Late snow and bitter cold have stifled progress in the fields, leaving us weeks away from field-grown tomatoes. Lucky for us, beautiful, locally grown hydroponic tomatoes will be available long before fields are producing fruit. Many producers are ramping up production after taking the winter off and before long, shelves will be stocked with perfectly ripe greenhouse tomatoes. So when faced with the inevitable tomato craving in the coming weeks, I urge you to explore the local landscape before going south of the border.
Hydroponic crops are grown in greenhouses without soil. Instead, roots are placed in an inert or chemically inactive medium made from rock wool or coconut fiber. Plants then receive essential nutrients through the water supply, rather than deriving them from the soil. The tomatoes grown in this controlled environment are often more uniform and subject to fewer unwanted visitors (bugs, animals, feral toddlers, etc.) making them a favored crop. Hydroponic output can be prolific too—some growers boast 20 times greater yield per acre as compared to traditional growing methods.
Of course, few things in life are without shortcomings, and although the disadvantages of hydroponic growing are few, they can prove insurmountable to prospective growers. First and most important, startup costs can be prohibitively high. Constructing the greenhouse and engineering the necessary irrigation is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Not to mention, once fully operational, power outages and waterborne microorganisms can swiftly wipe out an entire season's yield.
Despite the challenges, Maryland's Eastern Shore is home to many first-rate hydroponic growers. This winter's prolonged and brutal cold forced many of those growers to shut down production for months. Optimal temperature inside of a greenhouse is between 70-80 degrees, and with outside temperatures consistently in the low 20s, the houses become too expensive to heat. Many shrewd growers hedged their losses and shut down for the season. Not to fear, most operations are back to full capacity.
When it comes to local hydroponic tomatoes, Hummingbird Farm on the Eastern Shore is my go-to. Jennifer Sturmer, owner and operator of the farm, grows more than 17,000 hydroponic tomato plants each year on only 1.75 acres. Like many of her hydroponic-hawking comrades,Sturmer employs "integrated pest management" to ward off perennial pests while minimizing chemical use. You can find her tomatoes at grocers and markets with a local focus. I used her tomato clusters in this recipe:
Roasted Tomato Mayonnaise
In my eyes, mayonnaise stands alone atop Mount Condiments. It's lauded by fans, yet still repulses many, but I would argue that only the best foods seem to have that effect. This simple recipes pairs roasted tomatoes and garlic with homemade or store-bought mayo. The caramelized and aromatic fruit is a welcome addition to the already-flawless emulsion. Fortification also makes mayo more versatile—the added body makes it a delicious dip for raw vegetables or anything else in need of a fatty counterbalance.
1 cluster of hydroponic tomatoes (4-5 medium sized tomatoes)
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup mayo
Pinch of sugar (optional)
Heat oven to 425 F.
Rinse tomatoes and remove cores. Halve each tomato and remove seeds and pulp. Halve the garlic cloves lengthwise.
Arrange tomatoes and garlic on a baking sheet or stainless steel pan and drizzle with olive oil. Add pinch of salt, few cracks of pepper, and sugar. Roast for 30 minutes.
After removing from the oven, let tomatoes and garlic cool for 30 minutes to an hour.
Add cooled tomatoes, garlic, and mayonnaise. Pulse until tomatoes and garlic has been incorporated into the mayonnaise. Add salt if necessary.
Refrigerate until ready to use.