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Your Guide to Heirloom Tomatoes
Nothing else announces the summer harvest quite like the incredible bounty of sweet, juicy tomatoes available in August and September. Sure, you know tomatoes are good for you: they are high in a wide range of nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin C, and lycopene (one of the most potent antioxidants), provide a great source of fiber, and are naturally low in calories. But finding a great tasting tomato can often be challenging. Hybridized commercial tomatoes, most of the ones commonly found year-round in typical grocery stores, are bred for stability (think thick skins and tough flesh) and ease of packaging, not necessarily for juiciness or taste. However, search out heirloom tomatoes at your local market, or grow your own, and you’re in for quite a treat.
Heirloom tomatoes are those specimens whose seeds have been passed down through multiple generations, usually for 50 or more years. In order to do this, the plants must be open-pollinated, as opposed to genetically crossed with another plant, so that the seeds of that juicy tomato you are eating this year can be planted and will yield the same tomato plant next year. There’s certainly good reason to pass these seeds along—they reliably produce tomatoes that have a pronounced tomato flavor, tend to be juicier and have delightful (not mealy) texture. Beyond that they can be sweet or tart, high in acid or low, strong in flavor or mild, depending on the variety, but are always delicious and taste like a tomato should, as opposed to more commercial tomatoes that can taste bland and dry.
There are literally hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes to choose from, including some you may have heard of—like Beefsteak, Brandywine and Green Zebra tomatoes—and plenty you’ve probably never heard of—the Bisignano, Cosmonaut Volkov Red or Tondino di Manduria—so you’ll certainly never be bored! And it’s not just the names that are unusual. Heirloom tomatoes grow in a rainbow of colors like dark red, persimmon, lime green, yellow, purple and, believe it or not, even black, which seem to be all the rage this year. Whether large, small, round, cherry, oval, squatty or pointy, each has a unique flavor ranging from mild to bold, from sweet to tart, and with varying levels of acidity.
See what the growers in your region are offering, sample several varieties, and don’t be afraid to try the funny looking heirlooms—they just might become your new favorite tomato! Be sure to take advantage of the versatility of tomatoes, which can be eaten raw or cooked, hot or cold, whole or chopped, and in sauces or salsas. With such flexibility you can incorporate them into just about any meal.
Heirloom Tomato Tart
The tart photographed here was made with a large Beefsteak heirloom variety, but virtually any heirloom tomato will taste great. The warm goat cheese in this tart is a perfect complement to fresh sliced tomatoes.
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, very cold, cut into pieces
2-4 tablespoons very cold water
8 ounces goat cheese, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 1/2 pounds heirloom tomatoes (3-4 medium sized tomatoes), sliced 1/4 inch thick
Combine flour and pine nuts in a food processor and process until well mixed. Add butter and pulse several times just until mealy and butter has formed small pea-size lumps. Add water, a little at a time, pulsing until enough water has been added to allow the dough to form a ball. Do not over-mix. Remove dough (dough will be soft) and using a floured surface, shape dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for one hour.
Preheat oven to 350°. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll into a disk large enough to fill an 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Trim excess dough from edges and dock crust with a fork. Line tart crust with parchment paper and pie weights (or dry rice or beans), and then bake for 15 minutes. Remove paper (if you used rice or beans, discard) and bake an additional 10 minutes; remove from oven and let cool slightly.
Combine goat cheese, cream cheese, basil, eggs, salt and pepper in the food processor and process until smooth. Pour into tart shell and bake until set, about 15 minutes. While tart is cooking, lay tomato slices on paper towels to remove some of the moisture, replacing towels as needed.
Remove tart from oven and let cool slightly, then top with tomatoes in an overlapping fashion. To serve, garnish tart slices with a drizzle of basil oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.
Per Serving: 459 Calories; 35g Fat; 16g Protein; 21g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 145mg Cholesterol; 457mg Sodium.
Heirloom Tomato Salad
Pick a variety of heirloom tomatoes to add visual interest and a burst of flavor to this panzanella-type salad.
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup quality salad oil (try walnut, hazelnut, pine nut, or your favorite extra virgin olive oil)
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
1 large red onion, thinly sliced into half moons
2 cups garlic croutons
8 ounces crumbled feta or gorgonzola cheese
Combine vinegar, mustard, oil, salt and pepper in a small covered container and shake well to combine. Cut tomatoes into wedges and combine with onion, croutons and cheese. Add desired amount of dressing and toss to combine. Allow to sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes before serving for flavors to meld.
Per Serving: 287 Calories; 21g Fat; 8g Protein; 18g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 34mg Cholesterol; 515mg Sodium
Heirloom Tomato Marinara Sauce
Yields about 2 quarts
Like other fresh farm produce, heirloom tomatoes have a relatively short growing season. One way to enjoy them year round is to make a simple marinara sauce and either can or freeze the sauce. A sweet, red heirloom tomato with low acidity makes the best sauce, so ask your grocer or farmer for a recommendation based on what’s available in your region. You may never buy sauce in a jar again!
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 pounds heirloom tomatoes, seeded, peeled and diced
1 4-ounce can tomato paste
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat oil in a large stockpot over medium high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 more minute.
Add tomatoes and tomato paste to onions and garlic and stir well to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Add basil and cook 5 more minutes.
Sauce may be left chunky or may be pureed in a blender or food processor before serving. For variety, add any of the following to the basic marinara sauce:
Cooked diced green peppers and onions
Sliced (pitted) black olives
Red pepper flakes
Cooked ground beef or turkey
Cooked ground or sliced Italian sausage
Cooked diced pancetta
Per Serving: 122 Calories; 8g Fat; 3g Protein; 14g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 131mg Sodium
Michele Morris is a chef who has studied in cooking schools around the world and leads private and group cooking classes in Boulder, Colo., through her company The Kitchen Coach™