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GARDEN FRESH

Tiny Enchantress Bursts With Flavor

August 10, 1995|SYLVIA THOMPSON

When we were first married, a friend gave us her house for the summer as a wedding gift.

She was a great cook and her kitchen cupboard was a treasure trove. But one item flummoxed me. It was a bag labeled cranberry beans. I didn't know whether the dark red nubbins were dried cranberries or dried beans. And there was no one I could ask without being mortified, so I never used them.

Years later, I might have had the same problem with a tiny rich carmine fruit had I not grown it myself. The pea-size orbs dangling in sprays from the stalk looked like red currants. Happily, since the plant label was written in my own hand, I knew they were red currant tomatoes.

These tiny tomatoes, a handful to the ounce, are among the most enchanting and delicious provender the garden affords. The flavor is tomatoey and sweet, with more of a sweet fruit taste than larger tomato varieties. There's also a sunshine yellow variety with overtones of apricot jam.

Currant tomatoes are a species unto themselves. Standard tomatoes are native to Andean South America, but currant tomatoes are specific to Ecuador and Andean Peru. If you've ever tasted Sweet 100, Sun Cherry or Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, you've had a hint of currant tomato flavor. Currants were one of the parents of these remarkably sweet and vigorous hybrids.

The little tomatoes have another feature that distinguishes them from the big ones. For the most part, large tomatoes have many chambers or pockets (botanically known as cells) that contain seeds. Cherry and currant tomatoes have just two.

How do you use these tiny enchantresses in the kitchen? With utter simplicity. There are very few garnishes that have as much charm. The trick is to cut a generous spray for each serving and simply set it on the plate. (Cut, don't pull, when harvesting or you may pull up the whole vine.)

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I rarely think about cooking currant tomatoes because they're so spectacular raw. They are, however, beguiling as a filling for tartlets, and we often toss them with equal parts cherry tomatoes in a little butter and olive oil till they start to pop, then heap them on toasted French bread rubbed with garlic. That's the sort of thing that makes you wish summer would never ever end.

In fact, summer lasts longer when you grow currant tomatoes, because they survive the early light frosts with aplomb.

If you stake your plants and want to prolong ripening at summer's end, lay the vines gently on the ground over a deep bed of straw, crumpled newspapers or a rumpled blanket (to allow air to circulate underneath). When you can smell frost, cover the heap with a sheet or light blanket. Take it off when the day warms up and put it back as evening approaches.

I've never bothered lifting these vines off the ground. Currant tomato vines have a natural mounding growth habit. The vines are indeterminate, meaning that they will amble on for what can be an appalling distance. spread. When vines get too thickly intertwined and I can see little tomatoes in the thicket that aren't getting sun, I prune off a vine or two and toss the green tomatoes into a saute of carrots or corn niblets or such.

Tomatoes are perennials. If you live where temperatures are in the 70s most of the year and there are no killing frosts, if you never let the soil dry out and if you keep the ripe fruits picked and pull every weed, there is a good chance you'll be able to keep tomato plants going for several years. If you have a long growing season with occasional frost, you can experiment by potting the tomato plant at summer's end and taking it into the house for a month or two during the coldest season. In fact, you can grow a currant tomato plant in a 5-gallon container throughout the season.

Although seed companies offer only one cultivar of each color, grow and taste each strain to see which you prefer.

A brief note about the yellow currant tomatoes. I just read in a seed catalogue that the yellow currants aren't true tomatoes. If a seed company says that, believe it. But in a Seed Savers Exchange listing of yellow currant tomatoes, Suzanne Ashworth, an authority on vegetable seeds, noted that all tomatoes have a genetic capability to throw yellow fruit, especially the wild ones. So if you get the right strain--and the maturity dates in the catalogue of both colors are the same--your yellow currants will be a natural throw from red currants, the true species.

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