Heirlooms tomatoes have become a staple at fine dining establishments and farmers markets the world over. But how do they stack up against regular ole supermarket big and reds? Why the price hike? And what’s the deal with the motley shapes and peculiar pigments? And is there any legitimacy to all the mega flavor hype? Let’s explore, shall we?
A few months ago, Ron and I found ourselves at a quintessentially “Napa” tapas restaurant with wine and character to spare. Among the quickly devoured plates to pass atop our table, one captivated our attention with it’s understated explosion of flavor. The notion that good cooking begins with good ingredients was proven irrefutably true as we wolfed down a exquisitely simple dish of marinated heirloom tomatoes. The chunky slices of colorful sweetness were lovingly nestled on the stark white plate with creamy burrata and dressed in an herbed olive oil. Simple. Elegant. Delicious.
Since that time, I’ve investigated a bit more about this whole heirloom business, and there’s a reason why they’re notably tastier, have an array of shapes and colors… and cost twice as much.
First addressing their flavor, shape and color: it turns out that heirloom tomatoes owe their multi tonal exteriors and noticeably sweeter taste to a lack of genetic mutation. Yes, a lack of genetic mutation.
The tomato industry has favored the uniform red fruits to their less monochromatic cousins for decades, likely to promote consistency in their product and thereby perceived quality. Little did all us tomato eaters know that the recognizable homogeneous red color and evenly round shape are actually caused by alterations in the fruit’s heredity. So likely, tomatoes in their “original” state probably resembled heirloom tomatoes more so than the majority of ones we find in stores today.
The trademark heirloom-look not only makes their quality recognizable to an increasingly aware population, but it also makes for enthralling plating opportunities! I love dramatically mixing big, plum colored chunks with ambient yellows ones, or serving stark lime green wedges among pink and maroon ones. The colors are just unbeatable. Playing with a variety of tomato sizes in a dish is also a brilliant way to make a show stopper out of the fruit. It adds extra texture and some variations even have different flavor profiles!
Now, none of this is to say that big, round, red tomatoes aren’t delicious or have their own culinary pedestals. They certainly are and they definitely do! It’s just that for some applications, when it’s possible to go heirloom instead of big ‘n red, the results can turn out even tastier.
Now that you’re convinced of their aesthetic allure and incomparable sweet taste, I’ll need to justify the additional cost. Basic economics tell the facts for us: high demand and low supply means a bigger price tag. This doesn’t bode too well for heirlooms since they are not exactly mass produced, nor are they necessarily disease resistant. That means crops will produce less per acre than the less expensive hybrid vines will, plus travel can be a bit tough on these sweeties.
All that being said, put them in your cart anyways! They will more than make up for their expense in unmatched taste!
Now, what to do with your luscious purchase?
I like to keep these guys the stars of the show so how about my take on Napa inspired marinated tomatoes?
Or how about a simple flat bread pizza for a quick appetizer with cocktails? Brush a round of store bought naan with extra virgin olive oil, add a layer of juicy sliced heirlooms, some fresh mozzarella, chiffonade basil, a pinch of red pepper flecks, and some salt and black pepper. Stick it in your oven for 10 minutes at 450 degrees until the cheese is bubbly and delicious! I put it directly on the rack and stick a foil lined backing sheet under it so I can get the naan a bit crisped!
Or you can chunk them up, sauté them with some oregano and flat leaf parsley. Toss with al dente farfalle and you have a vegetarian dinner delight!
Or cut them into 1 in thick slices, arrange them and a baking sheet and top with some grated parmesan and a couple drops of olive oil. Bake them for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, top with some freshly cracked pepper and you can serve those alongside a juicy steak or atop warm quinoa.
Still not a home run for you? Try coring them out and baking them stuffed with a mushroom filling! Clean and chop a mushroom medley, then just sauté with a little thyme, pine nuts, and red wine. Don’t forget to add in the tomato parts you cored out! Top with Asiago and bake at 350 until they’re soft and melty, about 30 to 40 minutes!
Need another option? Toss diced tomatoes with freshly grilled corn, a little minced red onion, diced avocado and chopped cilantro. A squeeze of lime juice and a pinch of smoked chili powder and you have a delightful dip or taco topping! Swap out the corn for mango and you have a perfect complement for grilled chicken or use pineapple for Hawaiian fish tacos.
For a tomato infused starch, dice your tomato finds and add them into the recommended amount of boiling water with brown rice and cook as instructed. Or you can grill thick slices brushed with olive oil and add a dash of lemon juice. Or make a BLT sandwich. Or just a T sandwich? Or make some tomato jam for toasty ciabatta. Or creamy roasted tomato soup.
You can see where I’m going with this, right? The options are endless and the fruit ripe for picking so pick away, ladies and gents! The culinary cornucopia of heirloom tomato glee awaits you!