You can find heirloom tomatoes in a variety of colors at local farmers’ market and specialty food stores—red, yellow, green, and even ones with pink blotches and green stripes. But just what makes an heirloom tomato better than the tomatoes normally sold in your supermarket?
Botanically, the tomato is a member of the Solanaceae family, which includes eggplants, peppers, potatoes, and tomatillos. Over the years, plant breeders have manipulated the genes of tomatoes by breeding them to withstand disease and pests, putting texture and flavor on the back burner. These hybrid tomatoes, which are always stocked at the supermarket, are hardy but lack a truly delicious taste.
Heirlooms tomatoes are open-pollinated—this means their flower is pollinated with pollen from another plant to create a fruit whose seeds can reproduce. Hybrid tomatoes have viable seeds, but their seeds don’t reproduce themselves. Unlike hybrids, bred to be disease and pest resistant, heirlooms are bred for flavor and possess a rich, sweet taste and a fine acid balance.
Most importantly, heirloom tomatoes are cultivars that have been selected, nurtured, and handed down from one generation to another. There are differing opinions on how old seeds must be to be classified “heirloom”. Some think the seeds must be over 100 years old, others believe 50 is the magic number, while another school of thought prefers the seeds predate 1945—which marks the end of World War II and the beginning of the widespread use of hybrid seeds.
The most interesting fact about heirlooms, however, is their names. Since these tomatoes are nurtured and handed down through the years by real people, the names of the heirlooms tell a story. My favorite tomato tale follows:
In the early 1940s a man called “Radiator Charlie” decided to create an exceptional tomato. He selected the largest seeds he could find and planted them in circles with one single plant in the center—a German Johnson. “Radiator Charlie” carefully collected pollen from the plants with a baby’s ear syringe and then deposited it on the German Johnson. Seven years later, he had developed tomatoes that weighed over one pound—sometimes even weighing as much as two or three pounds. “Radiator Charlie’s” tomatoes were an instant success. He sold so many seeds he was able to pay off his mortgage and named this heirloom variety the “Mortgage Lifter”.
You can tell from “Radiator Charlie’s” story that heirloom tomatoes require special treatment. Bred for taste and not hardiness, they are very tender and take longer to reach harvest. Their vines can be difficult, as they tend to run wild with overgrown foliage that must be heavily staked. Also, heirloom plants normally yield less fruit than modern hybrids and prefer cooler weather. Hot sun tends to cause them to split; therefore, they tend to fare better in the fall. Heirlooms might cost a bit more than hybrids, but their taste is worth every penny.
Following are a few of the varieties you might find at your local market:
Aunt Ruby’s German Green: This is a beefsteak tomato that weighs in at one pound. Its flesh is green with yellow and pink blushes. It has a sweet flavor with spicy overtones.
Brandywine: Brandywine tomatoes can be pink, yellow, or black. The most common variety is the Pink Brandywine, which produces dark pink, large fruits. Brandywine tomatoes have a crisp, tangy, sweet taste and pack a full, deep, delicious tomato flavor. They are considered the best of the best.
Cherokee Purple: Attributed to the Cherokee tribe, this tomato will weigh between 10 to 12 ounces. Its thin outer skin has a rosy, brownish purple color, and its soft flesh is a deep brick red. Cherokee Purple tomatoes are delicious, possessing a real tomato flavor—sweet and rich.
Green Zebra: This variety is two inches in diameter. A salad tomato, the Green Zebra has a yellowy green exterior with dark green strips. Its flesh is bright green with a sweet-tart flavor that possesses lemon overtones.
Persimmon: This tomato dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and has a deep orange color. This beefsteak fruit will weigh between one to two pounds. Its flesh is spicy with an exceptional blend of sugars and acids.
Pineapple: This fruit has a mélange of sherbet colors running through its flesh—orange, green, and pink. It is big and meaty with rippled shoulders. When perfectly ripe, its taste hints of pineapple.
Sweetie: This is a cherry tomato, red in color and one inch in diameter. The Sweetie grows on controllable two-feet tall vines.
Following is one of my family’s favorite recipes using heirloom tomatoes:
Grilled Chicken and Veggies with Heirloom Tomato Salad Serves 4
For the Dressing:
½ cup buttermilk ¼ cup mayonnaise ¼ cup sour cream 2 tablespoons shallots, minced 4 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, minced 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar 2 teaspoons minced garlic ¼ teaspoon salt ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper In a small bowl, combine buttermilk, mayonnaise, sour cream, shallots, parsley, thyme, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper and whisk to combine. Chill until ready to serve.
For the Chicken and Veggies: Preheat the grill to high heat. 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts Cooking spray 1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 teaspoon onion powder ½ teaspoon garlic powder ¾ teaspoon ground cumin ¾ teaspoon salt ¼ teaspoon chipotle chili powder 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts Cooking spray 4 ears corn, shucked 1 large red onion, cut into ½-inch slices In a small bowl, combine olive oil, onion and garlic powders, cumin, salt, and chipotle chile pepper. Spray chicken breasts with cooking spray and rub the spice mixture evenly over each breast. Coat corn and onion slices with cooking spray. Arrange chicken, corn, and onion on the grill racks. Grill 8 minutes or until done, turning chicken and onion slices only once and corn occasionally. For the Salad: 2 yellow heirloom tomatoes, cut into 4 slices 2 red heirloom tomatoes, cut into 4 slices 1 cup heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved 1 avocado, peeled and sliced Salt for sprinkling Arrange tomatoes and avocado slices on a platter and sprinkle with salt. Serve the dressing on the side. We like to put the dressing on our chicken breasts as well as the tomatoes and avocados.
Shopping: Select firm, plump tomatoes. Do not buy pale, spotted, or mushy fruit. Avoid tomatoes with blemishes or cracks. Color is a good indicator of freshness. Pick brightly colored tomatoes. My father taught me to shop with my nose. Smell the stem end of the tomato. If it’s ripe, it will smell like a tomato. When ripe, this fruit should give slightly when pressed.
Storing: Always treat tomatoes gently. Place only ripened tomatoes in the refrigerator. Cool temperatures slow the ripening process. To ripen this fruit, place it at room temperature stem side down. If you need to ripen your tomatoes quickly, place them in a paper bag at room temperature.
Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Insider Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.
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