You’re so vine

  • By Sarah Jackson, Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, July 25, 2007 6:50am
  • Life

Tomatoes – round, plump, juicy and fresh – are the epitome of summer.

Whether you’re munching on cute cherry tomatoes harvested from plants in your back yard or slicing husky heirloom varieties raised on a farm, you’re truly biting into the season when you bite into a tomato.

That’s especially true if you buy tomatoes raised locally.

Neil Landaas and Dorothea Eckert, who own Flying Tomato Farm in rural Snohomish, promise you’ll notice a difference in the flavor of their tomatoes compared with their factory-farmed cousins, often picked green, ripened with ethylene, refrigerated and shipped hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.

“They taste like real tomatoes,” Eckert said. “It’s a depth of flavor.”

Their tomatoes, grown in soil, ripen on the vine.

“It’s a balance between acidity and sweetness,” Landaas said. “They slice perfectly. They’re firmer. They aren’t mushy.”

In the Flying Tomato Farm greenhouse, there are no pesticides, just a few pints of Rainier beer to drown wayward slugs. They use organic fertilizer and compost, but aren’t certified organic because of all the paperwork they have yet to complete to earn the title.

“We’re into sustainability. That’s our thing,” said Landaas, who is on his second season providing tomatoes to local farmers markets. “We don’t use anything synthetic.”

Landaas and Eckert are relatively new to farming. But their idyllic, gently sloping 1.5-acre property, with its enchanting herb gardens, vegetable beds, beehives, egg-laying chickens and Porter, the 2-year-old Lab, seems like the perfect place to keep the local food movement alive in Snohomish County.

Landaas and Eckert, 42 and 49 respectively, run an intensely local operation.

They bought their greenhouse from Steuber Distributing in Snohomish and they buy their fertilizers from McDaniels Do It Center in Snohomish. Landaas, meanwhile, manages the Edmonds, Mukilteo and Snohomish farmers markets.

Landaas learned how to grow tomatoes from Mike Monas, owner of Pilchuck Gardens in Snohomish.

Monas, who has grown tomatoes for more than 15 years, sells to farmers markets in Seattle. This year he is harvesting from 2,000 plants.

Though Monas has a hugely loyal following in Seattle, Landaas saw a need for more local tomatoes in Snohomish County, especially at farmers markets.

“There was a hole, so we decided to fill it,” Landaas said. “We wanted to stay in Snohomish. This is where we live.”

This year Landaas and Eckert are tending 350 plants, mostly big, fat beefsteak varieties along with a row of Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes and a few yellow- orange varieties, including Perfection, Locarno and Bolzano, not typically sold in grocery stores.

Despite Landaas and Eckert’s warm, down-to-earth nature, their greenhouse is decidedly high-tech – complete with an industrial fan, drip irrigation and hydronic heating buried in the soil.

Their plants and fruits are healthy and huge.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Eckert said of the heavy, often 1-pound fruits. “I think it’s the organic stuff.”

Already their vines are more than 8 feet tall, hanging from adjustable white pulleys that Landaas and Eckert gradually lower as bunches of red tomatoes are removed from the bottom up.

Such vining tomatoes, also known as indeterminate varieties, will grow continuously until frost or disease kills them.

Each plant is pruned to a single thick leader vine that will, over the next few months, snake back and forth, eventually forming circles of vines more than 20 feet long.

Landaas keeps the temperature at a minimum 65 degrees with help from dual-ply plastic greenhouse walls filled with air for insulation. They mulch the ground with hay from Frog’s Song Farm, a certified organic operation in Mount Vernon.

“This is a pretty typical commercial set up,” said Landaas, who served in the Marines for four years and prides himself on straight rows and tidy plants. “I like efficiency.”

Though this is only their second crop, Landaas and Eckert have already found loyal customers at the Edmonds, Mukilteo and Snohomish farmers markets, where they sell their tomatoes exclusively.

Elderly couples eat their tomatoes with a sprinkle of salt and nothing more, while younger foodies make gazpacho.

“People save their grocery shopping for the market. They’ve been doing it for years,” Eckert said. “They want something fresh. They want to cook. They do everything with them. BLTs are a big hit.”

Over the years, Landaas has seen an increase in people’s willingness to buy local, even if it means going out of the way and sometimes paying more.

“I think Snohomish County is catching up,” he said. “Ten years ago, it was a little harder. Income levels are going up.”

There are some skeptics in the crowds at farmers markets. Some don’t trust tomatoes grown in greenhouses, also known as hothouse tomatoes.

Hothouse tomatoes’ bad reputation may be somewhat deserved, Monas said, thanks to large greenhouse operations that have produced low-quality tomatoes for many years.

