Now is the time to enjoy the taste of home-grown, field-ripened, Pennsylvania tomatoes. There is nothing better than a thick slice of a juicy dark-red tomato on your home-grilled burger or a BLT sandwich. Ripe, local tomatoes also add the finishing touch to a summer-time tossed salad.
While this year has been a challenging growing season for Pennsylvania tomato growers because of the early appearance of late blight, growers are in the midst of the peak harvest season for one of the state's most valuable vegetable crops.
Pennsylvania tomatoes are not only "Simply Delicious" but they are also "Simply Nutritious." One medium tomato supplies more than 40 percent of the daily allowance of vitamin C and 20 percent of vitamin A plus potassium — all with only 35 calories. Tomatoes also contain generous amounts of lycopene, an antioxidant that helps protect the body from cancer.
August is the peak season for "Simply Delicious, Simply Nutritious" Pennsylvania tomatoes and many other locally grown vegetables. That's why the governor has proclaimed August as Pennsylvania Produce Month. Tomatoes and an abundance of other Pennsylvania produce are available at roadside farm markets, community farmers' markets and supermarkets across the state.
Consumers concerned with rising food prices might want to consider buying a bushel or two of Pennsylvania tomatoes from a local farmer and canning a couple batches of homemade tomato sauce with Grandma's secret family recipe. Tomatoes are one of the simpler vegetables to can at home.
Home canning Pennsylvania tomatoes will save gallons of fossil fuels used to truck canned product across the country. Penn State University offers detailed instructions and recipes on how to safely can tomatoes (and other vegetables) at home. This information is available on the web at http://foodsafety.psu.edu/lets_preserve.html, by contacting any Penn State Cooperative Extension office, or by contacting the Pennsylvania Vegetable Marketing and Research Program at 717-694-3596.
Of course another alternative to reduce your carbon footprint is to purchase commercially canned tomato products produced by Pennsylvania food processors from Pennsylvania tomatoes.
Pennsylvania's fresh market tomato crop is grown on about 2,400 acres. Another 1,500 acres are used to grow tomatoes for food processors for use in several brands of tomato products. In addition, about 15 acres of Pennsylvania greenhouses produce tomatoes during the spring and fall months when they cannot be grown in the field.
In number of acres, tomatoes trail sweet corn, snap beans, potatoes and pumpkins as a leading Pennsylvania vegetable crop. However, tomatoes typically are second or third in value.
Many local growers are growing heirloom varieties that are noted for their distinctive flavors. But local growers can offer superior quality tomatoes of ordinary varieties as well for one simple reason. They can allow them to ripen in the field. A fully ripened tomato cannot be shipped any distance.
Any grower who has to ship his product is forced to harvest tomatoes before they are ripe so they will not bruise. In truth, the blame for poor tasting tomatoes lies not so much with the grower but with subsequent handlers and even the consumer.
Tomatoes picked before they are fully ripe can develop an appetizing flavor and texture if two basic conditions are met. First, the tomatoes must not be refrigerated. They should be stored at room temperature or at least above 55 F. Unripe tomatoes that have been subjected to temperatures below this level will never ripen satisfactorily.
The second condition is patience. Tomatoes that are on the pink side need several days at room temperature to develop a deep red color and the desired tomato flavor. They should also soften slightly. Only when they have fully ripened like this should they be refrigerated and then only if necessary. Refrigerated tomatoes will have a better eating flavor if they are allowed to warm to room temperature before serving.
Pennsylvania tomatoes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The most common is the larger round, red tomato that can be sliced for sandwiches or burgers, cut in wedges for eating directly, diced for salads or tacos, or cooked into numerous kinds of sauces. Small round tomatoes, also called cherry or grape tomatoes depending on their size, are perfect for salads or as a garnish.
Plum tomatoes (sometimes called Italian or Roma tomatoes) are the choice for preparing secret family-recipe sauces as they cook down to a rich, thick sauce.
Health authorities recommend most Americans eat at least 2 to 2 1/2 cups of vegetables each day. Following are some tasty tomato recipes from the 2012 Pennsylvania Vegetable Recipe Contest. Additional tomato recipes are available at www.paveggies.org.