because heirlooms generally have a shorter life, a slower
growth to maturity on the vine, and as low as half the survival
rate when it comes to storage and transport than their hybrid,
mass-produced counterparts. These risks, along with a tendency
towards a lower yield, mean heirloom prices vary seasonally
and from crop to crop. At the farmer's markets in Union Square,
New York, they're between 4 and 5 dollars a pound. This is
not bad for this spring's late rains and this summer's unusual
heat wave. Because most farmers have suffered an even lower
yield than average wholesale prices are unusually close to
retail: also between 4 and 5 dollars a pound.
Despite these higher prices, or maybe because
of them, consumers passing the piles of heirlooms at the summer
markets are drawn to their perfume, which intensifies in the
tomato plant's natural climate of warmth and sunshine. In
an age of industrial monoculture, where seeds no longer grow
true to type, these are not just tomatoes, but monuments of
all shapes and colors to the wonders of genetic diversity.
And diners who've had the pleasure of eating a perfect raw
slice that never underwent the unforgiving abuse of a chilled
walk-in, know too well that all other tomatoes can hardly
stack up. They will happily pay more.
While a ripe tomato requires little more
than a pinch of salt to deliver its specific, flavorful rush
of enzymes, restaurants please tomato enthusiasts with other
heirloom incarnations. Rachel Klein's reworking of the classic
Insalata Caprese pairs raw heirloom tomatoes with grilled
Manouri cheese, bright green basil seed gelée and a
sweet, smoked tomato sorbet, while Adam Seger's summery mojito
muddles heirloom tomatoes with lime and mint before lacing
it with tequila.
What's exciting about heirlooms are their
distinguishable differences—not just from other tomatoes
but from each other—which makes the picking rather tricky:
blushing pink, gold, purple, green, striped, cherries, beefsteaks,
globes, pears, oblates, and those iconic, belly-buttoned lumps.
Different varieties suit different purposes so here's a quick
guide to choosing and cooking with a few of the mid-to-late
season heirlooms worth sourcing through September. The late
Cherokee is a deep, purply oblate popping up
across the country thanks to its tendency towards high
yields in all sorts of climates and disease-free fruits.
Check with suppliers on the water content though, as
this fluctuates greatly from season to season, and a
watery crop of Purple Cherokee is not even worth ordering.
A good season, however, makes for an unusual smoky and
Flammée is an orange globe tomato only
slightly larger than a cherry tomato that peaks in the
late midseason. True to its French meaning (flamed yellow),
inside that yellowy-orange skin is a deep red core.
This makes for stunning presentations, a good thing
for a tomato that tastes best raw anyway—sweet,
tangy and bold.
is a long, red paste tomato that could easily be mistaken
for a red jalapeno were it not for its sweet, floral
aroma. Paste tomatoes are, of course, well suited for
slow, long cooking, and the Opalka is a paste tomato
first and foremost. But what sets this cultivar apart
from other pastes, is its delicious, complex raw flavor,
best ordered midseason.
Brandywine is a beefsteak that fruits a powerful,
sweet, dark pink tomato late in the season, and can
be found well into the fall, weather permitting. Its
low yield means it's not an easy cultivar to source,
but well worth the effort. Pink Brandywines do well
raw, and especially well when paired with stronger flavors
that bring out their own winey, savory character.
Yellow Heirloom is a pale yellow beefsteak
often blemished and mishapen, that matures quite late
in the season. While a favorite with persistant growers,
their unfortunate low yield and seed production mean
that Lillian's Yellows risk falling off the culinary
map, which would be a shame. Their creamy flesh and
unmistakably sweet, citrus flavor is prominent even
in the ugly, rough-elbowed specimens.
Oval is a pink-to-red beefsteak to be sourced
out mid-to-late in the season. The tomatoes should feel
heavy for their size, with a strong, complicated, earthy
aroma and taste. Their dense jelly and low seed content
make for excellent and economical juice extraction.
Zebra is a striped, yellow and green oblate
that matures midseason. Although the fruit is visually
charming, even the ripest ones have a very high acid
content. This astringency which can be offensive raw,
translates pleasantly cooked, making the tart Green
Zebra a great fruit for dessert purposes as well.