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Great Flavor in Odd Shapes: Heirloom Tomatoes

Our markets are full of flavorful, colorful heirloom tomatoes. Don't let the season slip past you without having some!

I wait all year for heirloom tomato season. When they’re plentiful and the markets are abundant with multiple varieties at good prices, I’m cranking out tomato sandwiches. If allergies have me buying calamine lotion by mid-September, so be it; I can’t resist the charm of a really good tomato.

As a kid in the '60s and '70s, my parents and I used to stop at roadside stands in New Jersey and buy baskets of big “Jersey” beefsteak-types. When the summers were good and hot, they’d be deep red and bursting with flavor. My father would make tomato sandwiches on toast with a little Hellmann’s mayo and a sprinkle of salt. “That’s all you need,” he’d say.

The '80s and '90s were bad tomato decades for me, but somewhere around 2000 I tasted my first Brandywine. A huge specimen, it was deep pink, thin-skinned and juicy — but not watery. When I took a bite, that perfect balance of sweetness and mild acidity — and sheer depth of flavor — brought tears to my eyes. It even smelled good. Here was a tomato like those of my youth!

Heirloom tomatoes are from seed varieties a minimum of 50 or 75 years old, depending upon who you ask. True heirlooms are open-pollinated, meaning the old-fashioned way, involving bees and other elements of nature, and grown from seeds that come from the previous generation of fruit. Whether textures and flavors are largely genetic and not just environment and vine-ripening is open for discussion, and you should check out this article in Scientific American for an interesting argument in favor of the latter.

Basic supermarket hybrids were generally bred for consistency, disease resistance and durability. Their thicker skins allow them to be held in storage as they travel, and their seeds are not used to plant the next crop because results would not be consistent with the parent.

I often hear people tell others to use them for sauce, because “that’s all they’re good for.” Whatever you do, don’t do that! Vine-ripened canned tomatoes — San Marzanos, if you can swing the price — are a much better choice for sauce than flavorless fresh ones.

Certainly the qualities of vine-ripened backyard and farm stand hybrids are proof that a tomato doesn’t have to be an heirloom to be fabulous — and my childhood Jerseys were almost certainly hybrids — but I find that heirloom varieties taste much better than even high-quality market hybrids, which often look great, but that’s about it.

There are numerous varieties — many with unusual yet highly-descriptive names, like Mr. Stripey, Anna Russian Oxheart and Crimson Cushion. Some are grape-sized, like Elfins, and some upwards of a couple of pounds, like Mortgage Lifters.

They can be one or a combination of bulbous, misshapen, mottled, variegated, purple-black, white, yellow, red, orange or green — and that’s not a complete list.

If you’ve never tried one, start with a large Brandywine or two for tomato sandwiches — which should be made with decent toasted bread. I alternate Phoenix Pastificio’s Rustic Olive Bread (available at ) and Vital Vittles Sliced Real Bread (). Other than a little mayonnaise and a crank of sea salt, I scatter on a few chopped pistachios.

For great acid/sugar balance and super-rich tomato flavor, try Kellogg’s Breakfast — a large, golden type. If they don’t have them where you shop, ask the produce manager for a good alternative.

Don’t approach heirlooms that are green when ripe the way you would the unripe supermarket variety. Some green heirloom tomatoes are sweet and some are tart, but none of them are like an unripe supermarket job.

Serve simply. A splash of light vinaigrette, a couple of basil leaves and maybe a little fresh mozzarella. Several colors stacked on a plate in a vertical-cuisine-meets-Alice-Waters kind of way works nicely, too. Make the tomato your star.

My mom is growing Black Krims this year, which, when ripe, provide earthy, rich flavor with sweet and salty notes. Unless we get a significant stretch of heat, though, I’ll be doing the same thing with the Black Krims I’m doing with the rest of what’s on our vines:  fried green tomatoes.

Here are some tomato recipes from Martha Stewart, many of them unfussy, and a few busy ones from Carmel’s TomatoFest, in case you find yourself wanting to try something new with a couple of colorful heirlooms.

Denise Shelton September 18, 2011 at 02:42 AM
My husband and I attended the National Heirloom Exhibition at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds this week. What a fabulous event! We plan to go next year, too. We picked up the most gorgeous tomatoes but they also had lot of other heirloom fruits and veggies. Ever had had a pink pearl apple? They're small and when you bite into them, the flesh inside is a delightful shade of pink. They're a hit with the kids, just the right size and the novelty of the color makes everybody smile.
Renate Valencia September 19, 2011 at 09:01 PM
I've been hearing about all kinds of heirloom produce recently, but haven't run into much beyond the tomatoes. Thanks for the information! I'll have to look into that event for next year.

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