I planted seven heirloom tomato plants in April. They were all different shape, color, and size. I staked them, watered them, and watched them grow and bloom to be strong, healthy, and fragrant. Some of them took of faster and started producing a lot of soon-to-be ripe fruit. After five years of gardening withdrawals, my heart was atwitter with excitement. The neighbors were stopping by admiring my luscious plants and I already started imagining baskets filled with red, orange, yellow, green, and striped tomatoes, still warm from the sun, decorating our kitchen counter.
One day I caught a snail eating a small tomato that just turned the right shade of red that morning. I picked it off and flung it across the fence into the street. I rummaged through the plants and found many more stuck to the leaves, probably resting and gathering the energy to attack the fruit as soon as the pale moon appeared in the sky. Visibly perturbed, I gathered them one by one and stepped on them, ignoring the disgusting slime that coated the soles of my shoes.
In a few days, my tomato plants started to lose their luster. They drooped, leaves curled and dried out, no matter how ardently I watered them in the morning and twilight. And then the holes around them started to appear. I would fill them in with fresh sod, and the next time I looked, there were new ones, deep, narrow, baring the roots. I wanted to keep on blaming the snails, but unless a gross mutation was involved, it seemed more probable that a rodent of some kind was responsible.
Unfortunately, I did not manage to find the culprit and I lost my tomato plants one by one. The neighbors extended their sympathy and offered their opinions on the origin of the damage. I was devastated. Sure, I harvested a few dozen of early bloomers, but nothing close to what I imagined. Yes, it was another summer sadly void of homegrown tomatoes.
My summers in Serbia were marked by simple salads of tomatoes and onions, sometimes with crunchy cucumbers and crumbled cheese, served daily as an accompaniment to any dish. I start craving their familiar flavor in late May, resigned to wait a few weeks until the ripest, sweetest fruit appears. With a heavy heart, I pulled my desiccated remnants from the ground, and started making weekly pilgrimages to Torrance Farmers’ Market, where piles of heirloom tomatoes, albeit pretty pricey, waited for me. For summer is not summer without tomato salad.
According to the calendar, we are running out of summer days. But southern California climate ignores the arbitrary limits, which means we can wear white after Labor Day and we can eat summer salads until whenever. A few days ago I made a Greek salad to accompany my favorite roasted red peppers, spinach, and feta quiche I took to a picnic in a downtown LA park.
I could not wait to use the cute, tiny watermelon cucumbers I received from Melissa’s Produce, one of the biggest fruits and vegetables distributor in the U.S. I like my mixed salads chopped in smaller bites, so I halved these lemony, crunchy treats and mixed them with ripe, juicy tomatoes, olives, red onions, roasted beets, pepperoncini, and feta cheese. A hefty pinch of coarse salt, some freshly ground pepper, and a few glugs of extra-virgin olive oil (thanks, George!) was all that was necessary.
All these different and complementary flavors came together in each bite and for a moment I forgot that the produce had not come from my garden. I was transported to the shores of my Adriatic instantly, if only for a brief moment, until Judd Nelson appeared on the big projector screen in “Breakfast Club” and my girls started screeching in delight. This was a memory-building evening, somewhat bitter-sweet, as I inevitably returned to my first viewing of the movie, to those innocent days when the world was brimming with promises just behind the horizon.
- 3-4 wine-ripe tomatoes, chopped
- a handful of watermelon cucumbers (or 1 smaller regular cucumber, peeled)
- ½ red onion, diced
- 3-4 pepperoncini peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut ionto rings
- 1-2 roasted beets, cut into slices
- a handful of olives
- salt and pepper
- a drizzle of olive oil
- about 8 oz feta cheese, crumbled
- Mix all the vegetables gently.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Drizzle with olive oil.
- Stir once more gently.
- Crumble the cheese on top.