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How to ripen garden tomatoes quicker

Five ways to ripening those garden tomatoes

Ripen your tomatoes with these quick tips. Heirloom tomatoes like this may look deformed but have amazing flavor. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Ripen your tomatoes with these quick tips. Heirloom tomatoes like this may look deformed but have amazing flavor. Photo by Christine Willmsen

With shorter days and colder nights in the Pacific Northwest, it’s time to make sure your tomatoes get ripe so you can enjoy them in salads and in cooking. I planted my heirloom tomatoes from seeds and now I’m seeing all the amazing types of tomatoes grow and start to ripen. This reminds me of my childhood days, when almost every night we’d pull a red, juicy ripe tomato from the garden and serve it sliced with salt and pepper.

Here are five tips to guarantee tomatoes will taste amazing, and sooner than later:

Tear off small suckers, leaf starts, like these off the vine. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Tear off small suckers, leaf starts, like these off the vine. Photo by Christine Willmsen

1. If you already have multiple green tomatoes growing on the vine, cut the top of the plant where new shoots and flowers are starting to form. This focuses the energy on the current fruit.

2. Remove suckers every couple days. These are the small leaves that start growing in between the main branches of the tomato plant. They will literally “suck” the plant’s energy and make it challenging for your fruit to ripen.

3. Go by feel. Don’t base a tomato’s ripeness by the color. There are so many varieties of tomatoes that aren’t your classic deep red. If the tomato is plump feeling and tender then remove it from the vine. Some of my tomatoes are yellow and ripe now.

Even though this tomato is yellow, it's ripe. Base your ripeness on feel and when tender pull it. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Even though these tomatoes are yellow, they’re ripe. Base your ripeness on feel and when tender pull it. Photo by Christine Willmsen

4. With cold, wet nights approaching, you should thin the leaves and branches that aren’t critical to growing the fruit. This ensures that air can circulate between the leaves and fruit and it will help prevent late blight and mold.

5. If a tomato is too heavy for the plant like the one in the top photo, then harvest it and let it ripen on your counter or better yet in a shoe box in a cool, dark room.



Quick tips to make your tomatoes grow

Six tips for a bumper crop of tomatoes

Dig deep hole, put an inch of compost and a sprinkle of fertilizer into the hole and then plant tomato in a warm, sunny spot.

Dig deep hole, put an inch of compost and a sprinkle of fertilizer into the hole and then plant tomato in a warm, sunny spot. Photo by Christine Willmsen

It’s time to get dirty. Yep, I said it – get in the dirt and get dirty.

Memorial Day weekend has passed and that means it’s fair game to plant a number of vegetables, some that will give you vegetables early and others in the middle of the summer. One of my favorites is the tomato.

Since I’m from the Midwest, I’m compelled to plant tomatoes. As a child I remember eating big, beefy tomatoes every day with a pinch of salt and pepper. I also recall my mom canning those juicy, plump tomatoes for winter dishes. So my goal is to relive those memories by planting my own this year. I want you to enjoy them too.

Here are six tips for healthy tomatoes that I’ve picked up over the years and from a recent class at Swanson’s Nursery:

1. If you are limited for space, grow tomatoes in large containers on your deck or patio. If the only person enjoying the tomatoes is you, then I suggest you buy two plants that are different types.

2. Choose starters from your local nursery or store at this point, seeds won’t develop in time. Pick the sunniest and warmest spot in your yard. Tomatoes need 6-8 hours of light per day.

3. Right before planting, pinch off the lowest two levels of leaves. This will encourage a strong stalk to support the heavy tomatoes.

4. Dig a deep hole, put an inch of compost in and sprinkle some fertilizer in the hole before planting it. Cover the root and plant with soil almost up to the first leaf.

5. Plant 18 inches apart and put a cage around each plant. If plants are too close to each other, they can get diseases due to wet foliage.

6. Water consistently, making sure soil doesn’t dry out. Inconsistent watering can lead to blossom-end rot, a brown leathery spot found on the bottom of fruit.

I planted tomato seeds indoors for the first time and had great success. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I planted tomato seeds indoors for the first time and had great success. Photo by Christine Willmsen

My desire for fresh tomatoes started two months ago when I planted two types of tomato seeds indoors – heirloom tomatoes and yellow cherry tomatoes. I used old plastic egg holders to start my seeds and placed them on the sunny kitchen windowsill.

