My first heirloom tomato was a big, bulbous, funky-shaped Brandywine. When the pink juice filled my mouth and ran down my face, it was like waking from a mediocre dream. The pale fruit delivered a subtle yet potent flavor, but was low in acid, like a rose without a thorn. And Brandywines were just the beginning of my heirloom adventure, long before I thought to chicken-fry them.
Once upon a time, heirlooms were displaced orphans of the cultivar world, old-school varieties that nearly vanished. But gardeners, bemoaning the tomatoes’ homogenization by agribusiness, refused to accept the round, shiny red cardboard variety available in stores—they had grandma’s seed to prove bland uniformity was bunk, and kept the lineages going. Many of these seed savers never left the homestead, or sold to a store, or even knew about others doing the same. But together they saved the heirloom tomatoes in a hundred lonely protests against a summer without flavor.
These days, the heirlooms are back, lifted on the strong shoulders of a new generation of farmers who discovered these whimsically named treasures with outrageous shapes, colors and patterns, and distinct flavors that some aficionados carefully pair with wines (chicken-fried heirlooms, for instance, are best with beer).
An heirloom tomato, technically speaking, has been around at least 50 years, and is open-pollinated, which means it can cross-pollinate with other open-pollinating strains, opening the door for evolutionary change. Seeds of the best specimens are saved, which fine-tunes the lineages by favoring flavor, production, heartiness, suitability to a particular climate and other nuances.
These days there are so many tomato varieties available, from the Hillbilly to the Pink Oxheart, that farmers often grow them in the same patch and pack them together for market, and if you ask what kind of tomato it is they’ll just say “heirloom.”
For those who like to keep closer track, you should find no shortage of nerds who will happily talk you through how to best take advantage of heirloom offerings. Mimi Luebbermann, who wrote the Heirloom Tomato Cookbook, suggests a cabernet sauvignon with a Black Cherokee while the yellows, like a Big Blonde or a Georgia Streak, call for a chardonnay.
Although there are heirloom paste tomatoes, most heirlooms tend to be heavy on water weight, making them inefficient to make into sauce or salsa for storage. So you have to enjoy them right here, right now, and I’m going to help you.
If you’re swamped—and believe it or not some people are—simply juicing your heirlooms is a great way to make inroads into a substantial pile. You can add the juice of many other garden spoils for an heirloom-style V8. My favorite combo is tomato with celery and cucumber, because you can still taste the delicate tomato flavor, which tends to get overwhelmed by the likes of carrot, beet, apple, etc. Or mix your heirloom tomato juice with clam juice, season with hot sauce and Spike powder, and combine with beer for an heirloom clamato.
I like cooking with heirlooms because they’re generous with their flavor, but not overpowering. For breakfast, try cutting a big ripe one into 1-inch chunks and fry them in oil—or with bacon bits and their accompanying grease. When the chunks have fallen apart into simmering puddles, add 1/2 a medium onion (ideally a Walla Walla), 2 cloves garlic, chopped, a bay leaf and 2 tablespoons of brie, St. Andre 3X crème or something similar.
Let simmer on medium heat, stirring often until the liquid is almost gone, and season with salt and pepper. Turn up the heat and add some beaten eggs. Stir once, just enough to mix everything together, and let it cook for a minute. If you have the dregs of a bag of corn chips, the too-small-to-eat crumbs, add them now. Or add intact chips if you want. Scramble briefly and then turn off the heat.
If you’re ready to upgrade your heirlooms from a supporting role to the main event, then treat those fleshy beasts like the meat they are. When you’re ready to stare down a crimson slab that practically fills the plate—juicier than a T-bone and cased in a deep-fried crisp—then it’s time for chicken-fried heirloom tomatoes.
Unlike chicken-fried steak, no gravy is poured over a chicken-fried heirloom, because the gravy is already there, on the inside, contained by a solid cornmeal exoskeleton.
Slice inch-thick slabs off the bottom of a massive red heirloom tomato, like a Brandywine or an Anna Russian, holding it by the stem as you slice. Sprinkle the slabs with salt and pepper. Dunk them in a bowl of buttermilk. Sprinkle with flour. Dip in beaten eggs. Roll in cornmeal. Lay them in a pan of hot oil (like safflower, sunflower or grapeseed). Fry until each side is golden brown.
It will look bloody enough for a steak knife, but you will do fine with a spoon—and a bib.
Ask Ari: Apricots aplenty
Q: Dear Flash,
I’ve been raiding the apricot tree behind a house that’s clearly vacant (looking through the window, the house is empty, the fridge is wide open, etc.). The apricots are absolutely gorgeous, with dark orange flesh that’s almost red, and they’re big and blemish-free. They taste great. So I was over there the other day, picking the fruit off the branches, when I decided to try one that was lying on the ground, figuring it would be even more ripe than the ones still clinging to the tree. And my god, that was a tasty apricot. I decided to wait a few days and come back later, when they’re all this ripe.
So my questions: Is it wrong/illegal to pillage this neglected tree? Do the apricots have less nutritional value when not quite ripe? What’s the best method to preserve them?
— Secret Picker
A: It’s illegal to pick those apricots without permission, SP, because somebody owns the land you’re trespassing on, as well as the fruit you’re stealing. Maybe the owner is a bank that foreclosed on the house, or maybe it’s owned by the offspring of deceased former homeowners. But the illegality of your endeavor only matters if you get caught, which is something I don’t think is likely. So I say be careful and try not to break too many laws at once.
As for your other questions, unripe fruit generally has a similar nutritional profile as its ripe counterpart, although there are some differences. Unripe fruit, for instance, has been shown to have less iron, but more calcium, while overripe fruit can actually contain higher levels of disease-fighting antioxidants called nonfluorescing chlorophyll catabolites, according to a study from the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
The best way to preserve them, hands down, is to cut or break them in half and dehydrate them. Your unripe fruit will ripen a bit in the dehydrator, but as you suspect, you’re better off starting with perfectly ripe specimens.
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