Saturday, July 15, 2006

Confessions of a Tomato Virgin for WHB

And you’re thinking “wha?” Well, I’ve sort of lost it (there’s news).

If you read this blog on occasion, you might have heard that I can’t seem to find a tomato worth eating here in SoCal.

You can find red ones, yellow ones, even green ones on occasion (note that tomatillos are not actually tomatoes). But for the most part, firm or ripe, the flavor is missing.

A few weeks ago we started seeing heirloom tomatoes at out farmer’s market. Mostly red ones, with various stripes and color variations. We tried some, and they were good. Not outstanding. Nothing to lose control over, but compared to the usual around here, pretty good!

This week, we found more. Not a huge variety, but some interesting things. And my mania to find an edible tomato overwhelmed me.

It sort of hit me when I saw the small purple (or black, in heirloom lingo) tomatoes. I don’t think I’d ever seen something that looked quite like that. We had passed up some sort of green and red striped affairs that were offered for a crazy price. And had already noted some other more ordinary red looking heirlooms that we were going to go back and buy. But the ‘black’ ones did it.

We scoured the market for more unusual varieties.

And were successful in finding some Japanese ones, which were also both organic as well as being grown very locally (not sure that’s such a big plus in this overcrowded area).

But anyway, we carried our treasure of four varieties of colorful, heirloom, possibly even organic, tomatoes back home. Along with the usual cache of herbs (mint, lemon verbena, thyme, chives, basil, cilantro, and some various greens), as well as some black grapes (I love black grapes, which are much harder to find than the ho-hum tasting red or green grapes). We even saw some scapes, for the first time. With all the recent recipes for scapes, they’re on my list to try soon too.

But today is for tomatoes. Heirlooms. For , sponsored by .

So we set some of the beauties out. Just on a plate. Took a look. Before trying a sample of each. To help with the identification, I found a web site listing almost 200 varieties of heirloom tomatoes with pictures and descriptions:

That there might be so many seemingly distinct varieties of tomatoes to even try was a bit of a revelation to me. It became clear to me that I am a virtual tomato virgin, inexperienced in the breadth and variety available, maybe even lacking the skills necessary to coax the full sensual enjoyment from all this potential (taste!, the sensual taste, people!). I’ve wasted my time with artificially colored hothouse water balloons, and failed to take a taste on the wild side.

There are so many varieties, assuming one could actually find them all, there seems no possible way to make a choice as to a personal favorite. It’s like single malt scotch, or wine. It took thousands of bottles of wine to arrive at Médoc, and thousands of tastes of scotch to confirm Lagavulin. Apparently tomatoes, at least the heirloom varieties, will require the same dedication.

I have read that there are meetings of heirloom tomato aficionados. Who go to tasting events and swap special seeds. I imagine them to be much like the wine events where everyone walks around with bulbous glasses with no bottoms (because, of course, no one doesn’t finish their wine, and it’s a Faux Pas Grande Latte to even consider putting your glass down). Veritable orgies of heirloom hedonism.

Hmmm … I may be obsessing again. Anyhoo …

The Japanese ones have an almost iridescent pink glow to them. It makes them look sort of otherworldly. These seem to be the Momotaro variety. Known to be low acid, and very sweet.

And they were wonderful. As described, super sweet. That’s the first impression. Only later do you notice the lack of acidity. Which is probably why the sweet taste is so predominant. I liked them a lot.

The yellow ones are tiny – just ½ inch diameter at the most. And a very bright orange yellow color. I can only guess what they might be, and guessed Cerise Orange, mainly because I like the name, but also because the size and color match. But the taste did not match the looks. Bitter. All show, no flavor. So maybe I’m wrong about the variety. Anyways, I didn’t like those.

The red ones (no picture) could be anything. There are like 100 different red varieties listed on that Web site, so to me, they’re just red ones. The most noticeable characteristic is that they are very full fleshed, almost no seeds or watery sections like in a hot house tomato. The flavor is good, but nothing to die for. Nice for a salad where some dressing might add dimension.

The small purple / black ones could be Black Cherry. The color is striking. Unusual, but subtle. In a good way. The taste was very nice (I feel like I should describe the ‘legs’ and the bouquet as well), although I wouldn’t go right to a black cherry flavor. Not so sweet, but a nice balance of sweetness, acidity, and tomato flavor. Definitely a winner.

Tonight, a mixed heirloom tomato salad on dandelion greens with a light tarragon and rice wine vinegar vinaigrette. Should be a treat!

After trying all the different heirlooms, I have to say that the black cherry were my favorite. Sweet, intense flavor. Followed very closely by the momotaro Japanese ones. Also super sweet and flavorful. The yellow ones improved with the dressing, still coming in forth place. And the other red ones filled in the middle of the ranking, with a full tomato flavor and a firm texture. All in all, some of the best tomatoes we've ever had here!

Mixed Hierloom Tomato and Dandelion Salad
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4 to 6

1 bunch dandelion greens, washed, dried and cut into 1 inch pieces
4 assorted 'large' heirloom tomatoes, sliced
1 pint black cherry heirloom tomatoes, cut in half
1 pint yellow grape heirloom tomatoes, cut in half
2 avacados, peeled, sliced, sprinkled with lemon juice
2-3 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves
3 tbsp rice vinegar
1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil (to taste)
salt, pepper
Fresh chives, snipped, for garnish
Parmesan cheese, cut into thin curls, for garnish, if desired

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, tarragon, salt and pepper. Drizzle in the oil in a stream, whisking.

On a large serving platter, toss the dandelion greens with half of the dressing, and arrange to cover the plate. Arrange the tomato slices in a ring around the edge of the greens. Arrange the avacado slices in a ring along the inside edge of the tomato slices. Mix the cherry and grape tomatos, and heap into the center of the platter.

Spoon the remaining dressing over the salad. Sprinkle salad with chives, and garnish with parmesan curls, if desired. Serve. Enjoy!

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Blogger Kalyn said...

Great tomato photos. The yellow ones are not all bad. I grow a type called Lemon boy which are delicous. I know what you mean though; I've had some yellow ones that have no taste at all.

8:19 PM  
Blogger neil said...

I noticed your link in to wine and I do think that tomatoes the same as grapes, have definite 'vintage' variation. Maybe this year out your way is not the best for tomatoes. BTW, great post.

1:39 AM  
Blogger surfindaave said...

Thanks for the comments!

Kalyn, I can't complain too much because I finally found a tomato here (well, at least that I bought here) I could grow to love!

Neil, thanks! I guess I can only hope for a better vintage next year than the last 12 have been!

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gorgeous photos Dave!! Simply wonderful.

7:18 PM  

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