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History Repeating: Heirloom Tomatoes

Perhaps the most universal of ingredients, the tomato crosses nearly all restaurant cuisines and concepts.

Perhaps the most universal of ingredients, the tomato crosses nearly all restaurant cuisines and concepts. Once the product of the wilds of South America, the tomato has migrated more than most people, traversing all continents, cities large and small, and the gardens of professionals and home enthusiasts. But with the rapid growth of mass production came a homogenized, thick-skinned tomato largely devoid of the original fruit’s intense flavor and smooth texture. Fortunately, greater emphasis on healthful and organic foods has brought back to prominence full-flavored heirloom tomatoes.

Heirlooms are strictly open-pollinated tomatoes (that is, the seeds produce plants and fruits that are identical to those of the parent plant) grown from seeds passed down through several generations. Their current resurgence and wide choice of varieties have opened a whole new world of possibilities in the restaurant kitchen, and chefs are just beginning to capitalize on them.

Fruit of the Vine

Gary Ibsen, who owns TomatoFest Garden Seeds in Carmel, California, grows approximately 500 different kinds of heirloom tomatoes in his eight-acre organic garden and sells to many different grocery stores, white-tablecloth restaurants, cafés, and resorts. “Taste is why they’re so popular,” he explains, naming the Earl of Edgecombe (a sweet-and-tangy New Zealand plant), Paul Robeson (a striking black tomato of Russian origin), Brandywine (a flavorful Amish variety with extra-large fruit), Green Zebra (with small, tart green fruits with golden stripes), Black Krim (a sweet, blood-red tomato with dark green shoulders), and Julia Child (a juicy variety originally from Iowa and a favorite of the famed chef) among the most popular and adaptable on the restaurant menu. “They’re best served locally,” he asserts. “For shipping, they would have to be picked underripe, so they wouldn’t have much flavor.”

Ibsen, who starts his tomato seeds in the greenhouse in March and moves them outdoors before the height of the growing season in mid-June to late October, also believes that the spectrum of colors and shapes of heirloom tomatoes adds another dimension to the menu. “It’s a new palette. The different colors, the sizes,” he comments, adding that they also offer “a taste of history.”

This appreciation permeates the recipes of Chef Clark Frasier who states, “We believe as the Chinese do that you eat with your eyes first. All heirlooms are really beautiful and colorful, and this plays into it.”

The season is considerably shorter in the Northeast, at the Eastern Native Seeds Conservancy. Here, tomatoes typically grow for 75 to 95 days, depending on the weather, from late July through September. Heirlooms are considered a “celebration of food diversity” and “the less-tampered-with varieties have more taste. They’re closer to the wild tomato.” A personal relationship with the supplier is essential. “For chefs who want these kinds of products, it really pays to visit these farms in the summer. There’s nothing like making that connection and sampling a tomato fresh out under the sun.”

Ibsen also encourages this approach, noting, “Some tomatoes have berry qualities, some have a tropical flavor, some are gentle and sweet with very little acid. I offer tastings to take people on a range of flavor experience. Also, I don’t pack by variety. I deliberately do a mixed box so chefs can taste and decide where they want to go with it.” His 20-pound mixed case wholesales for about $38.

A Tomato for Every Taste

Most chefs relish the adventure of working heirloom tomatoes into their menus. Chef Andrew Gutierrez uses local farmers to source his foods, and says, “Since the tomatoes don’t keep as long, we use them within a couple of days of delivery.”

Frasier, who grows Green Zebra, Russian Persimmon, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Paul Robeson, Stupice, Arkansas Traveler, Omar’s Lebanese, Red and Green Grape, Pineapple, Isis Candy, Tigerella, and Striped German tomatoes in his 3/4-acre organic vegetable garden, adds, “If you pick them ripe, they’re going to last only for a couple of days. Spread them out in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area, or preserve them.” His vegetable, flower, and herb gardens require the attention of full-time gardeners, making his foods more expensive to produce. He says, “We’re not so much about the bottom line here, but we have a real dedication to serving spectacular food.”

“Look for tomatoes picked as close to ripe as possible,” says Ibsen. “They should have a little bit of give to them. We get our tomatoes to chefs within 12 hours of picking for maximum freshness. But I still see chefs who put heirlooms in a fridge under 50°, and it kills the flavor. If you must refrigerate, don’t go below 55°. The best bet is to purchase twice a week, and keep them in a cool area in a box.”

