Chat Leftovers: Picking tomatoes

August 21, 2013

What can a high-end restaurant learn from Olive Garden and Red Lobster? You might be surprised. Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema visited local outposts of a few popular mega-chains and came away with some interesting observations. Read them here.

Also this week in Food, Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin writes about the simple delights of grilled bread. And David Hagedorn attends the monthly staff lunch in the offices of FreshFarm Markets, where fresh local produce from some of the 11 farmers markets they run is a big part of the menu.

It’s Wednesday, so get ready for today’s Free Range chat, our regular get-together to talk all things food. We’ll have guests: Aviva Goldfarb of the Six O’Clock Scramble will answer questions about how to sanely plan family meals, and Ann Harvey Yonkers of FreshFarm Markets shares her insight on using local products.

And you’ll be there too, right? It starts at noon sharp. If you can’t tune in live, you can always submit a question or comment in advance, then check the chat transcript later to see if we answered it.

Speaking of answers, we try to get to every question that comes in, but sometimes it’s just not possible. That’s where I come in! To illustrate, here’s a leftover question from last week’s chat:

We have tomatoes growing outside, but it is a constant question whether to let them ripen on the vine — risking that the critters get them first — or on the kitchen counter. Does it matter when they are harvested and put on the counter?

I’ve always had good luck with picking tomatoes after they’ve developed a nice pink blush and letting them ripen indoors. (Not on the window sill. No. I don’t care what your parents told you.)

Every expert I’ve ever talked to concurs that once a tomato has a “color break” — begins to show a little color on the blossom end — it's fine to pick. The agriculture pros at Oregon State University promise that a tomato cut after its color breaks “will ripen with full vitamin content and nearly full flavor,” but a tomato picked sooner will taste like cardboard even though it might eventually turn red. I don’t know about the “nearly full flavor” part, because to me, counter-ripened tomatoes have always tasted pretty flavorful.

So: Go ahead and cheat those critters. I say that with gleeful malice, as someone who has been plagued for the past couple of years by a neighborhood bunny explosion. The experience of going out expectantly to snip some parsley and finding it chewed down to a nub — well, that’s just wrong. Do whatever you can to avoid it.

With the approach of September, the question of when to pick becomes more urgent as gardeners focus on harvesting as much as they can before the weather gets too cold. The Virginia Cooperative Extension says that tomatoes need average daily temperatures of 65 degrees to ripen. If the weather is colder than that, pick the fruits that show a color break and let them finish ripening indoors.

When you bring the tomatoes inside, do not, as I said earlier, put them on a window sill, or close to any direct sunlight, for that matter. And by now, everyone knows never to put them in the fridge — even after they get ripe.

Also by now, everyone knows about fried green tomatoes. So even if you should happen to pick some of your crop too soon, you can still put it to better use than the critters can.

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