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Monday, September 27, 2010

Heirloom Tomatoes- Buy 'Em Now!

I catered a lovely bridal shower this weekend and one of the dishes I prepared was an heirloom tomato salad with basil and a shallot vinaigrette. I got up early the morning of the shower and walked to my local farmers market in search of perfectly ripe tomatoes. The vendors were still carrying crates of produce out of their trucks when I got there. As soon as the tomatoes came out I started eying all of the beautiful varieties. There were red, yellow, orange, green and even purple tomatoes that ranged in size from a golf ball to a softball.

Even just speaking to their physical characteristics, these heirlooms look quite different from the tomatoes we find in the supermarket. The bins in the supermarket are chock full of tomatoes that are almost exactly the same size, shape and color. That's because commercial growers have chosen to grow just a couple varieties. They have chosen which to focus on based on several factors which include:

*Consistency: every tomato should be the same size and shape, be bright red and have no creases, bumps or blemishes.
*Productivity: the more a particular seed variety yields, the better.
*Hardiness: a primo variety should be able to withstand mechanical picking and long distance traveling. Additionally, they should be able to tolerate pesticide use.

So if a tomato variety meets all of the above criteria it is deemed a suitable variety for commercial growing and distribution. But isn't there something missing here? What about what the tomato tastes like?
But since a tomatoes hardiness and beauty is often deemed preferential to taste, so many times the commercialized versions barely resemble their incredibly sweet and juicy heirloom counterpart.

Heirloom varietals are native non-hybrid fruits and vegetables and are not used in modern large-scale agriculture; however are gaining popularity with home gardeners and small farmers. Since the fall weather is quickly moving in, try to get to the farmers market to take advantage of this last week or two of tomato season. Plus, since it is getting towards the end of the season, the prices seem to lower than what they were when they first started cropping up a couple months ago.

Here are two very different heirloom tomato recipes. One (the salad I prepared for the the bridal shower) is exceedingly simple and fresh. The second is warm and comforting. Both ar
e wonderful ways to highlight this fantastic fruit.

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Basil and Shallot Vinegarette
My apologies for not having a picture of the finished salad. I was in such a hurry to get everything packed and over to the shower I completely neglected to snap a quick pic-- but with all those beautiful, multi-colored tomatoes and fresh basil, you can just imagine how beautiful this dish looks.

serves 6 as a side dish

3 lbs. heirloom tomatoes
1/2 c. fresh basil, shredded
1 large shallot, minced
extra virgin olive oil
red wine vinegar
salt & pepper

Chop the tomatoes into generous bite-size pieces. Place in a colander, sprinkle lightly with salt and let sit for about 15 mi
nutes to allow the salt to extract the excess moisture.

In the meantime, place the minced shallot in a tablespoon or two of red wine vinegar and let marinate for a few minutes (letting the shallot sit in the vinegar will slightly "cook" the shallot and take out some of its harshness). Whisk in the olive oil (you should have 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vinegar) and season to taste with salt and pepper.

To assemble the salad, place half of the tomatoes in a serving bowl, top with 1/2 of the basil and some of the dressing. Top with the remaining tomatoes, basil and a little more of the dressing. You may not need all of the dressing.

Pasta with Heirloom Tomatoes, Feta & Sausage

Serves 3-4

1/2 lb short-cut whole wheat pasta, such as fuscilli

1 TBSN olive oil
1/2 lb spicy sausage, removed from casing

3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 c. dry white wine
1/2 c. chicken stock
1 lb. heirloom tomatoes, roughly chopped
handful kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1/3 c. basil, shredded
1/2 lb. feta cheese, cubed

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add pasta. While pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and break up with a spoon. When no longer pink, remove the browned sausage from pan.

Lower heat to medium-low and saute garlic and crushed red pepper until fragrant. Add the wine and reduce by half while scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour in the chicken stock and simmer over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add in the tomatoes and olives and continue cooking another few minutes.

Toss the cooked pasta in with the sauce and fold in the half of the basil and feta. Adjust seasoning. Top with the remaining basil and serve with a juicy pinot noir.

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