There’s a lot of growing going on in Sparta these days. Robert Currey has started Sparta Mushrooms and Elm Street Gardens, but he’s a relative newcomer to the world of market crops in that area.
Joe Muhammad has been growing vegetables and fruit in Sparta since 1997. He spent about a decade planting 6 acres of watermelon each year until he just couldn’t get the help he needed to keep up with all that fruit.
He cut back, and now he grows a variety of crops in what he calls a “big” garden of about an acre. He grows some of everything — broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beans, sweet corn, field peas, red potatoes and sweet potatoes among other crops.
“You can grow a lot of things on a small spot of land,” Muhammad said. “Bell peppers and tomatoes, you’re taking those off the plants every day. Okra, you might harvest twice a day.”
But he is perhaps best known for his tomatoes.
He was selling those tomatoes in mid-June at the new Sunday afternoon Lithonia Farmers Market held in the amphitheater of Lithonia City Park. “People invite me out to sell my tomatoes,” Muhammad said. “I’ll probably be at that market twice a month. My favorite tomatoes to grow, and to eat, are Big Boys, and I grow them in a hoop house and outside in the field so I have a very long season, almost year-round.”
Muhammad starts with seeds planted in potting soil in cups. “As long as the temperatures are about 60 to 70 degrees, the seeds will come up. In my greenhouse, it’s never below 65 degrees even in the winter time.”
Early seedlings go into the hoop house in long rows of 72 feet, each with three or four rows of tomatoes. Later, seedlings go into the ground outdoors.
A vegan, Muhammad eats his tomatoes raw most of the time, maybe pureed so they are almost like a tomato soup. But he also enjoys them cooked with okra and potatoes, too.
Todd Immel’s Tomato Jam
Todd Immel is executive chef at Floataway Cafe. In sending this recipe, he wrote, “This recipe came about because one day we had so many tomatoes in the restaurant kitchen. I did a little research, combined what I liked of a few recipes and through trial and error, came up with this one.” At Floataway, the jam is served as part of an appetizer that features burrata cheese, or on the cheese plate.
Last year, Immel created a Tomato Jam Crumb Cake he sold in the restaurant pop-up tent at Freedom Farmers Market at the Carter Center. “Being from New York, I used to have crumb cake for breakfast and remember the local bakery would put strawberry jam on it. So my thought was, ‘Why not tomato jam?’ The result was really good.”
Market goers that day agreed. Tomatoes are just as much a fruit as strawberries and this jam ends up as a rich combination of tart, sweet and herbal flavors with just a hint of heat.
Immel notes that when seeding the tomatoes, he saves the seeds and their gel. Then he adds that to stocks or strains it to use in cocktails. There’s a lot of flavor in that gel and you don’t want to waste it.
7 pounds juicy heirloom tomatoes
2 cups granulated sugar
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon red chili flakes
5 sprigs oregano
3 bay leaves
Handful of basil sprigs
Bring a large pot of boiling water to a boil. Have a bowl of ice water nearby. Put tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds, then move to ice water. When cool, remove from ice water, core and peel the tomatoes. Cut them in half and squeeze lightly to remove the seeds and juice around the seeds. Roughly chop.
In a large saucepot, combine chopped tomatoes, sugar, lime juice, salt, chili flakes, oregano and bay leaves. Bring to a simmer and cook 2 hours, stirring frequently to be sure the mixture doesn’t burn. When the mixture reaches the consistency you prefer, add basil and remove the pot from the heat. Cool jam and remove basil, bay leaves and oregano sprigs. Pup up in jars and refrigerate where it will keep up to a month. Makes: 4 cups
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 34 calories (percent of calories from fat, 4), trace protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 71 milligrams sodium.
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