After they got two strong leaves on them, I transplanted them into a small pot for several weeks before I daringly planted them in the ground this past weekend. I’m crossing my fingers that we’ll all have a hot, sunny summer, which means great tomatoes. Look for recipes from me in two months when we all are plucking them from our gardens.



Great things can grow from Foodportunity

What a bountiful garden this year. These are just a few of the vegetables that grew in my garden as I started my blog The Solo Cook. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Opportunities can grow just like a garden

Potatoes are easy to grow and there is always a surprise underneath. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Three types of potatoes – butter, rose and purple – grew in my garden. Photo by Christine Willmsen

This summer I had just started a food blog called The Solo Cook, which focused on cooking, gardening and savoring food from a single person’s perspective. But I didn’t know how to get the word out. The Solo Cook was just underway and I had no idea how to meet and network with chefs, writers and food industry peeps.

A couple friends suggested I go to a Foodportunity event in June. I quickly printed some business cards and walked into the event with a smile. While I was nervous about explaining my passion for food to a room full of people, I realized it was a true opportunity for me. After seeing a couple familiar faces and sipping a glass of wine, I warmed up and just started chatting with people. In fact, the night wasn’t even over and I had run out of business cards.

This single girl froze some of the peas to later cook during the wet winter months. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I met some amazing, talented people and absorbed suggestions and ideas from chefs. One of those chefs was Thierry Rautureau, owner of Rover’s and Luc. He had a sincere interest in my blog and offered some valuable advice. It was this connection at Foodportunity that gave me the confidence to apply for a live cooking competition. Not only did I have the guts to apply for the cooking competition at Rover’s, but I must have made an impression because now I’m one of nine contestants in Kitchen Circus. This home cook will tackle a professional kitchen on Nov. 20 and prepare an amuse bouche and one course for at least 45 people.

My beets started to appear in the garden mid-summer. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I look back at my experience with Foodportunity just four months ago, and believe it gave me the courage to step outside my comfort zone of being a hard news journalist and dip my pen into the creative, fun world of writing about food. My photos here are of my garden and some of the wonderful food it produced. I’m still new to this arena, and most people don’t know about me or my blog yet, but everyone has to start somewhere.

It’s October and I’m pulling my beets out of the ground. I chop the green tops and throw them into soups. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I’m attending the Foodportunity event on Oct. 22 at Palace Ballroom, and I don’t plan to run out of business cards this time. Follow Foodportunity on twitter #foodprt and @foodportunityse.



The Solo Cook creates the Shiso Cucumber Martini

Shiso, also known as perilla, is a great herb to use in cocktails. This martini combines shiso and cucumber.

Try shiso leaves with a cocktail, fish or salad

This bold and herbaceous cocktail I created will quench your thirst. And exactly how I concocted it is just as interesting as the history of the main ingredient – shiso. Plus, discover how one of Seattle’s famous chefs, Thierry Rautureau, uses shiso in his kitchen.

After a brief, but much-needed vacation, The Solo Cook is back, filing you in on the best recipes and hot spots to visit. Don’t think for a second that while I was taking time off I wasn’t thinking of you.  While I may have been entertaining my dad and friend Jane, I was still thinking of ideas for gardening, cooking and enjoying food for all the single people out there. If anything, my time away, stimulated even more ideas.

Shiso seeds can be bought at any nursery or garden store.

Given my need for things that involve risk, I was committed to planting something other than traditional herbs and plants in my garden this year. In mid-June I bought shiso seeds and planted them in a little container on my deck. Weeks later, to my surprise, little red and green plants sprouted and my shiso, also known as perilla, appeared. This annual flourished in the small pot, but it never emerged from the relatively dry ground near my dahlias. So I recommend you plant the seeds directly in a container in early June, and once the plant is a few inches tall, start to harvest the leaves.

If you lack a green thumb, don’t worry about growing shiso. The fresh leaves can be purchased at most Asian grocery stores.

Plant red and green shiso in June. It also can be purchased in Asian markets and grocery stores.

Shiso is a rich source of calcium and iron, and imparts subtle hints of clove, cinnamon and cumin. I decided to plant shiso, also known as Japanese basil, because I enjoy it with one of my favorite types of food – sushi. But don’t relegate this herb to just chopsticks.

