Heirloom Tomato Central: A Visit to Seacat Gardens; plus, Lewis CSA Opens

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A jungle, an ocean, a wild maze of huge, sprawling plants bearing thousands of colorful, fragrant fruit. That's how it feels just a few steps into the tomato beds in Seacat Gardens' leased acre on the edge of Blue Sky Farms in Litchfield Park.

"I just started here last fall," says organic specialty produce grower Carl Seacat, who seems cheerfully taken aback by what his backyard veggie garden has developed into. "I get a lot of comments on how good the vegetables taste, but there's a few reasons, I think, for that. For me, one is the water. I want to grow tomatoes, I want to grow beans, I want to grow other big plants that sprinkler irrigation harms. We had this big deal about putting in drip irrigation. What we did was, my acre is watered from well water. Doing this is incredibly expensive."

Each week at Saturday's Scottsdale's Old Town Farmers' Market and Downtown Phoenix Public Market (both from 8 a.m. to noon, starting tomorrow), Seacat offers an assortment of lovingly tended rarities, and the avalanche of heirloom tomatoes in particular began gathering speed last month. While more than a dozen varieties -- including one or two unique bee-pollinated hybrids -- will pass through the stalls during this spring and summer's harvest, the current star is the Black Russian Paul Robeson tomato. Because of pent-up demand, availability may still be "a bit spotty" this weekend, Seacat warns, but it's time to start planning menus and snacks around these beauties.

The Robeson is the worldwide hands-down favorite of many tomato cognoscenti. Unlike an everyday tomato, which is a nearly hollow shell that hemorrhages watery pulp from its seed cavities upon slicing, the Robeson binds moisture into its multicolored, substantial flesh and has very little seed area at all. The flavor overwhelms every contact point in your mouth, bringing on a blissful surrender that is similar to the feeling a tray of champagne and Belgian chocolate-dipped ripe berries might inspire.

Beautifully colored whole beans are also coming in, including purples, yellow wax, dainty little haricots verts, and the amazing speckled Wonder of the Piedmont. And baby zucchini with blossoms attached.

More news on the organic growing front: Lewis' Hen House and Veggie Farm (currently vending at Casa Grande, Roadrunner Park, and Chandler farmers' markets) has started accepting CSA (community supported agriculture) subscriptions. (Membership in CSA means that your dues are a season-long "investment" in the farm and you receive a share of the crop in return, usually once a week.) The membership drive begins today, so check those chickens out!

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