Heirloom Tomatoes are Back !
If you read my article about the arrival of Asparagus season a couple of months ago, you know that I look forward to those delicious green stalks with anticipation every year. However, that eagerness is surpassed by my excitement at the arrival of heirloom tomatoes, especially those that are grown locally in the Sierra Foothills. Heirloom tomatoes are truly a local and seasonal specialty because the act of shipping an heirloom tomato, with its inevitable too-early harvest and refrigeration, ruins the very qualities that make heirloom tomatoes exceptional. When I speak of heirlooms, I am speaking of locally-grown tomatoes, picked ripe and delivered warm that same day, emitting that characteristic “homegrown tomato” smell. Naturally, the season for local heirlooms is too short, usually from late July or early August to October, or whenever cold weather or rain ruins the crop. You can often find heirlooms earlier or later than this, but they have usually been shipped from as far away as Arizona. The point here is, eat as many heirloom tomatoes as you can during this short season of local availability.
What Defines an “Heirloom”?
What distinguishes an “heirloom” tomato from a “regular” tomato? Heirloom tomatoes, and for that matter, “heirloom” anything (carrots, beets, radishes, corn), are grown from seeds of old-fashioned varieties, ones that were grown before all of the flavor was bred out of tomatoes in favor of commercially attractive characteristics. Often the seeds have been passed down through a family for several generations. Sometimes, heirlooms were developed commercially, but they must have been introduced before 1940 and be open-pollinated (not sterile or artificially pollinated) to be considered heirloom. Some varieties have unknown origins, probably the result of natural cross-pollination. All heirlooms have evolved naturally in their unique environments to have resistance to pests and diseases and to adapt to the growing conditions of their unique climate.
The real differences that you will notice between heirloom tomatoes and other tomatoes are in their color, flavor, and shape. Colors vary from deep red to maroon to yellow to orange to green to white, some with stripes and some with two or three colors. Names often evoke the appearance of the tomatoes, such as “Brandywine”, “Green Zebra”, and “Super Snow White”. Flavors vary somewhat, but, most importantly, the flavor is always there: sweet, tangy, and pungent like a tomatoe’s flavor should be. Make sure you keep this flavor by never refrigerating your tomatoes. Shapes of heirloom tomatoes are extremely diverse, ranging from tiny cherry size to the size of grapefruit. Often, heirlooms have ridges, creases, dents, cracks, and bulges, the result of their natural growing conditions and genetics. Some are oblong like a roma tomato while others are squat and flattened. For attractive plate presentations, be sure to buy as much variety of shape and color as you can find.
Cooking with Heirlooms
Cooking with heirlooms is quite simple, since not much (if anything) needs to be done to an heirloom tomato to improve its natural flavor. You can eat them out of hand like an apple, maybe with a little salt added, or slice them and dress with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Chopped basil and fresh mozzarella are classic pairings. Outstanding sauces and soups can be made from heirlooms. It can be a shame to blend up beautiful fresh tomatoes, but if you find yourself in possession of some over-ripe ones, make a rich tomato sauce or soup. You may want to use all one color, however, or the appearance of sauces and soups can become muddled. How about red, yellow, and green soups all together in one bowl? Serve with some fresh toast spread with heirloom tomato jam for a memorable lunch.
Other ideas include heirloom BLT; crabcake and heirloom benedict; heirloom and jack omelet; polenta with heirloom relish on top; heirloom pico de gallo; sliced tomatoes and brie on a pizza; chopped and tossed with pasta and pesto; gazpacho; Italian bread and tomato salad; bruschetta; tomatoes stuffed with ground beef, rice, and cheese; tomato sorbet; tomato shrimp ceviche; heirloom bloody mary; tomato and cheese pie; tomato and crab risotto; cornmeal crusted fried tomatoes; tomato and blue cheese scones; pickled cherry tomatoes; heirloom lasagne; heirloom shrimp and grits . . .is that enough? Obviously, the heirloom tomato season is too short to try everything.
Following are two of my favorite recipes, both proven crowd-pleasers. The Heirloom Tomato and Mozzarella Salad epitomizes the flavors of Summer, and the Heirloom Tomato and Blue Cheese Soup is a great way to use over-ripe tomatoes. In the spirit of creativity and having fun with cooking, I have not included exact measurements. Instead, I have indicated the list of ingredients and methods of preparation.
- Assorted heirloom tomatoes (as many varieties as you can find)
- Fresh mozzarella cheese, packed in water
- Fresh basil
- Good quality extra virgin olive oil
- Aged balsamic vinegar (as old as you can afford)
- Freshly-ground black pepper
- Kosher salt
- Choose the nicest white plates that you have, preferably without colors or designs so that you can showcase the colors of the tomatoes. Slice the tomatoes thickly and arrange on the plates, making sure that each color is represented on every plate. Top with a few thick slices of fresh mozzarella. Stack 5-10 basil leaves on top of each other, roll them up tightly, and slice into thin shreds using a sharp knife. Sprinkle the basil over the salads. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Serve room temperature.
- Olive oil
- Yellow onion, thinly sliced
- Garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- Dry white wine
- Very ripe heirloom tomatoes, preferably of one color, cored and chopped
- Chicken Stock
- Heavy cream
- Crumbled blue cheese of your choice
- Salt and white pepper
- Fresh basil and parsley, finely chopped
- Heat a large soup pot over medium heat. Add oil, onion, and garlic. Turn heat to low and stir frequently until onion is soft. Add wine, turn heat to high, and cook until wine is reduced by half. Add tomatoes, followed by chicken stock. Bring to a boil and simmer 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let soup cool for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently. In batches, puree soup in blender, then strain through a fine strainer into another pot. Place strained soup back on heat and add cream. Bring just to a boil, then turn to low. Whisk in blue cheese until melted, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, stir in the fresh herbs.