“If you pick them green or greenish and they come out of the hothouse, they’re not going to taste any better,” said Monas, who grows his tomatoes in soil in greenhouses. “It really is in the degree of ripeness on the vine.”

Tomatoes grown hydroponically in a water and fertilizer solution can suffer the same fate.

“It can be a good-tasting tomato,” Monas said. “Although it’s very easy to cheat and go purely for yield rather than flavor.”

Landaas and Eckert want to grow their tomatoes as naturally as possible and with flavor to boot.

“I want to grow old-fashioned tomatoes,” Landaas said. “It lends a better flavor to the tomatoes.”

Greenhouses boost productivity because they’re dry, hot and help prevent common tomato diseases such as early and late blight, exacerbated by the Northwest’s damp, cool spring and fall weather. It’s why many home gardeners grow their tomatoes under the cover of hoop houses.

But perhaps most important, greenhouses extend the limited regional growing season, allowing customers to buy local – longer.

“I seed them in January and they go in the greenhouse in February,” Landaas said. “We had them (for sale) May 15 this year.”

This year, as with last, Landaas expects to sell all the tomatoes they can grow.

He wants to grow more next year by adding another greenhouse, but isn’t sure he and Eckert, who do their own picking, can handle doubling in size. They might also like to diversify and sell soap, honey and other vegetables.

“We’ve been here a little over two years,” Eckert said. “We really like the life. We’re into it. We have plans.”

When their season ends, Landaas and Eckert, who were married in March, will honeymoon in Italy.

Neither of them has been to the country, famous for its tomatoes, of course, but also the international base of the “slow food” movement, geared toward keeping local food traditions alive in a fast-food world.

“We want to be inspired,” Eckert said of their upcoming trip. “We’ll bring some of that inspiration back with us.”

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or sjackson@heraldnet.com.

One of the best ways to enjoy fresh local tomatoes is to eat them raw on sandwiches such as BLTs, complete with fresh local bread and lettuces.

Try this lunch for “people on the go,” courtesy of Neil Landaas and Dorothea Eckert at the Flying Tomato Farm in Snohomish.

All the ingredients can be purchased at the Edmonds Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Edmonds Farmers Market lunch

1baguette from a local bakery, such as Snohomish Bakery and Cafe

1large tomato, sliced, from the Flying Tomato Farm

1handful of fresh basil leaves from Gypsy Rows of Silvana

Fresh mozzarella, sliced, from Samish Bay Cheese of Bow

Drizzle of olive oil, sourced by Charles Pancerzewski of Mukilteo

Slice the baguette into pieces and add a slice of tomato, a few basil leaves and a slice of mozzarella to each piece. Drizzle with olive oil. If you are extra hungry, add a Norwegian sardine.

The TCB in this recipe – “a quickie sauce for bruschetta, pasta and more” – stands for “takin’ care of business.” It is not necessary to remove the tomato skins.

Flying Tomato’s TCB oven sauce

4-5medium tomatoes, cut into quarters

1medium fresh onion, thinly sliced

1handful of fresh basil, chopped

Splash of balsamic vinegar

1/4cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread tomatoes in a deep baking pan. Cover with onions and basil. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar and drizzle with olive oil. Bake for about 20 minutes. Stir up with a fork to sauce consistency.

Variation: Add a few cloves of pressed garlic to olive oil before the drizzle.

Also, a pinch of sugar will bring out flavor when cooking, as will a pinch of anchovy paste.

Showcase the season’s tomato harvest with this easy and elegant recipe from Flying Tomato Farm. Use it as a side dish or main course, or pair it with fresh salad greens and bread.

Stuffed tomatoes

4large tomatoes

2cups cooked, seasoned rice to fill the tomatoes

1/4cup cashews, pine nuts or sunflower seeds, pan toasted

Drizzle of olive oil

8tablespoons goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wash, dry and slice the tops off the tomatoes and scoop out a pocket to make a cavity. Reserve the tops and flesh. Turn the tomatoes upside down to drain.

Put tomatoes upright in casserole dish and stuff with rice and nuts. Drizzle rice with olive oil and top each tomato with 2 tablespoons of goat cheese. Put the tops back on the tomatoes and use the flesh as garnish over the tops, followed by salt and pepper to taste with another good drizzle of olive oil.

Bake uncovered for about 20 minutes.

This recipe comes from The South 47 Farm, a grassroots farm corporation in the Woodinville-Redmond area, courtesy of Puget Sound Fresh at www.pugetsoundfresh.org.

Roasted tomato soup

1white onion

1clove garlic

1tablespoon olive oil

3tablespoons tomato paste

4ounces red wine

6cups chicken stock

12Roma tomatoes, roasted and charred

1medium russet potato, peeled and cut into quarters

1small rosemary sprig

Salt and pepper to taste

Caramelize onions and garlic in oil. Add tomato paste and red wine. Add stock, tomatoes, potato and rosemary and simmer slowly until the potato is fully cooked, about 45 minutes.

