Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Heirloom Tomatoes

Aren't these things just freaking gorgeous?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, farmers enjoy an elevated hero status in my esteem, especially when they grow organic, heirloom produce.

My reason for including the heirloom component is twofold: one, heirloom plants have unique qualities of appearance, flavor and texture that set them apart from all others of their kind, and these qualities make them especially delightful; two, an heirloom plant represents an original strain that has not been modified by crossbreeding, which protects biodiversity and by extension, the future of food itself. I don't think their importance can possibly be overstated, especially in this age, when monoculture is the norm and variety among edible plants is rapidly narrowing.

One of the most obvious examples of heirloom varieties on the produce shelf are tomatoes, owing mostly to their unusual shapes and colors. For cooks, this is a boon because it enables us to create eye-appealing presentations merely by setting them on the plate, whether whole, in cross-sections, or in pieces. They're so out of the ordinary, they're almost startling, and they've never failed to elicit an impassioned remark whenever I've served them. The flavor is even more impressive, especially to people my age and older, because it takes us back to a time when virtually all tomatoes offered such a full tomato experience. This is the way all tomatoes tasted before Big Ag came in and bred them for uniformity, ease of packaging, and shelf life, at the terrible cost of flavor, texture and variety.

Full disclosure: they are a bit more expensive then their blah assembly-line twisted sisters, since they must be grown by real farmers and transported quickly, to a fairly limited local area. However, buying them is not just good for our palate and our health; it also supports the farmers who are wise and dedicated enough to keep growing these wonderful rarities. By buying heirloom plants, we help assure their survival.

Here's another, pretty impressive plus: my son, who rarely expresses enthusiasm for any vegetable--if indeed he even deigns to eat one--was thoroughly enchanted by a salad I made the other day. I had only made enough for my wife and myself, assuming he wouldn't be interested, but something about the exotic appearance of the tomatoes attracted him. I let him have a taste and his immediate response was unexpectedly animated, so I let him have my plate. How rare it is, after all, that a teenager lets slip any hint of approval, let alone such an unabashed endorsement?

So there you have it, the salad that wowed my highly discriminating, near-exclusively meat-and-bread-eating son: Watercress Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes.

Like most great dishes, it's quite simple, relying on the potency of natural ingredients. The green part is nothing but hydroponic watercress and red onion, tossed with a basil vinaigrette. All I did for the tomatoes was to slice and fan them out on the plate, and then drizzle a generous amount of basil oil over them. As a final touch, I sprinkled some oak-smoked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

With its peppery bite and deep green juiciness, watercress makes an ideal counterpoint for any tomato, but especially these luscious full-bodied ripe red heirloom babies. The basil oil was gratuitous, especially next to the basil vinaigrette, but as I'm fond of saying, "nothing exceeds like excess!"


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