Did you every order a sandwich or a salad at a restaurant and it shows up with something resembling a slice or wedge of tomato, but it has no flavor whatsoever? Have you ever bitten into one of those pale, anemic looking pieces of so called tomato and wondered how on earth it could be served to you in the first place, let alone be called a tomato? For tomato lovers, this is a serious infraction. The “love apple” is hands down one of the most important food items in American history.
Its origins have been traced to South America, specifically to the highlands of Peru, and it migrated northward into the rest of the Americas. The word “tomato” comes from an Aztec word “tomatl” which means the swelling fruit. Spanish explorers carried the tomato to their colonies and back to Europe with them in the 1500’s and it spread like juicy, delicious wildfire throughout the continent as well as the Philippines, Caribbean and across Southeast Asia.
There are about 7500 different varieties of tomatoes, although we only see a small fraction of them in our gardens and grocery stores. Many of the most common varieties are hybrids, cross pollinated to create fruit that is disease resistant, hearty, easy to grow, abundant and pleasing to the eye of the consumer. Varieties like beefsteak or plum tomatoes were created specifically for these purposes. But the tomatoes that these hybrids originated from are now some of the most popular varieties available. These heirlooms varieties are not as disease resistant and are ugly as hell, but they are some of the most succulent, luscious tomatoes that will ever pass your lips.
For the last couple of decades, home gardeners and small farmers have breathed new life into heirloom tomatoes with great success. While most commercially raised tomatoes are red, smooth and round, heirlooms present a rainbow of exciting colors, shapes and rich flavors. Our local farmers markets and farm stands are just silly with heirlooms and we’ve been buying and eating them almost exclusively since mid July.
Some of the most interesting and flavorful varieties we’ve come across are:
The Big Rainbow – This huge, funky-looking yellow-orange tomato has a beautiful red swirly interior and it’s very juicy. This ugly thing tastes like a tomato is supposed to taste, sweet and slightly tangy. It’s fantastic sliced on a sandwich or just sprinkled with good salt.
Cherokee Purple – As its name suggests, this tomato is dark purple, almost black, and its flesh is strikingly dark. Its flavor is sweet and complex. I think this tomato is best cut into wedges and served with flaky salt. It is truly yummy
Green Zebra – This green, striped tomato might make you think it isn’t ripe, but it is…and it’s sweet and lovely. This tomato is visually striking and when sliced and presented on a platter, will have your guest oohing and aahing.
Brandywine – This dark pink, soft and juicy tomato is one of the most popular heirloom varieties and its rich flavor is just spectacular. You can do anything with it and it’s completely delicious.
When you see these tomatoes in your local supermarket, don't freak out just because they resemble an old man who bit into a lemon. These are some of the best tomatoes available and I guarantee you won't be sorry if you buy them, slice them up and enjoy them with a little salt and olive oil. A few important tips: don’t EVER put your ripe tomatoes in the refrigerator. This is the cardinal rule of tomatoes. The cold temperature completely kills the flavor. You should always leave your tomatoes sitting in a bowl or vegetable rack on your kitchen counter for optimum flavor. And if your tomatoes are not quite ripe, put them in a paper bag for a day or two and the gasses they release will help them ripen.
This is a great time of year for good tomatoes. In fact, I don’t even buy tomatoes much past the end of September as they have to travel thousands of miles to get here and I’m not sure what’s been done to them to keep them fresh during their long journey. The good news is that you can prepare your tomatoes in any number of ways and freeze them for winter consumption. So, buy them up now while they’re in season and you’ll be happy that you did.