Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Green Zebras. Striped Caverns. Pink Brandywines and Gypsies. No, it isn't a list of things appearing in the next J.R.R. Tolkien film, but the names of things very near and dear to the heart of every Arkansan this time of year: tomatoes. And not just any tomatoes, but fresh grown, organically raised heirloom breeds, the likes of which you'll never find on the shelf at the local Kroger. Lots of folks are growing tomatoes this time of year, and one of my favorite growers is Robert Lashley of Willow Springs Market Garden, an Englishman and retired RN who has lived in Arkansas for over three decades. From his garden just outside the Southern city limits, Lashley raises a variety of peppers, vegetables, and fruits — and while I've been eating on his fresh garlic (in mild, medium, or wonderfully hot) for a few weeks now, it's those delicious tomatoes with the fantasy names that keep me coming back time after hungry time.
Of particular note are those Green Zebras, a light and tangy tomato that looks just like the name describes it: bright green with visible stripes. I've eaten these tomatoes sliced by themselves and put them in salads and the hold up quite well to both uses. The flavor is sweet and slightly tart all at once, and while it isn't a hefty, meaty breed, these green jewels aren't shy about flavor. The Green Zebra isn't a true heirloom, having been bred in Washington and introduced in 1983, but the bright flavor and excellent texture of this tomato make it well worth giving a try.
My other favorite breed of tomato from Willow Springs this year is a true heirloom, and that's the Striped Cavern. This tomato has a thick, yet tender outer layer and a cavernous center that makes it perfect for stuffing. My wife and I took several of these Striped Caverns and stuffed them with a mixture of spinach, shallots, Parmesan cheese, and bacon and wound up with a pan full of divine stuffed tomatoes whose sugars had intensified and concentrated, all without the shells breaking down to spill their contents everywhere. Forget the stuffed bell peppers while these tomatoes are in season — you won't want to miss these.
Lashley, who raises his garden with assistance from his wife Peg and son Alex (who Lashley says does "the heavy lifting), sells his wares at the Argenta Farmers Market in North Little Rock on Saturdays and Bernice Garden Farmers Market on Sundays. Like a lot of our local growers, Willow Springs is dedicated to growing food without the use of harsh pesticides and with an emphasis on variety and sustainability — and of course, excellent flavor. Lashley plans to have Japanese Persimmons later on in the year, and he assures me they'll erase my terrible memories of the American variety; after eating his tomatoes, I'll trust the man's word.
My four cats are just waiting to "drop" in and say hi to the puppies!!!!…