by Jolene Adams, coordinator, LLCC Culinary Institute
By now you have probably heard of heirloom tomatoes. They are found everywhere: at farmers markets, on restaurant menus and even in some grocery stores. They stand out from typical round red tomatoes as they come in a variety of shapes and almost every color of the rainbow. But what exactly is an heirloom tomato?
An heirloom is generally considered to be a variety that has been passed down through several generations of gardeners because of its valued characteristics. Farmers look for flavor, shape, texture and color, then select the seeds of the best tomato plants displaying those traits. The seeds from those selected plants are saved and planted again the following year. This cycle has continued for hundreds of years. Heirloom tomato plants are pollinated naturally in the field by wind, insects, birds or humans. This is known as open-pollination. Because there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse.
Why should we eat heirlooms? Because they are delicious! Seriously, there are so many distinct flavor profiles among the varieties. Tell me, when was the last time you ate a store-bought tomato and thought, wow, this tastes great? Chances are that boring hybrid tomato had very little flavor. Heirlooms on the other hand span the scale of tastes from savory, smoky, zesty and peppery to sweet, citrusy, tart, tangy and fruity. Texture or mouthfeel is an important characteristic that plays into a tomato’s flavor. Texture can be described as meaty, crisp, firm, crunchy, dense and both thick and soft walled. Another factor of flavor is the level of acidity, which varies wildly in heirloom tomatoes. Some are very acidic, others are higher on the pH scale and are more alkaline. Some have higher levels of sugars than others. This mix of acid and sugars along with texture give heirloom tomatoes a rich and complex taste.
Because heirlooms are so diverse and full of flavor, they are one of my favorite foods of late summer. Mostly I like to eat them just straight up: snacking on the small grape and cherry-sized varieties by the handful or slicing the larger tomatoes into thick slices, dusting with a sprinkle of sea salt and carving them up like I’m eating a steak. Alone the tomatoes are delicious, but just adding a few simple ingredients can elevate them to a fresh summer salad or side dish. Replace the store tomato with an heirloom variety in a classic sandwich like the BLT and discover a whole new flavor that improves the sandwich. Some heirlooms are even great for processing, like the Italian variety San Marzano. They are easy to freeze and then can be made into a marinara sauce at a later time.
Before you decide how to prepare them, you should know how to store them. A tomato that has been allowed to ripen on the vine should be eaten within a week. Store at room temperature, in a single layer on a plate or tray (not in a plastic bag) and out of sunlight. Keep in mind that if you place a tomato in the refrigerator it will change its texture and become mealy, so avoid if possible. Wash and core prior to using.
Head out to your local farmers market and try some of the wonderful varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Here are a few ways to enjoy them.
Sesame Tomato and Cucumber Salad
3 pounds variety of heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced crosswise
1 thinly sliced cucumber
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
4 medium scallions, dark green parts only, thinly sliced
2 medium serrano or jalapeno chile, thinly sliced crosswise
4 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
Arrange tomato and cucumber slices on a platter.
Whisk together soy sauce, vinegar, olive oil and sugar in a small bowl until sugar dissolves.
Drizzle dressing over tomatoes and cucumbers, and top with scallions, chile and sesame seeds.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heirloom Tomatoes with Ricotta and Savory Granola
Adapted from Food &Wine Magazine
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oat
1/4 cup light agave nectar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup shelled unsalted pistachios, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup salted roasted sunflower seeds
1 cup fresh ricotta
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup sunflower sprouts
Two 12 ounce heirloom tomatoes, cut into wedges
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, toss the oats with the agave, water, 1/4 cup of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of salt until the oats are thoroughly coated. Spread the oats on the prepared baking sheet and bake for about 25 minutes, stirring twice, until the granola is light golden. Stir in the pistachios and sunflower seeds and bake for about 10 minutes longer, until golden brown and dry. Let the granola cool on the baking sheet, stirring occasionally.
In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta with the lemon zest, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. In another medium bowl, toss the sunflower sprouts with the remaining 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.
Arrange the tomato wedges in shallow bowls and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the ricotta around the tomatoes. Scatter the sprouts on top and sprinkle with some of the granola; save the remaining granola for another use. Serve right away.
The granola can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.
Heirloom Tomato and Creamy Pesto Pasta
A Whole Foods Market Recipe
3/4 pound whole wheat fusilli, penne or other medium pasta shape
3/4 cup prepared pesto
1/4 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
2 very large red or purple heirloom tomatoes or 1 1/2 pounds mixed heirloom tomatoes, chopped, or heirloom cherry tomatoes, chopped
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, about 11 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water.
Return pasta to the pot and place over medium-low heat. Add pesto and cream and stir until combined. Add tomatoes and cook until they are just warmed but not mushy, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in reserved pasta cooking water a few tablespoons at a time until creamy and serve.
Marinara Sauce from Heirloom Tomatoes
Makes 1 quart
6 pounds very ripe meaty heirloom tomatoes, peeled and seeded (seeds strained and juices reserved, about 1 cup)
1 cup olive oil
8 large garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch basil chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 ounce balsamic vinegar
Place peeled and seeded tomatoes in a food processor and process until coarsely chopped.
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and reserved tomato juice and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat to medium to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for approximately 45 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and the tomatoes separate from the olive oil; stir occasionally. Add the basil, salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar. Continue to simmer for 2 to 3 minutes until basil has wilted. Remove from heat. Refrigerate up to three days or freeze up to two months.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, Baking/Pastry, and Value Added Local Food, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.
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