Ask Chef Emily: Heirloom Tomatoes

With a hybrid, you know exactly what you’ll get. With heirlooms, the surprise it worth it.

And before we get to spaghetti squash? I've promised @markcpeterson an heirloom tomato BLT.

A photo posted by Chef Emily Peterson (@chefemilyp) on

Dear Chef Emily, What exactly is an “heirloom” tomato? –Fiona in West Hempstead, N.Y.

Ah, Fiona, seemingly such a straight forward question that is in fact challenging to answer. Genetics isn’t my strong suit, so I’m going to write this response as civilian-friendly as possible.

Hybrid tomatoes (the opposite of heirlooms) have been designed in a way that requires you, 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 Burpee. Think the tomatoes in the grocery store in February. 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, white jackets, clipboards, data and DNA strands.

Heirloom tomatoes are the hippy cousins who live outside Woodstock in a tiny house. They are of the seeds someone’s great aunt Mildred saved during the depression and passed down through a tattered envelope year after year.

The seeds from heirlooms can be planted and will produce the same tomato plant next year. They may have lower yields, be asymmetrical, and not as pest resistant, but the trade off is you get a tie-dye rainbow of color and flavor to pop out of your flower pot. To complicate this a little bit, neighboring heirloom tomato plants can cross pollinate resulting in a “child” that’s part Aunt Mildred and part Great Uncle Bart.

What does that mean to you? If you’ve got space on a fire escape or in a garden to grow a tomato plant, I highly recommend giving the heirloom specialists at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds a call (www.rareseeds.com) Tell them what you have in space, light and what size and color you want your summer tomatoes to be a packet of seeds, with a story and a provenance will be delivered to your door.

If you are near a farmers market, you will  have access to a rainbow of things the grocery store would never stock, mostly because of their bumpy, technicolor exteriors, though some progressive stores have a basket labeled “ugly” tomatoes. Buy a few and cut in. Be prepared to be blown away by the intensity of the tomato-ness that the heirloom flavors provide and remember to thank your farmer for keeping the traditions alive and well.

Heirloom Tomato & Bread Salad
1/4 cup olive oil
1 loaf sourdough bread, cut into bite-sized croutons (about 4 cups of croutons)
3 pounds heirloom tomatoes, selected for variety of color
1/4 cup basil, cut into chiffonade ribbons
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese
4 kirby cucumbers, cut into bite sized chunks
1 pound bell peppers, preferably heirloom and colorful
1 cup thinly sliced sweet onion, red or yellow
more olive oil
sea salt
pepper
balsamic vinegar (optional)

1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium high. When hot, add the croutons and stir occasionally until they are toasty.

2. Meanwhile, do all your chopping

3. In a large bowl, combine the toasted croutons and all the chopped fresh vegetables. Use your hands to get in there and toss gently to evenly combine.

4. Add more olive oil if necessary and salt and pepper to taste. Let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes so that the bread soaks up some tomato juice. Toss again before serving.

5. Offer a small pitcher of excellent quality balsamic vinegar as a condiment to your diners – its a very pungent addition that may overpower the delicacy of your salad flavors, but some folks think its heresy to serve this salad without it.

feature photo by Yvonne Albinowski

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Emily Peterson is a food writer, culinary instructor, and Executive Chef at Astor Center in New York City. Emily is a professor of food studies at NYU and Montclair State University. Her work has been featured on Martha Stewart, Robb Report, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Time Out NY, Huffington Post, CBS, NBC, FOX, Food Network and Vegetarian Times. Chef Emily hosts the weekly call-in radio show Sharp & Hot on HeritageRadioNetwork.org. She lives on a 250-year old family farm with her husband, son, cat named Oyster, a flock of chickens and a dog named Rooster.