Friday, May 2, 2014

The BEST Heirloom Tomato?

Sliced heirloom tomatoes: Summer on a plate

Nothing says Summer like a fresh, juicy heirloom tomato.  That homegrown taste, whether from the delightful pop of a tiny cherry or the dripping goodness of a sliced two-pound whopper, has yet to be replicated in supermarket wares.  If you have never grown your own tomatoes, plan to do so this summer and impress your palate with the fruits of your labor.  Even if your garden space is limited to a container in a sunny patio corner, the ripe fruit you harvest will inspire you to expand future gardening horizons.

Since 2008, Heart & Sole Gardens has hosted over 100 tomato varieties.  After planting "the usual suspects" our first year, Big Boy, Early Girl, etc., a devastating blight destroyed fifty plants within days.  Heartbroken, my husband, Richard, and I began to explore a wealth of information about tomato plants and we made plans to minimize future crop losses.  Our research convinced us heirloom plants, started from seed, would be a better option for our organic farm.  Weather, like the cool, wet summer of 2013, can still play havoc with our garden, but after tasting the delicious, complex flavors of heirloom tomatoes, never again will we grow hybrids.  Not only do our heirloom tomatoes have a depth of incomparable flavor, but the variety of colors, shapes, textures and sizes adds beauty to our garden and our plates.  During the past few weeks, I have transplanted hundreds of tomato seedlings to larger pots and look forward to planting them at the farm.

Often, people ask which tomato is my favorite and there is no easy answer to this question.  Each fruit has unique qualities that make it suitable for different purposes.  A white paste tomato that has unremarkable
fresh flavor becomes a culinary star when it is cooked.  A green slicing tomato, perfect topping for a BLT, unleashes a sour flavor when canned.  A thick-skinned cherry tomato is not the best choice for a salad, but drying brings out a rich sweetness.  Naming a single favorite heirloom tomato is an impossible choice for me, but if you also love the complex diversity of heirloom tomatoes, here is a short list of plants I always include in my tomato garden.  For those who wish to read more about heirloom tomatoes that have thrived (and failed) at Heart & Sole Gardens, visit and check out the Heirloom Tomato Notes page.

Remember, taste is subjective and there are thousands of heirloom tomatoes to try.  Your favorites may be different from mine, but just think of the fun you will have as you taste your way through a platter of ripe heirloom tomato slices and determine your own "Best" categories.

Best Heirloom Tomato for a BLT

Hands down, my favorite tomato slice for this classic sandwich is Green Zebra.  Bright green, yellow-striped skin encases juicy Chartreuse green flesh and the natural salty flavor of this tomato satisfies those who need to limit sodium intake.  If added salt is an issue, avoid the bacon and pile on fresh basil, sprouts, cucumber slices or any other sandwich toppings with Green Zebra slices.  I have canned and dried Green Zebra, but the preserved product becomes sour, so they are best enjoyed while in season.

Best Heirloom Tomato for Drying

A Grappoli D'Iverno is a red cherry tomato that has a thick skin with a small beak at the fruit's blossom end.  Vigorous vines surpass my tallest cages and produce a heavy yield of dark red clusters.  While the flavor of the fresh tomato and juice is sweet, the dried fruit is incredibly delicious and is both sweet and tangy.   When these tomatoes ripen, I slice hundreds of A Grappoli D'Iverno, load them into dehydrators and then store the dried fruit in my freezer.  As a pizza topping, added to pasta dishes, salads or just eaten as a snack, A Grappoli D'Iverno is a wonderful dried treat.

A platter of fresh A. Grappoli D'Iverno
Best Heirloom Tomato for Processing

I grow several paste tomatoes and each of them has qualities I like, but for pure tomato flavor in a jar, Cream Sausage is the best tomato for canning.  Short plants have a wilted look to them, but they produce a heavy yield of creamy white fruit that yellows when it ripens.  Fresh fruit is dry, a bit mealy and has a bland taste, however, when cooked, Cream Sausage tomatoes release a rich, complex flavor that makes our family's favorite tomato soup. 
Canned Cream Sausage Tomatoes

 Best Heirloom Tomato for Slicing

 This is truly one of the hardest choices.  Worthy candidates are Pantano Romanesco, an Italian pink heirloom that has a smooth skin and sweet flavor, Green Velvet, a vibrant green tomato that is juicy and tangy, and Cherokee Purple, regarded by some people as the only heirloom tomato, but since I can choose only one Best, my choice is Great White.  The ripe fruit is huge and I have harvested several tomatoes that weigh more than two pounds.  Creamy white skin, a little pink in the flesh and a slight garlicky flavor combine to make this tomato unique in taste and visual appeal.
Great White on the Vine

Best Heirloom Tomato for Pickling

While I have eaten many pickled tomatoes, most recipes use unripe fruit, but my favorite way to pickle tomatoes is to use a combination of ripe cherry tomatoes.  Packed into jars with fresh basil, peppers and garlic and covered with a pickling solution, tomatoes may be processed or stored in the refrigerator.  For each jar of pickles, I include Black Cherry, a miniature Cherokee Purple lookalike, Snow White, Sungold, Isis Candy and other varieties; however, the extreme sweetness of Jujube makes it the best pickling tomato.  Tiny red fruit gives the perfect balance of salty sweet and Jujubes are always the first to disappear from the pickle jar.
Jujubes are the tiny red tomatoes at the bottom of the jar