Food writers - myself definitely included - are frequently guilty of being so far inside our precious little world of edibles that we can't see the arugula for the amaranth. This hit home last weekend as I was trawling my local farmers market, found a stand selling heirloom tomatoes for $2.99 a pound and started fist pumping like I'd hit the Powerball.
It's not too much of a stretch to say that it's been nearly two years since I had a really smashing tomato. Last year, my own garden succumbed to the blight that wiped out major portions of the Northeast's heirloom tomato crop, and the few available for purchase were priced to gouge. This isn't to say I have led a tomato-free existence since 2008. It's just that, as I noted to a nearby shopper, once you eat a Wapsipinicon Peach, a Black from Tula or a Cherokee Purple, there ain't no going back to the grocery store.
It's not that I go around just randomly evangelizing about produce to strangers; I save that for friends, family and my extremely patient greyhound, Edward Spaghedward. In this case, a woman who'd been standing on the periphery of the stand noticed me shoveling heaps of tumorous, gnarled, scarred and otherwise unlovely tomatoes into a sack and asked, "Um, what ARE those? It says tomatoes, but...I've never seen anything like that before." I went off into a spiel about how the uglier they were, the better they'd taste, blah, blah and she dutifully selected a few that were not quite so post-nuclear in appearance and went to to the register.
Seconds later, I resisted the urge to jump in upon hearing a similar inquiry from a woman on the other side of the table, seeing as the question wasn't directed to me. Her gentleman struggled valiantly, "They're heirloom, which means they're...old?"
Well...kinda. Here's the deal. Heirloom seeds come from plants that have remained genetically unchanged and have been open-pollinated (by insects, birds, wind, etc.) for at least 50 - or some say 100 - years. This means no hybridizing with other varieties of plants. This has its ups and downs.
On one hand, the Amish Paste or Beefsteak tomato you're biting into tastes the same as it would have in your grandfather's day. It hasn't been genetically modified to select durability or uniform appearance over flavor, so while it might be lumpy and bumpy, and appear any color from moon-pale, purple, pink or black to gold, green, yellow, brown and zebra-striped, chances are it's going to be luscious, or growers wouldn't have bothered propagating the line.
On the other, a cruelly short shelf life and thin skin can cause havoc for a farmer who's looking to transport a harvest, and many varieties haven't been bred for disease resistance - hence the devastation wrought by last year's blight. Also - some people just like a uniformly round, red, taste-free tomato.
Let them have the bland, beauty pageant supermarket 'maters. We'll hold out for the ugly stuff.
Oh – and as she was making her selections, the curious shopper asked me, "So how do you, like, eat them?" I'm a big fan of open-mouth-and-insert-delicious-slices, but if you wanna get all shmancy about it, try a Caprese salad.
Grab a few really luscious tomatoes. Slice thickly, sprinkle lightly with kosher or sea salt and a bit of freshly ground black pepper, stack with slices of fresh mozzarella, layer on a few fresh basil leaves and anoint with the nicest olive oil you can get your paws on. Flick with a bit of balsamic and serve immediately.
Or, if you'd care to omit the cheese, just dice a pile of larger tomatoes and halve any that are cherry or grape-sized. Put them in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle kosher or sea salt. Put it in the fridge to let the flavors meld - as long as you can make yourself hold out - then scoop onto crusty bread and serve. Don't be shy about mopping the bowl with spare bread. It would be a crime not to.
And then there are cocktails:
While you're at it, how about scoring yourself a few freebies? Just scoop out some of the seeds from your favorite tomato, along with their surrounding glop and put in all a glass of water. Cover with plastic wrap, poke a small hole in the wrap and place on a windowsill for a couple of days. Stir it once a day and replace the wrap.
You'll see a little bit of white mold floating on top of the water. Scoop that off, along with any floating seeds (they're duds). Pour the water and seeds in a sieve and rinse thoroughly, agitating with your fingers if you'd care to.
Put the seeds on a paper plate, labeled with the seeds' variety if you happen to know it, and let them dry thoroughly. Then store them in an envelope in a cool dark place (the fridge is fine) until the next planting season. Saved properly, they'll germinate for up to ten years.
Previously - High above Manhattan, a vegetable garden grows