a basket of yellow tomatos.

The Tomatoes of August

By Susan L. Speaker ~

August, as every gardener knows, is tomato time. Suddenly all the plants are full of ripe fruit (yes, tomatoes are technically fruit) and we are eating them every day, giving them to friends, canning them, or making sauce or soup. My husband Bob and I grow several varieties in our garden, but my favorites are the fat, orange Swan pomadoros, which have a marvelous flavor that holds up well in any recipe. They are also special to me because of their provenance: my first pomadoro seeds came to me through a friendship that developed in my work on the NLM Profiles in Science project.

A man and woman stand outdoors, she holds a basket of produce and he holds a shovel.
Geri and Henry Swan in the Garden

In 2004 the Profiles in Science team was putting together a site featuring the papers of Dr. Florence Sabin (1871–1953), a pioneering medical researcher. We needed permission to reproduce some of her letters, and wrote to Dr. Henry Swan, who served as her executor. Alas, Dr. Swan had passed away, but his wife, Geri, was able to supply the needed permission. She also suggested that we consider doing a Profile about Dr. Swan, who did some of the first open-heart surgeries during the 1950s, using hypothermia. It was a fascinating story, and we subsequently acquired Dr. Swan’s papers and produced a Profiles site.  In the process, I had many conversations with Geri, and visited her in Denver several times. She was able to provide a much fuller picture of Henry Swan’s life.  It turned out that he wasn’t just a pioneering cardiac surgeon but a talented artist, cook, and gardener as well. Geri had been a science teacher and a medical researcher before their marriage, and also painted. Together, the Swans developed several new varieties of plants over the years, including the Swan pomadoro tomato and a white acorn squash.

A basket of yellow tomatoes.Geri and I have kept in touch. When Bob and I started our first garden in 2008, she gave me helpful advice; several years later she sent us some seeds to try out. We’ve been growing the wonderful tomatoes every summer since. Many of them end up as tomato soup, which freezes well and gives us a welcome taste of summer in the winter months. And in August, they remind me again of all the interesting people I’ve connected with in my work at NLM.

Bob’s Fresh Tomato Soup

Lots of tomatoes – enough to fill a 4-qt pot when quartered
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup chicken stock
2 cloves garlic (or more, to taste)
1-2 T oil or butter
1-2 T sugar
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper to taste
1-2 C egg noodles (optional)

In a 4-6 quart pot, sauté onions, celery, carrots and garlic in the oil/butter. Rinse tomatoes, remove the stem ends, quarter, and add to pot.  Add bay leaf.  Simmer for 30-45 minutes.  Remove bay leaf!  Puree in the pot with a hand blender, or in a food processor.  Press through a fine sieve into a second pot to remove seeds and skins.* Add chicken stock (more or less as needed to achieve soup-like consistency).  Add sugar and salt as needed.  (Note: yellow tomatoes will need very little sugar, if any.)  Add a cup or two of medium egg noodles if you like. (You can cook them in the soup or cook them separately. If you plan to freeze the soup, don’t add noodles, as they’ll get mushy.)

Preparation time: about 1 hour; Cooking time: 1 hour.  Cleaning the sieve, extra 45 minutes.

A colander of yellow tomatos.*A note about sieves and so on:  You actually need two large pots.  After cooking, the soup gets strained into the second pot to finish.  You do need to strain out the seeds and skins or they make the soup bitter. We use a common rounded wire mesh strainer, and a soup ladle (in a continuous circular motion) to do this. (A better tool is a Chinois or ‘China Cap’ strainer.  This is a sort of conical strainer with a conical pestle which is ideal for sauces and soups. But these are expensive and not easy to find.)

Tomato soup lovers will find another fine recipe in MedlinePlus—the NIH’s website for patients and their families and friends, produced by NLM—as well as a link there to many more heart-healthy recipes from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the NIH.

Susan Speaker, PhD, is Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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