Let soup cool slightly and blend small portions at a time. Be careful not to fill the blender more than half full. Pulse slowly before running the blender on full speed. Blending hot liquids can be dangerous.

Garnish soup with creme fraiche, a balsamic reduction and a fried basil leaf.

The Web site for Gypsy Rows Co. farm in Silvana (www.gypsyrows.com) includes not only the sarcastic humor of farmer Darren Wright, but also excellent recipes, including this one for a coarse-textured salsa from the University of Illinois extension office.

Fresh garden salsa

2large ripe, red slicing tomatoes, cored and chopped

1small white onion, chopped

1green onion, top included, chopped

1-3jalapeno peppers, finely chopped

1/4cup cilantro leaves, minced

Juice of lime

1teaspoon salt

Using a serrated knife, chop tomatoes. If using plum tomatoes, add 2 tablespoons water. In a medium bowl, toss together the tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro. Squeeze lime juice over the mixture and sprinkle on the salt. Let it sit for 30 minutes before serving to allow the salt to draw juice from the tomatoes. Stir again just before serving.

Serve with traditional tortilla chips or use as a side dish with grilled meat, squash cakes or anywhere you want a bright, tart, savory accompaniment.

Makes about 2 cups.

Fried green tomatoes are a southern tradition so popular in the South that gardeners plant extra slicing tomatoes to be harvested green for this recipe.

If your homegrown tomatoes, stuck in Western Washington’s short growing season, don’t ripen in time, try this recipe from the University of Illinois extension office.

Fried green tomatoes

4green tomatoes, cut in 1/4-inch slices

1cup flour

1egg beaten with 1 cup skim milk for egg wash

1cup yellow cornmeal

1teaspoon each salt and black pepper

Canola oil for frying

Spread flour on a sheet of waxed paper or on a plate. Put the egg wash in a shallow dish. Spread the cornmeal on a sheet of waxed paper or plate, add salt and pepper, and mix well. Dredge the tomato slices in flour and shake off the excess. Dip each slice in the egg wash and drain off excess, and then coat with the cornmeal, shaking off excess gently. Place on a tray and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy – preferably cast iron – skillet over a medium flame. When hot, add the tomato slices. Do not overcrowd the skillet. Cook several minutes, until golden, then turn. Drain on paper towels and serve while still hot.

It’s time to take advantage of the sunny days and fresh produce at local farmers markets. Look for Flying Tomato Farm produce, including tomatoes for $3.50 a pound, at these three local farmers markets.

Edmonds Museum Summer Market: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 6 (closed Aug. 11); Bell Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets; www. snohomishmarkets.com; 425-774-0900.

Mukilteo Farmers Market: 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sept. 26; Rosehill Community Center, 304 Lincoln Ave., Mukilteo; www.mukilteofarmers market.org; 425-750-6945.

Snohomish Farmers Market: 3 to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sept. 27; old Carnegie Library, 105 Cedar St., Snohomish; www. snohomishmarkets.com; 206-412-4630.

MORE FARMERS MARKETS

Country Village Farmers Market: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays through Oct. 5; 23718 Bothell Everett Highway; www.countryvillage bothell.com; 425-483-2250.

Everett Farmers Market: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 30; Everett Marina, 1600 W. Marine View Drive; www.everettfarmersmarket.com; 425-258-3356.

Lake Stevens Farmers Market: 5 p.m. to sunset Thursdays through Aug. 30; North Cove Park, behind City Hall at 1812 Main St.; www.snohomishmarkets. com; 425-334-1805.

South County Farmers Market: 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sept. 26; Park Ridge Chapel, 3805 Maltby Road, Bothell; 425-481-8801.

FARM STANDS

Garden Treasures, 3328 Highway 530, Arlington, about one mile east of I-5 off Exit 208; 360-435-9272; www.arlingtongardentreasures.com; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Heirloom tomato varieties grown on site, other vegetables and organic grocery products.

Carleton Farm, 830 Sunnyside Blvd. SE, Everett; 425-334-2297; www. carletonfarm.com; open daily.

Foster’s Produce and Corn Maze, 5818 Highway 530 NE, Arlington, 2.4 miles east of I-5 off Exit 208; 360-435-5095; www.fosters cornmaze.com; open daily.

Maltby Produce Market, 19523 Broadway, Maltby, kitty corner from Flower World; 360-668-0174; www.flowerworldusa.com; open daily.

Marshland Produce Market, 8102 Marsh Road, Snohomish; 360-563-9405; www.flower worldusa.com; open daily.

Stocker Farms, 10622 Airport Way, Snohomish; 360-568-7391; www.stockerfarms.com; open daily through October.

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