Okay, I overbought on the tomatoes.
But you can’t blame me. It all started last summer…we overslept one Sunday and raced to the market to try and get there before everyone packed up, which I highly recommend, by the way, if you’re looking for deals. No one wants to cart crates of perishables back to the farm, so everyone slashes their prices. Pickings can be slim, but they’ll also be cheap.
Which is how we found ourselves with a GIANT box of heirloom tomatoes for $10. It probably weighed 20 lbs, maybe more. It was awesome. We couldn’t figure out what to do with them – we ate caprese salads and avocado salads and made fresh tomato sauces and fresh tomato soup and ate them raw and sliced for breakfast. We were so worried they’d go bad that we stuffed them into every meal and somehow managed to finish them off by Saturday.
So the next Sunday we went back for more. Imagine our shock and chagrin when we casually asked, “Hey, could we get one of those boxes like last week?” and the guy said, “Sure, that’ll be $40.” Um, what? Um, no.
Except we couldn’t stop thinking about them. It’s been almost a year and I can still taste the sweet juice that dribbled all over my hands when I transferred the wedges to a plate, the sharp tang of balsamic and the creamy counterbalance of fresh buffalo mozarella, the aroma of garlic and lemon bubbling in the sauce. See, once you’ve had fresh tomatoes, and I mean really fresh, I mean ripened by the summer sun and then hours later popped into your mouth, you become very, very spoiled. I can’t eat grocery store tomatoes anymore. I can barely eat homegrown Romas or Beefsteaks or any of the other standard-variety-bred-for-toughness-and-shipping varieties. They taste mealy and bland and chemical-y. They taste like what I always thought tomatoes tasted like, which is why I swore I must be allergic to them and literally THREW UP when my mom made me eat one as a child. (Did I mention I was an actress in an earlier life? Majored in Theater? A bit melodramatic? Oh, I didn’t? Ah.)
So we’ve been tomato-free in our home since last fall. Oh, we’ve probably cheated once or twice, picked one up for a certain something and been so horribly disappointed we don’t even remember it, but our salads are just greens and dressing these days, twiddling our tomato thumbs and waiting impatiently for the heat that will bring the heirlooms back to market.
So when we went to the market 3 weeks ago and a handful of farmers had them for sale, it was Veggie Christmas [Except when you taste these, you realize why they’re botanically a fruit. They’re so sweet, they’re practically dessert. Seriously. I drizzled fig balsamic vinegar on one and it was too sweet to eat with the meal. We had to save it for after dinner and have it with tea.] Determined not to make last year’s Giant Box mistake and overspend, we bought a modest 3 happy fellows and took them home – where we promptly devoured them in about 12 hours.
So this week, when we were a little later to market and one seller slashed their prices by only 50 cents, we dove in. They’re WAY too expensive, they really are. Typical prices are $4/lb, and I’m not even sure that’s for organic. $3/lb is considered a bargain. But they’re so delicious and unusual and beautiful and you can just put them on anything – you can slice firmer ones or dice ripe ones for bruschetta or mush soft ones into sauce. They can go in cold things like sandwiches or accidentally get warm like when you dice one on top of an omelette, or get really purposefully hot in ratatouille or soup, and there they’ll still be, sweet and bright and just a wee bit sour. The really good ones, the heirlooms, the weird varieties, don’t hold up well. They barely travel well from market to house, much less farm to store, so even heirlooms at the grocery aren’t the same as the ones you can get from the farmer, or grow yourself. Look for firm but not hard. A little give is okay; anything soft will turn within a day so eat it immediately. They do get mealy as they over-ripen, but toss it into a sauce with half a good one to save the flavor and you’ll never notice. Heirlooms come in every color and size imaginable – from teeny tiny to the size of a shrunken head, round and oblong and lobed and flattish, in orange and yellow and red (of course) and striped and purple to almost black and even ones that are still pretty green when ripe, so experiment and see which kinds you like the best – though I did ask a farmer this week and was informed that even green tomatoes should get a yellowish tinge as they ripen. If it’s still completely green, even with green stripes, it’s not ready. I like the orangey-yellows, the purples, and the deep reds myself. Not sure what their names are, but since I’ve only got a few months to eat them, I’m not wasting any more time trying to figure it out.
The best way to eat heirlooms? Simply. A drizzle of olive oil, a shake of sea salt, and dive in. But if you need stuff to go with them, keep everything nice and raw to really let the sweetness shine:
Caprese Salad: alternate slices of tomato, fresh mozarella (the kind that comes in a tub with water – preferably buffalo if you want to splurge, but cow’s milk tastes just dandy, too), and fresh basil leaves. Drizzle with good quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sprinkle lightly with salt.
Avocado-Tomato Salad: Chop avocado and tomato wedges into similar-sized chunks. Toss with garlic powder and a dash of salt. If the tomato is slightly underripe, you may want to add a teeny amount of olive oil or lime juice to get a little juiciness going, but I usually don’t.
Bruschetta: Dice tomato and as many cloves of garlic as you can stand and mix with olive oil, salt and pepper. Use more oil than you think you need – it shouldn’t be swimming in it, but all the oil shouldn’t get soaked up by the tomato either. Let sit for up to a few hours – the longer it sits, the more the garlic will infuse the oil and mellow out, but we often don’t let it sit more than the two minutes it takes to toast the bread. Lightly toast really nice sliced bread – go artisan here; skip the sandwich bread. Top the bread with the tomato mixture, spooning the remaining oil in the bowl on to the bare parts of the bread.
Slightly-healthier alternative to above bruschetta: skip the olive oil mix. Spread good bread with ricotta and top with diced tomatoes, garlic powder, and a dash of salt. Add sliced olives if you want a little kick.
I could seriously go on and on. Feel free to post your favorites below! I’m sure this topic is going to come up again. A lot.
Peel? No. I don’t even peel if I’m making them into a sauce – the skin is thinner than grocery store tomatoes bred for shipping, and I don’t mind it.
Edible seed? Yes. I don’t like a ton of seeds or my concoctions to be too acidic, so if some of the insides leak out on to the cutting board, I don’t mind; some people strain the seeds, especially in a sauce, for texture purposes, so feel free to strain if you like.
Edible when raw? Heirlooms are best raw, in my opinion, unless you have a ton you need to use up – then go for a same day sauce, not one you’re going to jar and freeze.
Worth the price of organic? Questionable. Tomato leaves are poisonous to a lot of animals (humans included) so tomatoes can survive pretty well on their own, and are pretty low on the list for foods that absorb pesticides like the dickens – they used to be high, but recent efforts have lowered their residue. On the other hand, you’re eating the whole thing, skin and all, so it might be a good idea. The good news? Heirlooms are still considered something of a specialty item, so most sellers are organic anyway. Hence the high price.
In season: Summer.
Best with: Garlic, balsamic, lemon, any kind of cheese but soft cheeses really let the complex flavor of the heirloom shine, almost any savory herb (basil, rosemary, oregano are all classics), zucchini, eggplant
How to Store: On the counter. Do NOT refrigerate! Tomatoes leach out their vitamins in the refrigerator and lose their flavor. Don’t cut into a huge tomato if you’re only going to use half, if you can help it – find something to put it in or have a few extra slices than you intended. Ripe tomatoes that aren’t yet soft will keep up to a week; if they’ve got a soft spot, you’ve only got about 2 days max, so use it or lose it.