features on starchefs.com

by Tejal Rao

Heirloom tomatoes have a romantic history of being bred for taste rather than productivity or resistance to disease and extreme weather conditions. But it's arguable whether or not heirlooms truly are the remnants of pre-industrialised American agriculture, before speed and profit became more important than flavor. Many seeds are of unknown origin, and some of those thought to be passed down through the generations are in fact quite young, available commercially, and grown and sold industrially, with success. But while heirloom agriculture may be on the rise, it's still only those stubborn, small scale growers that commit to the more unpredictable and difficult varieties.


» Heirloom Tomato Salad, Grilled Manouri Cheese, Basil Seed Gelée, and Smoked Tomato Sorbet
Chef Rachel Klein of Om—Cambridge, MA

Heirloom Tomatoes 4 Ways
Chef Scott Boswell of Stella–New Orleans, LA

Heirloom Tomato Mojito
Bar Chef Adam Seger of Nacional 27—Chicago, IL

Jalapeño Sauteed Rock Shrimp with Heirloom Tomato-Peach Salsa
Chef Paul Rosenbluh and Monique King of Firefly Bistro—Pasadena, CA

This is 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 bloomers:

The Purple 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 sweet fruit.
The Purple Cherokee Tomato on StarChefs.com
The Jaune 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.
The Jaune Flammee Tomatoe on StarChefs.com
The Opalka 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.
The Opalka Tomato on StarChefs.com
The Pink 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.
The Pink Brandywine Tomato on StarChefs.com
Lillian's 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.
Lillian's Yellow Heirloom Tomato on StarChefs.com
The Hungarian 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.
The Hungarian Oval Tomato on StarChefs.com
The Green 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.
The Green Zebra on StarChefs.com

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   Published: August 2006