It’s the bruschetta phase of summer for Ariel Pressman, which makes him a happy farmer. He stands in his field with row upon row of tomato plants, like a backyard gardener who got carried away. Fifteen rows of tomato plants, in fact, each 300 feet long. By the end of the season, he expects to harvest 1,000 pounds per bed, if the weather cooperates.
That’s two-thirds of an acre of summer’s favorite vegetable, only part of his 40-some crops on the Clear Lake, Wisconsin, leased property he calls Seed to Seed Farm. You’ll find him talking tomato and more on Saturdays at his booth on the plaza at the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis.
Pressman, 28, is in his third year of farming on his own. His story – city kid becomes farmer – has, surprisingly, become familiar in the past decade. His version: Grew up in Philadelphia, went to college in Massachusetts where he studied social cognition, and then landed an office job that didn’t make him happy. Maybe it was his mother’s big garden that nudged him into farming. He doesn’t know for sure, but two internships tilling the soil (in Vermont and Osceola, Wisconsin) convinced him that he wanted to work the land.
Some of the organic vegetables he grows – a little bit of almost everything, from peppers to beets and radishes, celery and herbs to kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and fava beans – are divvied up among members of his CSA (community-supported agriculture) who get weekly allotments.
“I like doing some random interesting stuff for the CSA,” he said.
Cabbages go to the Minneapolis public schools’ lunch program. Other produce lands in the kitchen of Twin Cities restaurants and, of course, customers at the farmers market who can’t help but be charmed by his straw hat and friendliness.
Perhaps it helps that he likes tomatoes.
“I have to admit that it’s harder to grow crops I don’t like to eat,” Pressman said.
Then again, he didn’t like asparagus until he grew it. Same for Brussels sprouts. Now he’s a fan of both.
As the harvest season gets rolling, he and his interns walk the rows of tomato plants three times a week, looking for what’s ready to pick. His preference is to reach for those not fully ripe so they land on the dinner table in better condition. Picked any later and they may become bruised or mushy by the time they are served. In a kitchen, perched on a window sill, they should ripen in 3 to 5 days.
As with grapes, tomatoes do better with less rain, when their flavor is more concentrated, which has made this an interesting summer. Too much water and they taste of it, much as supermarket tomatoes do.
“It’s why people like cherry tomatoes. There’s so much punch in them,” Pressman said.
It’s the heirloom and unusual varieties in all their unexpected colors, shapes and sizes that get him excited, though these are the most unpredictable to grow. Brandywines – plump and juicy – await their role in BLTs.
“Quite a lot of people in the know say it’s the best tomato,” Pressman said.
And there’s the Green Zebra, much smaller and wearing its name. Japanese Black Trifle, Nebraska Wedding (supposedly so good it was a traditional wedding gift) and Cherokee Purple all have a spot in his field, as does Cosmonaut Volkov.
“A lot of the darker heirlooms originally are from the Russian area. If it can survive in the Ukraine, it can survive here,” Pressman said.
The thing about heirloom tomatoes – and many homegrown ones – is that they are not perfect in appearance. They have funny shapes and scars. Customers may balk at a mark on a tomato, but chefs don’t. “They know a little scar doesn’t matter,” said Pressman.
These days, the Midwest feels like home for him.
“For local food, there is no better place to be than here for a farmer,” he said.
That’s 75 minutes from the Twin Cities, where cooks are familiar with CSAs and food co-ops – and there are plenty of restaurants.
Don’t bother asking Pressman for recipes.
“A farmer is not necessarily a cook,” he said with a laugh.
For information on the farm, go to www.seedtoseedfarm.com.
Tips for tomatoes
Farmer Ariel Pressman offers these suggestions for making the most of the fleeting season of homegrown tomatoes.
• Buy or harvest them before they are fully ripe.
• If buying, get them at different stages of ripeness, so they aren’t all at their peak at one time.
• Keep them in a single layer – on a window sill or counter – or they will ripen too fast from the ethylene gas they give off.
• Store them upside-down. They start to ripen from the other end (the blossom end), and this will help prevent them from getting squishy as the remainder of the tomato ripens.
• Do not refrigerate. Keep at room temperature or slightly cooler.
Savory Tomato and Pesto Bread Pudding
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: From “A Mouthful of Stars,” by Kim Sunée.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow or white onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon dried herbes de Provence or thyme leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 (1-pound) round loaf day-old hearty bread, sliced ½ inch thick
2 pounds large ripe tomatoes, such as beefsteak, sliced ½ inch thick
1½ cups pesto (recipe below or substitute another)
2 cups shredded Comte or Gruyere cheese
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Heat oil in large pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden, about 10 minutes. Add wine and simmer over medium-high heat until liquid is reduced to ¼ cup, about 5 minutes. Add broth and herbes de Provence, and season with salt and pepper; stir and let simmer about 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat and reserve.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter bottom of 10-inch round or 9- by 13-inch baking dish that’s at least 2½ inches deep. Line baking dish with half of the bread slices, overlapping slices slightly and cutting to fit as needed. Top with half of tomato slices; lightly season with salt and pepper. Spread half of pesto over tomatoes, then sprinkle with half of shredded cheese, pressing down on the layers.
Add the remaining layer of tomatoes, pesto and shredded cheese. Pour the reserved onion and broth mixture over the cheese. Cut the remaining bread slices into quarters and place over the onion. Gently press down on the bread with back of spatula or large spoon so that liquid is evenly distributed. Top with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Cover with lightly greased aluminum foil and bake in upper third of oven for 1 hour. Uncover and bake for 10 minutes more, or until top is browned and crisp and insides are bubbling. Let rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Spicy Walnut-Arugula Pesto
Makes 1½ cups.
Note: This is a spicier than usual pesto. From “A Mouthful of Stars” by Kim Sunee.
2 cups packed arugula
1 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
½ cup tightly packed fresh mint leaves or flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 cup whole walnuts or raw almonds
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 medium fresh jalapeno, stemmed (and seeded, if desired)
¼ to 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
About 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Combine arugula, basil, mint, walnuts, garlic, jalapeno, Parmigiano-Reggiano, lemon juice and salt in bowl of food processor and pulse to combine. Slowly drizzle in olive oil until well blended. Taste and add more olive oil, lemon juice or salt as needed.