of all Mexican salsas. If you’ve had it made only with commercial tomatoes, you may wonder why anyone would ever bother with it. But made with tomatoes grown in their true season and harvested at the right time, it is absolutely delicious. This version comes from Lazaro Calderon of The Patch.

The Patch’s Pico de Gallo

Makes about 4 cups

8 medium heirloom tomatoes (different varieties) cut into small dice

1 small to medium Walla Walla or similar onion, cut into small dice

1 small to medium red onion, cut into small dice

1 large bell pepper, seeded and cut into small dice

1-3 serranos, minced

3/4 cup cilantro leaves, loosely packed, chopped

— Kosher salt

Put the diced tomatoes into a medium bowl, add the onion, bell pepper and serranos, using the larger amount for a spicier salsa, and toss gently.

Add the cilantro and toss again. Season with salt, taste and add more as need.

Enjoy right away. Leftovers will keep, covered and refrigerated, for about 2 days.

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Caitlin Hachmeyer of Red H Farm grows several varieties of tomatoes, including one called Japanese Black Trifele, which she names as her current favorite.

The tomato, which is shaped like a very small Bartlett pear is, when ripe, so intensely flavor with a flourish of spice that it almost tastes like cooked tomato sauce.

She uses it when she makes shakshuka. This dish is best made in single-serving containers so that it doesn’t have to be dished up after it is cooked.

The clay containers known as “brams” and available at Bram (493 First St. West) in Sonoma produce the best results but you can use almost any ovenproof dish, including ramekins, small glass baking dishes, individual cast-iron containers or something similar.

Shakshuka

Makes 2 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small yellow onion, cut into small dice

3-4 garlic cloves, minced

— Kosher salt

1 teaspoon paprika, preferably Spanish, plus more to taste

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 pound ripe tomatoes of choice, cored and preferably peeled (see Note below)

1 poblano, seared, peeled, seeded and cut into medium julienne

4 farm eggs

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley or cilantro

— Black pepper in a mill

— Hot hearth bread

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Put the olive oil into a small sauté pan set over medium heat, add the onion and cook gently until soft and fragrant, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic, sauté 2 minutes more, season with salt and stir in the paprika.

Add the tomatoes and use a large fork to break them up. Alternately, use your dominant hand to squeeze each tomato into the mixture. Stir in the poblano, season with pepper and correct for salt.

Warm the ramekins or brams by filling them with hot (not boiling) water and letting them rest for a few minutes.

Tip out the water and divide the sauce — making sure it is very hot — between the two containers.

Break one of the eggs into a small bowl and tip it into a bram; continue until you have used all 4 eggs.

Set the containers in the oven, increase the heat to 400 degrees and cook for several minutes, until the whites of the eggs seem almost set. Switch the oven to broil, cook 2 minutes more and carefully transfer to a wooden cutting board. Sprinkle parsley or cilantro on top and serve right away, with hot bread alongside.

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In southern Italy and Sicily in early fall, it is common to see entire tomato plants hung upside down on a shaded outside wall, where they are protected from the days hot sun, a move that lengthens the harvest as the tomatoes continue to ripen. You just pull them off as you need them. You can also preserve tomatoes simply by freezing them. For cherry tomatoes, set them on a cookie sheet, put the sheet in the freezer and then pack the frozen cherry tomatoes into freezer bags.

They will, of course, lose their fresh texture but they are excellent in sauces, salsas, and stews. You can also freeze large tomatoes in the same way. Another option, which is quite delicious, is to ferment cherry tomatoes. For the most beautiful results, use a selection of colors.

Fermented Cherry Tomatoes

Makes 2 quarts

8 cups, approximately, cherry tomatoes, a single vareity or mixed varieties and colors

— Several garlic cloves, trimmed and peeled

1 celery stalk, washed and cut into thin diagonal slices, optional

2 sprigs of basil, cilantro or thyme

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

6 tablespoons kosher salt

Wash the cherry tomatoes and let them dry on a tea towel.

Put the tomatoes into a two-quart glass canning jar or divide them between two 1-quart jars. Add the garlic and sliced celery, interspersing them with the tomatoes and tucking in the herb sprigs when the jars are about half full. Add the peppercorns. Leave about an inch and a half of head room at the top.

Put the salt into a large pitcher, add 8 cups of water and stir until the salt is dissolved.

Pour the water over the tomatoes until it covers them completely. If you need more, make additional brine.

At this point, you’ll need something to weigh down the tomatoes; I use a small glass dish that fits perfectly into my jar. You can use such a dish, a small glass lid, a little glass plate or something similar. Do not use anything made of metal or plastic. Set the jar’s lid and ring on top but do not tighten all the way. Alternately, you can use a fermenting jar with an air lock, if you have one.

Set it in a warm dark area, such as a pantry or cupboard that has a steady temperature in the high 60s. Check daily and remove the lid now and then to release pressure.

Ferment for about 5 days, until you like the taste of the tomatoes. Transfer to the refrigerator. Enjoy as a snack, alongside cheese and salumi and in salsa. Fermented cherry tomatoes will keep, refrigerated, for several months.

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Many farmers name a sandwich as their favorite way to enjoy their tomatoes, and each typically has one or two varieties they prefer. Lazaro Calderon uses Old German or Red Zebra, sliced thick, on his sandwiches. Sam Calderón Mendoza of Middleton Farms in Healdsburg prefers a deeply-colored variety called Chocolate.

Fall Tomato Sandwich

Makes 2, easily increased

4 slices of your favorite hearth bread, thickly sliced and lightly toasted

— Homemade or best quality mayonnaise

1 medium ripe tomato of choice, core removed, thickly sliced

— Kosher salt or other flake salt

— Black pepper in a mill

Set the bread on a clean work surface and spread mayonnaise generously over the inside of all slices. Spread the mayonnaise in one sweep of a rubber spatula or wide knife; do not rub it into the bread. Cover two of the slices with tomatoes, adjusting the slices so they fit well.

Season with salt and pepper, top with the second slices of bread and enjoy right away.

Variations:

Top the tomato slices with several basil leaves after adding the salt and pepper.

Add very thinly sliced red onion or sweet onion, before adding the tomato.

Add some of your favorite mustard to the top slices of bread, after you’ve added the mayonnaise. Layer the sandwich with thinly sliced red onion, the tomatoes and thinly sliced roasted or poached chicken. Season with salt and pepper.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.