A Stalk on the Wild Side

Versatile, venerable cherry tomatoes.
Versatile, venerable cherry tomatoes. (Istockphoto)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Cherry bombs, the exploding kind, must have been named after cherry tomatoes, the edible kind, which burst in your mouth with a charge of candy-sweet juices. Pop one in and another must follow, whether you're raiding the shopping bag in your car or gorging your way down a garden row. The outdoor route is pure luxury, when the little orbs are warmed by the sun, their vitamin C at magnum force.

Rarely does a food give so much pleasure with so little effort. No one could call you lazy for filling a bowl with homegrown cherry tomatoes as the evening's appetizer, or scattering them over a salad. They can even be sauteed briefly in olive oil to add to a cooked dish. Better yet, dunk them in boiling water, count to 10, drain them quickly, then slip off the skins and strew them around a meat or fish dish, especially one with Latin or Provencal flavors. Never commit the crime of putting them in the refrigerator, which ruins both texture and flavor. They'll keep fine sitting in a bowl on the kitchen table -- and won't be there for long.

A cherry tomato may be adorable, but the plant it grows on is a wild thing. Turn your back on it, and by August it is a giant cobra, twisting through the bed and draping all in its path with fruit-laden branches. Think of it as a young tree that hasn't learned to stand up straight. Tame it, and you have a magnificent specimen that bears early and supplies you all summer. Lash it to a stout trellis or a fence, as it will overwhelm a normal tomato cage. Grown vertically, it makes fine use of precious garden space. The one flaw -- the fruits' tendency to split -- can be lessened by providing even moisture. Dry weather followed by rain causes this untimely bursting. A mulch of spoiled hay will buffer the extremes of wet and dry, and provide a summer-long dose of potassium.

An orange-yellow variety called Sungold, very sweet and well-flavored, is the current favorite cherry tomato -- for some fans the best tomato, period. Super Sweet 100 and Gardener's Delight are yummy, productive red ones. Matt's Wild Cherry is a primitive strain from the mountains of Eastern Mexico, with delicious marble-size red fruits on a mighty vine. But in fact, even our most well-bred cherry tomatoes are closer to their original form than are the big round type. That's why the sprawling plants are so vigorous and disease resistant, the fruits so full of character and wild at heart.

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