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A Guide to Heirloom Tomatoes

Look at their splendor! Photo by Vmenkov, 21 August 2006, Wikimedia Commons

As we all know, farmers markets are all the rage. Green, trendy and the best place to get fresh produce, they are popping up in towns all across the country. We thought, in honor of the farmers market trend and our food/beverage Wednesdays, we’d ask our local farm girl to give you all you need to rock out at the local stands and impress your hipster crush. So without further adieu, enjoy the Horticulture Queen’s first guest blog…

During my twelve years working at a New England farm, I pushed a lot of produce at Boston-area farmers markets. Customers periodically held up a beautiful piece of produce, squinted their eyes at it, and asked doubtfully, “Is it good?” “Um, yes, of course it is. We would not sell it to you if it was not good.” During my time as a farm girl, I quickly realized that fruits and vegetables, especially specialty varieties, aren’t easily understood by the general population. If you are one of the many who wouldn’t know what to do will calaloo*, fear not! Even though I work for the Man now, I stick to my roots. Your local farm girl is here to guide you.

Today, I’d like to discuss something near and dear to my heart: heirloom tomatoes. To the untrained eye, an heirloom tomato is ugly and unappealing. To someone who knows better, it is pure heaven. Your average tomato has been bred to be red, round and easy to grow. They are grown specifically to withstand the shipping process before sitting pretty on a grocery store shelf for an extended period of time. As a result of this breeding process, the flavor of a common tomato is severely sacrificed. Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are antique tomato varieties whose seeds have been passed down for generations. There are countless varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and they come in every color imaginable. They grow in strange shapes, and tend to split and crack.  Most heirlooms are not hardy plants; about 20% to 30% of what we grow can’t withstand the trip from the field, to the tomato barn, to the truck, to the market. So what makes these tomatoes SO great? The TASTE! Believe me — it deserves the caps-lock.

My favorite heirloom variety is called a Purple Cherokee. It is a round, medium-sized tomato that is black/purple with a dark green shoulder. It has a deep, smoky flavor that perfectly compliments all types of cheese. Toss a few slices in a grilled cheese sandwich, and I swear, your life will be changed. I also enjoy Pineapple: a large yellow tomato with a red blush that has a sweet, non-acidic flavor. Feeling adventurous? Try chopping up a Green Zebra tomato in your next homemade salsa. When ripe, this tomato has a light yellow flesh with thick green stripes and a fun, zesty flavor. If you’re a little unsure about all these crazy tomatoes, start off with a Pink Brandywine. These tomatoes tend to be huge; so have a couple friends over and a big recipe ready to try it. Their taste is similar to a regular tomato but amplified by about 300%. One of the most popular varieties, Brandywines are beefsteaks, meaning that when you slice them up, there is hardly any seed inside. It’s all meat! If you’re looking for a good sauce tomato, I’d recommend Costoluto Genevese. These tomatoes taste as Italian as their names sound and they come in an absolutely beautiful shape.

Since heirlooms come in so many colors, the best way to tell if they are ripe is by how soft they are. An heirloom is softer than a regular tomato, so it should feel as if it is slightly gone by. If it’s still firm, just let it sit on your counter for a few days. Be sure to cut it with a sharp knife. One of my favorite things to do is pick out a tomato in every color and slice them all up into a salad with some mozzarella and basil. Drizzle on some balsamic vinaigrette (I prefer homemade, but as my boyfriend tells me, I’m a snob when it comes to these things. Whatever, he’s the one who buys his corn at the grocery store) and you are ready for the perfect taste-test! One last tip—NEVER put tomatoes in the refrigerator. It ruins their taste. As I always tell my customers, try at least one heirloom tomato, and you’ll come back next week and buy more tomatoes than you can possibly eat, all the while telling me how right I am. I am always right when it comes to produce.

*For those still wondering about calaloo, it is Jamaican spinach and it is one of the most delicious things on this earth. If you’re able to find it, sautee it with some garlic and onions (don’t eat it raw) and you’ll never go back to another leafy green again. If you live in the Boston/Cambridge area, check out the farmers markets in Central Square on Monday and Davis Square on Wednesday—if you come early, Kimball’s Fruit Farm (Shout out! Get your heirloom tomatoes here too!!) and Farmer Al should both have calaloo for the next month or so.