For some expert advice on shiso, I turned to James Beard Award-winning chef Thierry Rautureau, who owns Rover’s and Luc restaurants in Seattle.

Rautureau, who competed on “Top Chef Masters” on Bravo TV, has been growing shiso for years, and has developed quite a liking for it.

“I love steaming my cod with a dash of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and take a couple big leaves of purple shiso and wrap the fish in it,” Rautureau says. “Shiso is a great addition to a steamed dish as it releases its pungent perfume.”

For a salad, he recommends combining shiso with watermelon, feta and lemon-olive oil dressing.

In Asian folklore, shiso was a sacred herb that if disrespected or stepped on meant death, according to Botanical Interests, a seed company. Another factoid of interest is that in the U.S., shiso was a key ingredient in sarsaparilla and flavored dental products.

For this blog, I usually create a food recipe perfect for one, but I thought it would be daring to concoct a drink with something from my garden.

Be adventuresome and try this cocktail. At a minimum, I can guarantee it will be intoxicating.

Hot in the Kitchen

Shiso Cucumber Martini

Muddle shiso leaves and cucumber.


2 shots premium vodka

6 shiso leaves (two for garnish) that can be grown or purchased at Asian market

2 teaspoons simple syrup *

¼ cucumber cut into chunks (thin slice for garnish)

Tear shiso leaves apart and put in cocktail shaker or pint glass. Use the handle of wooden spoon (like mine from Ecuador) or a muddler to mash cucumber and shiso together. Add vodka and simple syrup and continue to muddle. Add ice to glass until half full, and shake or stir.

Garnish martini with cucumber slice and two shiso leaves.

Strain ingredients into a martini glass and garnish with a red and green shiso leaf and a thin cucumber slice.

* Simple syrup is a must-have when making cocktails and other drinks. Just bring to boil equal parts sugar and water together until dissolved. After cooling, syrup can be stored in refrigerator for several months. I usually make one cup.



Swap fresh food from garden with neighbors and friends

I call it neighborly love – and the old adage give and you shall receive rings true in my life when it comes to food.

For me, food is about sharing an experience with those you care about and why not share your fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs with neighbors. You will reap the benefits in many ways.

These fresh picked strawberries from my neighbor Tony’s garden are best when simply prepared. Try them with balsamic vinegar or thinly sliced mint.

There’s usually a neighbor within a couple blocks of your apartment, condo or house who you’ve gotten to know or need to get to know now. People love to talk about their gardens – including me. Trade food stories and exchange fresh garden items. If you have a bumper crop of sugar snap peas, deliver them to your friends and neighbors. Like me, you’ll soon find fresh veggies like zucchini sitting on your porch.

Tony, my neighbor, is surrounded by swiss chard, peas, potatoes. strawberries and beets. He’s always willing to share food from his verdant garden.

I’ve learned so much about gardening from my neighbor Tony. In many talks over beers, I’ve gotten tips on planting my garden. Whether it’s irrigation, compost or protection from critters, Tony has shared helpful stories with me. His garden is amazing and I, for some reason, have earned a pass to enter it at any time and pillage.

You can’t possibly find the time or space to grow everything you’d like to in your garden or in pots. So find fellow food growers in your neighborhood and see if food can be shared. For example, I have one neighbor who graciously gave me fresh greens for a salad and when my potatoes are grown I’ll drop some off for her. And don’t just think of food. I’ve given fresh herbs to a friend and, in exchange, received fresh-cut flowers from her yard. Another reward is discovering new recipes by asking how your friends prepared the food. If you are feeling ambitious, form a neighborhood cooperative or exchange that’s more organized.

Carrots literally pulled from the ground like these are so sweet and earthy. Cook them with thyme and a touch of butter, but that’s only if you don’t eat them raw first.

I’ll be honest with you I’m not good at growing corn. This is an embarrassing fact, since I grew up in Iowa. It could be my soil, or that my garden doesn’t sit in a hot, sunny spot or that I’m too far from my original roots. But I’m sure my neighbor Tony will have corn this summer and yes I will pillage. And yes he will receive an ample supply of my fresh, sweet raspberries. I’d love to hear your food swapping stories and ideas.