Sunday, August 28, 2016

Our Latest Obsession ... Heirloom Tomatoes

A beautiful heirloom tomato.
For a long time I put up with bland, flavorless tomatoes.  I found them unexciting and tasteless.  Other people seemed to like them well enough, but they did nothing for me.  Sure, I'd dice them into my spaghetti sauce, put a slice on my hamburger, or throw them into my salads, just like everybody else.  But for me, there was no joy.

At the market, I'd hold a tomato up close to my nose trying to discern any scent at all, much less the strong aroma of tomato.  No luck.  Hot house tomatoes, beefsteak, cherry tomatoes ... none of them had the intensity of flavor I craved, and always left me a little disappointed.

Meaty and luscious.
Then, a few years ago, heirloom tomatoes really hit the produce scene like gangbusters, and suddenly they were everywhere.  Mis-shapen, multi-hued and striated, they looked like the ugly-ducklings of the tomato patch.

But with just one taste, these ugly ducklings immediately turned into gorgeous swans right before my eyes.

Meaty, succulent and absolutely bursting with flavor, these tomatoes seem superior to the ones I had been used to, in every way.  These I could literally eat right off of the plant all day long!

Heirloom tomatoes are typically varieties that are at least 50 years old, from seed that has been handed down for generations.  No modern breeds here.  Hand-selected by farmers and gardeners for specific traits, or obtained from the very early days of commercial breeding, all heirloom fruit and vegetables are open-pollinated the old-fashioned way ... naturally, by wind or insects.  They happily retain all of their exquisite flavor and unique characteristics, year after year.

Plenty more heirloom tomatoes coming soon!
This summer, my family all decided we would grow some heirlooms of our own.  It gave me so much pleasure and satisfaction to grow and eat these amazing, tasty tomatoes right from my own carefully tended and coddled plants.

My sister and niece were much more ambitious and successful, growing quite a number of hearty and prolific tomato plants of various varieties.  Recently, they dropped off a bag full of ripe tomatoes that they weren't going to be able to use while they went out of town (plus a couple of extra-large zucchinis) for me to enjoy.  I was debating how to best use these lovelies, and finally decided to make a Pisto Manchego (Ratatouille) which is one of my favorite dishes.

I was chopping up the tomatoes and adding them to my dutch oven, but their lusciousness and incredible fragrance was so enticing, that at least a fourth of them never made it into the pot.  I have never found a plate of fresh tomatoes as delicious and wonderful as these!  Anyone who knows me knows that I put salt on everything.  These tomatoes are so amazingly flavorful, that I realized I was eating them just as they were, without any salt, olive oil or seasoning of any kind.  And I did not miss the salt at all.  Not that they wouldn't be exquisite with seasoning as well, of course, but these were so full of flavor that I didn't even miss it.  They're that good!

Pisto Manchego (Ratatouille)
The Pisto Manchego turned out amazingly.  It's a dish that often makes an appearance on tapas menus served with thick slices of crusty bread, it's the most perfectly flavorful sauce to simmer eggs in for a brunch or light meal, is always a fantastic side dish, or makes a very yummy vegetarian sauce to top a bowl of pasta.  I enjoyed a big bowl of it straight-up that evening ... it makes an incredibly satiating vegetarian meal.

Pisto Manchego is a vegetable stew consisting of onion and sweet bell peppers sautéed in olive oil, to which you add crushed garlic, diced tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant (I roasted the eggplant first in olive oil and fresh garlic, because it softens up the flesh nicely and I think it adds extra flavor), fresh thyme, parsley, basil, salt and pepper, and simmered until all the vegetables are soft and the stew is thick.  Mmmm, mmmm!

Home-grown tomatoes my niece and sister gave me.
The meatiness and intense tomato flavor of the heirlooms, plus the variety of other tomatoes thrown in there as well, created a dish that was incredibly delicious and satisfying.  It's a lovely recipe for when you have an excess of tomatoes and vegetables you don't know how else to use.  But, honestly, heirloom tomatoes are so wonderful as they are, I was almost a little sad to cook them.  Nevertheless, the dish was amazing, and there are plenty more heirloom tomatoes on the way, so I take solace in that.

There's always room for roma tomatoes in our spaghetti sauce, grape tomatoes in our salads, cherry tomatoes to stuff and arrange on a platter, yellow tomatoes to add color, and green tomatoes to fry up in a pan.  Heirloom tomatoes are simply another variety that are absolutely not to be missed.  You may become as big a fan of them as I am.

I hope you're enjoying the farm stands and farmers' markets this summer, and all of the lovely produce they're yielding, or even growing some of your own.  I also hope you're including heirlooms in your repertoire, and relishing in the robust flavor of tomatoes from a gone-by era.  Our food should always entice and delight, and heirloom vegetables are one of the best ways to improve the quality and appeal of our meals.

Summer is the time to savor.  Take advantage of these beauties before they're all gone!

Buen provecho!

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