Because heirloom tomatoes have a high cost associated with handling and increased loss (the skins can crack easily from temperature changes or being poked by the stem of a neighboring tomato), expect to pay significantly more than for commercial tomatoes. Gutierrez pays “$3 to $4 a pound, sometimes more.” Thus, he continues, “our markup is a little more on these dishes.”

Chef Richard Clark orders 15 pounds of heirloom tomatoes at a time from a small-scale farmer just outside the city limits, and this load amounts to two days’ worth. “During the height of the growing season, we order twice as many of these as of regular tomatoes,” he remarks.

Switching it up with different varieties is half the fun. Gutierrez favors Green Zebras, Gold Medals (marbled pink and yellow), Purple Wines, and Red Wines and uses them mostly in salads, cold soups, and canapés. Some of his best-received recipes include an Heirloom Tomato Salad with Maytag blue cheese, queso fresco, and marinated buffalo mozzarella dressed in a vinaigrette and sea salt or truffle oil, as well as his gazpacho, in which the heirlooms are served either as the pureed base with cucumbers and bell pepper or as a hand-chopped garnish. “If they’re good and in season, you don’t have to do a lot to make them taste good,” he reports. “Raw is good to bring out the fresh flavor. If you’re going to cook it, you might as well use a regular tomato.”

Clark also uses the tomatoes, especially Brandywine, Gold Medal, and Cherokee Purple (dark purple), raw in a variety of salads, including one made with truffle vinaigrette and goat cheese, another featuring green beans and a pomegranate vinaigrette, and a tomato salad made with blue cheese and a basil vinaigrette. But he says, “You can use them just like a regular tomato— for example, broiled with cheese on top.” And when it comes to wine, Clark treats all tomatoes alike, pairing with Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc.

Frasier doesn’t shy away from cooking the heirlooms and feels that gentle isn’t necessarily the key word. “You can make Mom’s tomato sauce with them. It will still have so much more flavor than [one made with] commercial tomatoes.” His customers have lined up for Sliced Tomatoes on a Plate topped with a Hollandaise-like sauce and garnished with garlic chips and home-raised charred sprouts. Another favorite is Crispy Okra with Tomatoes, Bacon, and Basil Pesto, in which the okra is dredged in cornmeal and slowly sauteéd, then served with bacon and a tangy pesto. But perhaps the most popular preparation is a classic Fresh Mozzarella, Basil, and Tomato Salad.

He insists that Maine’s abbreviated growing season doesn’t really affect his menu: “We change our menu according to the garden. When we don’t have good tomatoes, we limit the number of dishes on the menu with them. Later on in the year, we sometimes purchase heirlooms from outside sources.”

Name Calling

“Customers go crazy—they’re really thrilled,” says Frasier of the heirloom tomato’s appeal. “People are becoming more and more familiar with them. They’re showing up in grocery stores. . . . They’re creeping into people’s consciousness.”

For this reason, says Gutierrez, “you do want to market it as a specialty tomato. Most people don’t know what they are, so you really want to use it as a selling point.” To this end, Clark relies on his knowledgeable staff to educate customers, whereas Ibsen and Davis-Hollander suggest adding descriptions of the tomato’s origin, location, and growing conditions to the menu. Ibsen comments, “Restaurants are now starting to distinguish between varieties on menus, giving different flavor characteristics, just like wine. This is because people have demonstrated an interest. And the tomatoes are a visual delight. I have a lot of restaurants that use them as a ‘bouquet’ in a basket.”

“I don’t know that they will become mainstream all over,” Davis-Hollander comments, “but they’re getting out there more and more and are definitely worth exploring. There are so many lesser-known varieties—Indian Moon, Livingston’s Beauty, Magnus. I encourage chefs to seek them out. They all have that great combination of sweet and tart flavors and wonderful complexity.” Ibsen also names a few of his underused favorites, including the flavorful pink German Johnson; heart-shaped, Beefsteak- like Mrs. Houseworth (great for making tomato towers and soups); Black Prince, a mahogany variety from Siberia that creates a fabulous color and flavor pairing when mixed with the Green Zebra; the bright red-orange Box Car Willie; and the green-and-garnet Black Zebra, which possesses striking deep purple-black stripes. With such good looks, great taste, and evocative names, these vintage-variety tomatoes seem to have it all when it comes to culinary charm. It’s no wonder the French named this fruit pomme d’amour—the “love apple.”

This article has been updated since its original publication in February, 2016.

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