This summer my husband Steve became a tomato evangelist. Every day when I come home, I find him out in the garden, communing with his tomato plants. It all began when our neighbor (a paramedic and an avid amateur gardener very aptly named Denise Gardner) gave us six heirloom tomato plants she had germinated from seeds.
There are more than five hundred different heirloom tomato varieties, and although some are red and round, there are many others with incredibly complex flavors that grow in a virtual rainbow of colors. They are not as easily available in stores as the typical red tomatoes we buy because they are not bred to grow skin tough enough to withstand cross-country shipment, or to pass the uniformity test required for most produce. But superior flavor is what matters in an heirloom.
Whether you grow Brandywine, (an Amish heirloom), San Marzano (the best sauce tomatoes in the world), Japanese Black Trifele (dense red with a subtle green stripe, shaped like little lanterns), Moskovich (deep red from eastern Siberia), Red Pear Piriforms (from Italy), Tiger-Like (sweet reddish-orange tomato with yellow-green stripes and all the flavor of V8 juice), or the Pink Accordion (with pleated segments shaped like the bellows of an accordion), the flavor possibilities are endless.
Many of the varieties are passed down by gardeners exactly the way heirloom jewelry or furniture is passed down from generation to generation.
Steve’s most prolific producers are Tim’s Black Ruffles (small garnet purple tomato with ruffled ridges around the top), German Red Strawberry (shaped like a big strawberry, very meaty with few seeds and little juice, good for slicing), the bright yellow Hawaiian Pineapple Tomato (huge beefsteak with an incredibly sweet flavor), and the Gold Medal (a golden yellow tomato with a an interior blush of red; its full, sweet flavor is low in acid, and each tomato weighs 1-2 pounds).
If you’ve ever wished you could capture summer in a jar, imagine a cold winter night warmed with a plate of pasta flavored with a gourmet tomato sauce. Tomato sauce or soup lasts for a week in the fridge; it's good hot, warm or cool, and freezes well to enjoy later.
Wherever heirlooms can be found for sale, they are priced higher than other tomatoes. When folks ask local grower Sherrie Kennedy why they should be willing to pay more for an heirloom tomato, Kennedy quickly rattles off the top 5 reasons: superior taste, locally grown, organic practices, vine-ripened, and hand-picked. “Buying produce that hasn’t been trucked in from miles away is also the green thing to do,” Kennedy points out. “Buying locally is part of not contributing to global warming.”
My friend Lisa has been losing weight and attributes it to eating more heirloom tomatoes this summer. There’s no doubt at to the health benefits. Tomatoes are a great source of Lycopene, an antioxidant which has been proven to reduce the risk of many kinds of cancer, as well as heart disease.
Steve has been giving tender loving care to each plant all summer. He staked each one, so that it doesn’t touch the ground. As the tomatoes become heavier, he tied the branches to keep the weight from pulling them down to far or breaking them. He set up a special drip system to each plant, so they receive just the right amount of water. He laid red bark around each plant to keep moisture in and give a contrast to the lovely green of the plants. He trimmed the branches daily to keep the plants neat, shape them nicely, and promote growth. It was like tomato bonsai. Spending time in the garden filled all his hobby time. I have become a tomato widow.
As the tomatoes ripened, the enthusiastic tomato advocate decided to recruit me to help spread the word. After sorting the newly ripened ones each day, he sent me out to distribute them to every friend and neighbor we can think of who might even remotely have an interest in eating a tomato. Now the new converts have begun asking where the tomatoes are if we go anywhere without them! The tomato ministry reaches far and wide, spreading the good news that not all tomatoes are as tasteless as the typical varieties found at the market.
For recipes and information on how to freeze tomatoes, go to local tomato expert Sherrie Kennedy’s website: http://sherriesfarm.com/tomatoes-recipes.html