by Jolene Lamb, 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, and then they 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. 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. I also snack on the small grape and cherry sized varieties by the handful or slice the larger tomatoes into thick slices, dusting them 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 later.
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.
Want to know more? We have a hands-on cooking class featuring tomatoes! Join Chef Aurora Coffey from Luminary in the kitchen at LLCC on Thursday, Sept. 9 for her Versatile Tomato class. Explore the wide variety of tomatoes and their unique flavors. Learn to bake, cook and make cocktails from this versatile fruit. Visit www.llcc.edu/community-education and click on Culinary Institute, or call 217-786-2355 for more information.
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.
Fresh-Squeezed Heirloom Bloody Mary
Yield: 2 Drinks
- 2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
- 1/2 lime, peeled
- 2 dashes vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce
- Pinch of celery salt
- Pinch of cumin
- Vodka, to taste
- Lime wedges, mini peppers and cherry tomatoes, for garnish
Juice the tomatoes and lime. Mix in the Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, celery salt, cumin, salt and pepper with the tomato juice. Taste, and adjust accordingly. Divide the tomato mixture between two glasses, add vodka and garnish with more tomatoes, lime wedges or baby peppers.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, Hospitality Supervisor, Hospitality Professional, Culinary Manager, First Cook, Baking/Pastry and Value-Added Local Food, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Education Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.
Cooking or food questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.