Whether you spend seven months nurturing and cultivating or five minutes at the farmers’ market choosing the perfect specimen, few crops elicit as positive an emotional response as the locally-grown heirloom tomato.
As farmers, the process starts in early January with seed catalogs, then planting, transplanting and pruning, all the way to harvest in July. It is the most labor-intensive crop on the farm and around mid-June, I begin to question why we plant so many tomato plants! The first juicy bite of a Sun Gold cherry tomato is our first reminder and by the time the first heirloom is ready, I’m in love again.
At The Local Grocer, we also get to enjoy the excitement of our customers as they dust off their tried and true methods for selecting the very best heirloom for their tomato sandwich or BLT. Why do some people have such intense feelings about a fruit? It’s because nothing on earth tastes more like summertime than a fresh, vine-ripened heirloom tomato.
Like other family heirlooms, a heirloom tomato has been shared over generations – passed down from gardner to gardner. The seeds inside an heirloom tomato will grow to look like the mother plant. All heirloom vegetables reproduce by open pollination, which means they’re pollinated by insects or the wind, without human intervention. It is much better to buy them locally, because they don’t store or ship as well as commercial varieties. Even a perfect tomato can be lumpy and scarred. They also have a tendency to crack or grow with “green shoulders” and some people don’t think they look as beautiful as the conventional, round, red slicer.
Tomato connoisseurs talk about flavor profiles, which is really a fancy way of saying they all taste a little different. Classic varieties are often described as “old-fashioned flavor” with a balance of sugar and acid at about 50/50. Some people prefer yellow tomatoes, as they tend to have less acid. One way to become an expert is to host a tomato-tasting party with friends – everyone is sure to discover a new favorite! Find your heirlooms locally at The Local Grocer or the Flint Farmers’ Market.
Some favorites include:
- Brandywine – balanced, rich and juicy with a homegrown tomato taste
- Cherokee Purple – complex flavor with a sweet aftertaste and a little smokiness
- Pineapple – very sweet, low acid and pleasant tomato flavor
- Green Zebra – tangy, zingy and green in color
Heirloom Tomato & Herb Salad
- 2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
- Sea Salt
- Freshly-ground Black Pepper
- Extra-virgin Olive Oil
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Sprinkling of Herbs (Tarragon, Basil, Chives and/or Italian Parsley
- Choose tomatoes in a variety of colors and sizes, as well as the most perfect tomatoes you can find at the height of the season. Cut them into wedges, thick slices, halves, or if you have some tiny cherry tomatoes, leave them whole. Arrange them on a chilled plate and sprinkle with sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and your favorite vinegar – balsamic, red wine or sherry are good. Top with a sprinkling of freshly torn herbs like tarragon, basil, chives, and/or Italian parsley and serve immediately.
Photography by Jennifer Hodney