Thursday, August 11, 2011

Heirloom tomatoes

If you’re looking to pawn off your heirlooms on someone, look no further. As a mostly-locavore, I enjoy fresh tomatoes in high summer, and at no other time of the year. While some will timidly suggest that perhaps the tomatoes available in the supermarket in March can occasionally disappoint, I will tell you clearly: those tomatoes are awful. Don’t buy them. Bland and mealy, they’re probably why I spent the first half of my life sure that I disliked raw tomatoes. I liked tomato sauces and ketchup, but those pale, watery fruits tasted to me like they grew under fluorescents, and they still do.

It’s why the last couple of years of blight struck me, too, and why I’m so grateful to bring home pounds of gorgeous tomatoes from my farm share this year. Their odd shapes and colors, and tendencies toward cracking, signal tomatoes that have been not been bred for their uniformity or shipping qualities, or their ability to be ripened by gassing. These are some of the same varieties of tomatoes that we grew fifty or a hundred years ago, before we shipped them cross-country, with rich, sweet, old-fashioned flavor and meaty texture. I favor dark colors: browns and purples for sauces, red for eating raw.

When you choose heirloom tomatoes, and no other, the anticipation is sweet, and even the nutritional payoff is greater: an heirloom tomato, grown in soil that hasn’t been destroyed with conventional farming practices, vine ripened and eaten just days after harvest, is higher in vitamins and minerals than the standard, conventional, flavorless alternative available the rest of the year. The newer varieties, in golden orange shades, are higher in vitamin A, but with a milder flavor that signals less of the sour ascorbic acid—vitamin C—that tomatoes are known for.

I treasure each tomato and plan to eat them as they reach their peak of ripeness. They sit in a cool place, never in the refrigerator, as this makes them mealy. I eat them on salad, or as salad, and cook them into dishes. Since I have more than enough tomatoes for raw eating this week, I might make “fishy pasta.” Start some water for pasta, and get to chopping.

Mince and sauté half an onion and some garlic. Add a pound of chopped fresh tomatoes and brown them if you can, but if they’re just too juicy, cook them down. You can add some red wine and simmer it off, if you like. When the tomatoes are good and saucy, add the contents of a couple of short cans of fish: tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines. A few anchovies are a tasty addition. If you have some roasted vegetables in the fridge, add those, too. When the fish is hot, finish with fresh chopped basil and parsley.

Usually the fish make it salty enough, but check it anyway. Serve over pasta with a grating of pecorino, and a grinding of black pepper.
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