Heirloom Tomatoes: A Delicious Legacy
Tomatoes are spilling out of baskets at farmer’s markets and grocery stores around the country. Once considered poisonous by Europeans, tomatoes are now a year-round staple of international cuisines. If you’ve got a pot and a sunny spot in your yard, apartment, or on the fire escape or stoop, tomatoes are easy, kid-friendly plants to grow yourself.
However in August and September, the farmers market sells a rainbow of bumpy, technicolor tomatoes, no potting soil required! Buy up a few heirlooms and cut in. Be prepared to be blown away by the intensity of the “tomato-ness” that the heirloom flavors provide.
Heirloom vs. Hybrid
Hybrid tomatoes have been designed and modified in a way that requires the gardener to buy the seeds from a seed company, thus making the company’s time in selecting for beauty, taste, shelf life, etc. profitable. Think the tomatoes in the grocery store: uniform, predictable, modified over time and in controlled environments to prevent pollen from one tomato plant from interacting with a different type of tomato plant. Large greenhouses, scientists in white lab coats, clipboards, DNA strands.
Heirloom tomatoes are the hippy cousins who live outside Woodstock in a tree house recycling rain water. Or maybe a better description is that they are the seeds your Great Aunt Lupe saved during The Great Depression and passed down year after year in a tattered envelope hand-scrawled with names like Green Zebra and Amazon Chocolate.
Like hybrids, the seeds from heirlooms can be planted and will produce the same tomato plant next year. However, they may be asymmetrical, not as pest resistant, or have lower yields. The trade-off is you get a tie-dye rainbow of color and flavor to pop out of your flower pot and salsa bowl.
How to Pick a Tomato
Tomato selection is VERY easy. Look for fruits that feel heavy for their size, have tight skins that aren’t leaking juice from any splits and are tender to squeeze. Don’t be put off by tomatoes that are lumpy, ugly, green, or haven’t reddened all the way up to where they were cut from the stem. They are supposed to look like that!
Keep your purpose in mind. Whether you are making a salad or salsa or sauce will help determine particular characteristics in the tomatoes that you want. Extra meaty? Few seeds? Maybe you’re trying out a tomato sorbet recipe and want something extra juicy. The best resource on what’s inside those skins is the person that grew them. Don’t be shy! Ask the farmer (or the person selling the stock) what they recommend and what their favorites are.
How to Use Tomatoes
The uses for those beautiful tomatoes in your kitchen after the trip to the market are as many as many as there are varieties to choose from. Here’s three recipes for my seasonal favorites:
Heirloom Tomato & Toast Salad
This salad doesn’t hold up well in the fridge because the bread and tomatoes quickly start to fall apart so plan to enjoy on the night you make it.
For the salad:
1 medium-sized loaf of day-old, crusty bread, like a boule or baguette, cut into 1” chunks
3 T olive oil, plus more if needed
2 large, meaty heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1/2” chunks
1 large cucumber, cut into 1/2” chunks
1 small red onion, peeled and sliced paper thin
25 leaves of basil, torn into small pieces (excellent job for kids little fingers!)
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped, stems and all
For the Dressing:
1/2 c olive oil
1/4 c vinegar (I like apple cider or champagne but balsamic and red wine work well too)
1 T dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the bread and a hearty pinch of kosher salt. Toast the bread, tossing occasionally and adding more olive oil if the pan gets completely dry, until the bread cubes are deliciously crisp all around, about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, toss the remaining salad ingredients in a large mixing bowl, big enough to hold both the salad and the bread cubes.
- In a jar with a lid, combine the ingredients for the dressing. Seal the jar,( hand to akid if there’s one nearby !), and shake well to combine.
- When the bread is toasted, add the cubes to the salad mixing bowl and gently mix all the salad components together with a big wooden spoon.
- Pour the dressing over the salad and mix to combine. Let salad sit at room temperature for 1 hour, then mix once more, transfer to a pretty serving bowl and enjoy!
Grilled Tomatoes with Cilantro-Lime Crema
A perfect cooling side dish for a hot summer night around the grill.
6 large, ripe heirloom tomatoes
1/2 t aleppo pepper (use sweet, smoked paprika if aleppo is unavailable)
1/2 t cumin
a tiny pinch of cayenne
2 c crema, homemade or store bought
Zest from 1 lime
Juice from the same lime
2 Tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
Coarse sea salt
- Heat grill to hot!
- Cut the top off the tomatoes (where the stem was connected) and drizzle all over with olive oil.
- Mix together the cumin, aleppo, and cayenne, then sprinkle spice mix on oily tomatoes.
- Put the tomato, cut side down on the hot grill and cook until you get some nice, dark grill marks, 3-5 minutes. Then flip and cook 3-5 minutes more, until hot through. It will sizzle when the water from the tomatoes hits the heat – worry not.
- Meanwhile, mix together the crema, lime zest, lime juice and cilantro and put into a pretty serving bowl.
- Put the grilled tomatoes on a serving platter and sprinkle with crunchy sea salt. Serve immediately with the Cilantro-Lime Crema.
Vegetables for dessert? Well, technically tomatoes are a fruit. Break out the popsicle mold (or so Dixie cups and lollipop sticks) to make these kid-approved frozen tomato pops!
3 lbs ripe heirloom tomatoes
1/4 c fresh-squeezed lime juice
1/4 c water
1/2 c sugar
Grated zest from the limes
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Score the skin on the blossom end (opposite where the stem was connected) of each tomato with a sharp knife to make an “x.” Drop the tomatoes a few at a time into the pot for 20 seconds. Fish out with a slotted spoon then plunge into a bowl of ice water. Repeat until all the tomatoes are blanched.
- Slip the skins off the blanched tomatoes. Discard the skins. Quarter the skinless tomatoes and squish the seeds out into one bowl. Keep the now skinless, seedless tomato flesh in a second bowl. This is squishy messy fun for kids! And don’t worry if a few seeds make it into the tomato flesh bowl.
- Use your hands to squish the tomato flesh into a pulp. Place a colander over this bowl and pour the tomato seeds into the colander. Smoosh any tomato juice through, then discard the seeds. Rinse the colander for use in the next step.
- Pour the tomato juice and pulp into the blender or food processor and puree for 10 seconds. Pour that through the rinsed colander and use a rubber spatula to smoosh all the juicy tomatoey deliciousness into a clean bowl. Discard what’s left behind in the colander. You should have about a quart of sorbet base.
- In a saucepan, combine the lime juice, water, and sugar. Heat over medium until the sugar dissolves, then pour into sorbet base. Stir in the lime zest. Pour into popsicle molds* and freeze until solid, about 4 hours.
*Alternatively, you could use a clean ice cube tray or small paper cups. Pour in your base, freeze 45 minutes, then take out of the freezer and sink in popsicle or lollipop stick (available at craft stores) then freeze for the remaining time. If the sticks don’t want to stand up straight, cover with a piece of aluminum foil then poke stick through to help keep it upright. Or, skip the sticks altogether. Pour the base into a dish, freeze solid then use a spoon to shave the ice and make Tomato-Lime Granitas.