One of our simplest (but most eagerly anticipated!) pleasures of summer is biting into a sun-warmed, perfectly ripe tomato, full of flavor and fit to bursting with juice. Because save for a few months out of the year, who actually enjoys eating those wan, mealy wedges that show up in uninspired salads, or the requisite rounds of red plastic adorning deli sandwiches and burgers? And we kind of don’t even want to waste our time on pedestrian Beefsteaks and Big Boys come summer, but rather the seemingly endless variety of entrancing heirlooms, such as lush Brandywine, sugary Golden Jubilee, and slightly acidic Green Zebra.
Increasingly popular at farmers markets, supermarkets, and of course, restaurants, heirloom tomatoes are all genetically different from each other. They’ve been produced without crossbreeding for at least 40 years, not hybridized like many commercial varieties, which sport a uniform red color through genetic mutation, which sacrifices their true, sweet taste. Often organically grown in small quantities on family farms, heirlooms have a lessened resistance to disease, pests, weather, and long-distance travel, which is why they’re usually hand-harvested and immediately transported. Which means you’ll have to wake up pretty early in the morning to compete with the crush of chefs at area greenmarkets, eager to flesh out their menus with tiny, candy-like Sungolds, meaty Purple Russians, and gorgeous red and orange-streaked Hillbilly’s.
So who might you expect to see whilst shopping for tomatoes? Marcus Glocker is undoubtedly stocking up on fruit for his Tomato Gin Consommé, spooned around a crispy skinned, Pan Roasted Turbot at Bâtard, and former “Top Chef” contestants, Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth, need supplies for their Southern Peach Caprese Salad at their new East Village soul food spot, Root & Bone, which includes fried pimento cheese, grilled peaches, pickled green tomatoes and fresh, sliced heirlooms. Cherry Tomatoes are the star of one of the few, seafood-free dishes at Dave Pasternack’s gorgeous Barchetta, in a primi of Cavatelli paired with buffalo mozzarella and basil, and at the French wine bar, Racines, Frederic Duca is offering Ajo Blanco (white gazpacho), topped with Tomato Sorbet, Cherries and Green Beans. In Brooklyn, the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket will likely be frequented by Back Forty vet Shanna Pacifico, who needs tomatoes for her dishes at her new venture, Pacifico’s Fine Foods, like in a Ceviche of the Day, a Summer Squash Pappardelle with spicy tomato relish, and a Summer Greens Salad with Cherry Tomatoes and Hearts of Palm. And at the Seersucker team’s newest Smith Street destination, Wilma Jean, Rob Newton’s Field Pea and Tomato Salad is the perfect accompaniment to platters of perfect Fried Chicken, bathed in a buttermilk dressing.
So, provided you manage to sidestep the chefs and get your hands on some succulent, greenmarket-sourced heirloom tomatoes, what, exactly should you be looking for? As a rule of thumb, the color of the tomato determines its acidity. White, yellow and orange-colored varieties, such as Oaxacan Jewel, Yellow Valencia and Sunray, don’t contain any lycopene, meaning that they’re the least acidic. They are high in sugar and have the mildest and sweetest flavor out of any of the heirloom tomato varieties. The redder the tomato, the greater its lycopene content and acidity. Look for smooth Big Pink, substantial Mortgage Lifter, and beefy Brandywine. The greener the tomato, such as eye-catching Green Zebra, the more tart it becomes. The unusual purple, dark brown and black varieties, like supremely juicy Cherokee Purple, dense Black Krim and smoky Black Pear have the greatest acidity out of all heirloom tomatoes, but also boast the boldest, richest, and most complex flavor.
Choose plump, heavy fruit with thin, smooth skins that are free of bruises or blemishes. Store heirloom tomatoes out of direct sunlight at room temperature, since heat or cold will cause damage and destroy their flavor. It’s not uncommon for heirloom tomatoes to have cracks at the stem end, and if the cracks don’t run deep, they should not affect the quality of the tomato or its flavor. It’s best just to cut out the portion of the tomato and enjoy; if there is mold around the crack, check the tomato by cutting it in half and inspect it for further decomposition. If overripe, or has a foul smell, compost or discard the tomato as it has become inedible.
When it comes to using your heirloom tomatoes, unless they’ve bruised and softened almost to mush (making them perfect for sauces and the like), the best course of action is to enjoy them raw. Arrange with rounds of milky mozzarella and sprigs of fresh basil drizzled with olive oil in a classic Caprese Salad, or roughly chop into a sprightly Salsa with diced jalapeno and verdant cilantro. Layer thick slices of tomato on rustic slabs of good bread, along with crispy bacon, crunchy lettuce, and a smear of mayo for the Ultimate BLT. Of course, our favorite method for enjoying height of summer heirlooms is to eat them straight up, with nothing more than a shaker of salt and a sizable stack of napkins for mopping up the juice. You’ll never go back to those bloodless supermarket beefsteaks or paste tomatoes again!
239 West Broadway, btwn. Walker and Beach Sts.
Root & Bone
200 E 3rd St., btwn. Avenue A and B
461 W 23rd St., btwn. 9th and 10th Aves.
94 Chambers St., btwn. Church St and Broadway
Pacifico’s Fine Foods
798A Franklin Ave., btwn. Lincoln Pl and Eastern Pky
345 Smith St., btwn President and Carroll Sts.