Thursday, September 1, 2011
The best part of the summertime Caprese salad was once considered deadly. In an age gone by, the most vegetable-y fruit was actually seen as an aphrodisiac. And, at one time, they worked as a wonderful accompaniment to human steaks.
Yet, as rich as the untold secret lives of tomatoes can be, it still doesn’t beat their flavor—though the stories do help pass the time while Monterey County waits patiently, for five months or more, for our carefully tended tomatoes to ripen.
The poisonous reputation is understandable. Tomatoes, Lycopersicon esculentum, are botanically a fruit from the deadly nightshade family, which grows on a furry-stemmed, peculiar-smelling vine. They are native to Central and South America and originally were more like a yellow cherry tomato before cultivation changed their complexion, density and other qualities.
The first records of tomatoes, in fact, date back to 1554, showing they were first grown for sustenance in Peru, and soon became a side dish to human flesh for Aztec cannibals who named them “tomatl,” and eventually introduced to Europe via Spanish explorers around 1519. Spaniards and Italians were the first to receive the seeds, but planted them as a fruiting ornamental and named them “pomi d’oro” meaning yellow apples. Italy was the second country besides South America to farm and embrace the tomato as a desirable crop. Later the French got their hands on some seeds and referred to the tomato as pommes d’amour, or love apples, as they thought them to have stimulating amorous properties.
Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way you look at it, tomatoes are neither poisonous like some of their solanace family relatives, nor an aphrodisiac. But they are still affectionately referred to as “love apples” by the tomato obsessed, and appropriately so. I’ll admit I’ve had an ongoing seasonal love affair with these incredibly versatile fruits for many years myself. I love the smell of the vine, and how it makes my hands green when I’m pruning off the vegetative growth so the energy is concentrated on growing the fruit instead. The rainbow of colors, varying shapes and sizes, and the distinct flavors of heirloom varieties passed down for hundreds of years are romantic to me. It’s the reason I plant far too many seeds in the greenhouse than I have space for in the field, and choose heirloom over hybrid varieties.
Heirloom tomato seeds can be saved to be regrown year after year, like an antique that has been in the family for many years and passed down through generations. Heirlooms are open pollinated, which means in nature wind and bees are responsible for the fruit set. Open pollinated varieties retain the characteristics of flavor, but since the pollen comes from different male flowers, the shapes and sizes are varied, which creates more biodiversity, so growing and saving heirloom seed actually helps to protect our ecosystem. Plus, saving heirloom seed means you can save money and be self-sufficient.
Here are some of my favorite indeterminate tomato picks based on flavor, yield, size and shape (not too funky that there isn’t much left to eat). “Indeterminate” means that your tomato plants will keep fruiting throughout the season instead of all at once, important to a backyard gardener but not necessarily to a ketchup factory.
Red Brandywine Named after Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania, cultivated by the Amish from 1885. Prolific producer, the best straight-up tomato flavor with a perfect balance of sweet to acid.
Amana Orange A large, orange heirloom beefsteak with sweet, tropical flavor that is meaty like a mango passed down from the German Amana colonies, which was a self-sufficient village of farmers and artisans for over 80 years in Iowa.
Cherokee Purple Early producer of large purple fruit from Tennessee, where the Cherokee Indians are responsible for cultivating them. Smoky, sweet flavor. Close cousin: Cherokee Chocolate and Black Krim are equally delicious.
Marvel Stripe Large bi-color juicy tomato originating from Oaxaca Mexico, with a clean, sweet flavor and beautiful yellow and pink/red fruity flesh.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green Ripe when green with a sweet, clean cucumber essence and a slight spiciness. Passed down from Mrs. Ruby Arnold of Greeneville, Tennessee. I like this one in a BLT for a flavor variation.
Sungold Cherry A small, bright orange and very sweet cherry tomato with a hint of citrus, best on salads or tossed on pizzas.
San Marzano Roma The best heirloom paste tomato for pasta sauce or homemade ketchup due to very little juice content. Native to Italy.
Dry-Farmed Early Girls A hybrid variety best grown in cool coastal areas. Watered just enough to establish them and only when the plant is ultra-stressed, these thick-skinned, golf-ball-sized red tomatoes will remind you that tomatoes really are a fruit. When dry-farmed properly these are some of the best tomatoes you will wrap your lips around. Hint to coastal gardeners—this one is for you!
My favorite simple thing to do with dry-farmed early girls: Cut tomatoes in half, drizzle with basalmic vinegar and a sprinkle of coarse sea salt and roast in the oven at 375 degrees until caramelized. Remove the pit of an avocado and replace it with the roasted tomato. Then toss some micro greens on top for a great snack. They’re worth the wait.
Jamie Collins owns and operates Serendipity Farms. For Collins’ recipe for sweet heirloom tomato pie, visit the Weekly Food Blog at www.mcweekly.com/edible.