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A Tomato Treasury

September 10, 1997|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few people can talk tomatoes the way Joyce Smith can. Her garden in Fullerton contains 49 varieties, and she raises tomato plants for sales at Descanso Gardens, the Huntington Library and the Fullerton Arboretum, where she is a volunteer.

With, as she puts it, "lots of help," Smith produced 5,000 plants from 80 varieties for this year's Green Scene, an annual springtime plant sale at the arboretum.

All those plants mean Smith must cope with an enormous harvest. And cope she does, with the assistance of two jumbo slow-cookers, an eight-tray food dehydrator and three freezers.

Using well-tried recipes, she turns out huge batches of tomato sauce, pizza sauce, catsup, chili sauce, dried tomatoes and even frozen tomatoes for use throughout the year.

"I never get sick of tomatoes," she says. "Each one has a different flavor."

Smith specializes in heirloom tomatoes that breed true from seed, rather than the familiar commercial hybrids. Some originated as long as 150 years ago. And some, like Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter, have a colorful history (the story goes that "Charlie" profited enough from the sale of this tomato to pay off his mortgage).

Arkansas Traveler, Banana Legs, Dad's Mug, Amish Paste, Abraham Lincoln and Reisentraube, a German name that means "giant bunch of grapes," were some of the other heirloom tomatoes sold at the Fullerton Arboretum this year. The "grapes" are the 20 to 40 small oval tomatoes that grow on each branch of this plant.

Heirloom tomatoes sometimes appear to be misshapen. "Heirlooms aren't just plain and round. They're just themselves," Smith says. Some are large. Some are small. Some are yellow. Some show different colors inside when sliced.

"I really don't have any favorites," Smith says. "They're just all so great, it's hard to choose."

She grows tomatoes from seeds and does not put the plants in the ground before April. She says plants that don't bear are generally victims of the three main errors of home growers: too much shade, too much water and too much nitrogen in the fertilizer.

"Always find the sunniest spot," Smith says. Plants in shade will produce a lot of foliage as they reach for the sun, but not much fruit.

After the plants have been in the ground for a month, they can be watered deeply every week or 10 days. Smith suggests letting a hose drip slowly all night. Frequent overhead watering from a sprinkler system dooms the crop. "You will have gorgeous plants and very little fruit because you are feeding the foliage with all that water. There should be no overhead water, ever," Smith says.

Another mistake is overfeeding with a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer. The first number in the three-number formula on the package indicates nitrogen content and should be no higher than 5, Smith says. She suggests 5-10-10 as suitable for tomatoes. High nitrogen content nourishes leaves, rather than fruit, she explains.

For proper support, Smith suggests surrounding tomato plants with strong tomato cages and placing two 8-foot stakes, buried 1 foot deep, inside each cage.

Following these tips should guarantee a bountiful harvest. But of course, that can be a problem too. When too many tomatoes ripen at once, Smith places them in single layers in baskets, not touching each other, so the air can circulate. Stored this way, they will keep at cool room temperature as long as 10 days. And depending on her harvest, she could have quite a few baskets of tomatoes around her house at one time.

"I never refrigerate them, ever," Smith says. "I put them all over the kitchen."

She cooks sauces in big slow cookers, letting them simmer gently up to four days. "You can be out and around. You don't have to be tending, you don't have to be stirring, you don't have to be in a hot kitchen," she says.

Smith peels and purees the tomatoes before they are cooked. "This eliminates the need to cool down vegetables before placing them in the processor or blender," she points out. Long cooking with low heat concentrates the ingredients and flavors, so seasonings must be adjusted to taste.

She doesn't follow exact measures but simply fills the pot with pureed tomatoes to within a few inches of the top, then adds the rest of the ingredients.

Not only does Smith grow and cook tomatoes, but she also collects tomato memorabilia, such as a tomato-shaped teapot from Japan. "As you can see, I live tomatoes," she says. "And I hated tomatoes until I was in college. I don't know how it all came about, but here I am."

The following recipes from Smith have been adapted to stove-top cooking for the benefit of home cooks with smaller tomato crops. Smith's tomato sauce is a basic recipe that can be seasoned and adapted for many uses. Her chili sauce is also a multipurpose recipe. It's fine for braising meats and stuffed cabbage or for seasoning any dish that can take a slightly sweet flavor.

JOYCE'S "FROZEN" TOMATO SOUP

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