Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Tag: market

Heirloom tomatoes: a taste test

rows of tomatoes

A stand at the Charlottesville farmers market on a recent Saturday – where does a tomato lover even begin?

The Charlottesville farmers markets are a rainbow of tomatoes right now, stripes laid out on benches of soft red, sunset yellow-pink, peach orange, neon green, purple-red.

I usually stare, googly-eyed, at the exotic mix, and then pick up anything basic red that’s $2 a pound and smells like a tomato – that tell-tale burst of nose-tickling aroma you never find in a grocery store stack.

While this amateur method has never steered me wrong, come a recent Saturday, we decided it was time. Time to try heirloom tomatoes.

First, what are heirloom tomatoes? A detective with only visual clues might think: any tomato with (1) a color other than classic red and (2) especially those bulbous oddities, shaped more like a squat mini pumpkin than a baseball and (3) priced above $2 a pound, into the $3 or $4 realm.

I would also add, which is just short of giving this entire taste-test experiment away, (4) an exquisite taste and color far more vivid than any supermarket variety.

Which is more like diagnosing an illness by its symptoms than understanding its essence. Not entirely helpful.

In actuality, heirloom is a fuzzy term for varieties that are open-pollinated (without human help) and have not been crossbred for more than 40 years. They can be family creations passed down through the generations, for example. And unlike supermarket hybrids, which are breed for portability, shelf longevity, and consistent shape and color, heirlooms spoil much quicker. All the more incentive to devour them immediately!

Plate of tomatoes

Our first round of tomato tasting. From the purple one, going clockwise: Carbon (purple), Golden Queen (yellow), Virginia Sweet (peach-yellow with rose tints), an unidentified pretty orange variety  (any ideas?), Brandywine (blush red), and a sad specimen that snuck in there and tasted like freezer-burned foam. We thought of it as the control group.

For our taste test, we bought a selection of heirloom tomatoes home and invited our friends Erin and Dave – wonderful gardeners themselves – to help us sample them. Here are thoughts on a few of our favorites:

Golden Queen

This lemonade-colored tomato, sliced below, has reportedly been around since the 1880s. We thought it was light, creamy, “like a summer day.” And possibly, we ventured, a nice pairing with goat cheese.

A Carbon tomato and a slice of the beautiful yellow Golden Queen

A Carbon tomato and a slice of the beautiful yellow Golden Queen

Carbon

This gorgeous purple-green variety, above, looks like nothing I’ve ever seen in a store. The inside glistens with more of the deep bruised maroon and an outline of kelly green. It tasted a bit acidic, rich, robust. This was the red-wine tomato of the samplings.

Brandywine

This is the most quintessential tomato of the set, the one I imagine is used as a model in creating children’s plastic toy food or the slice on a Burger King Whooper image in  larger-than-life ads.

The Brandywine, below, is exactly what you envision a tomato should be. It’s a love tomato, our taste-test friends pointed out, a tomato that begs for mayo and lettuce and a burger.

The stunning Brandywine

The stunning Brandywine

And our absolute favorite:

Virginia Sweet

A slice of Virginia Sweet

A slice of Virginia Sweet

The huge, squat beauties are a deep yellow with a rosy glow, especially pink on the bottom. As one seed supply company notes, ” This heirloom variety is simply one of the best tasting, best producing gold-red bicolors we have ever grown. On top of that, the tomatoes are stunningly beautiful and enormous, weighing at least 1 pound each.”

The flavor is luscious, nearly peach-like, with a vividness unsurpassed. A bite is so fresh and light, it feels like dipping in a swimming hole. Thick, meaty slices are made for sandwiches. And Virginia Sweets are simply exquisite – you can’t help but marvel at their prettiness.

The only drawback: You must eat them very quickly. Given a week to hang around, Virginia Sweets will descend into mushiness and their sublime sweetness will pass you by.

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April farmer’s market loot in Germany

Market produce in Germany in April

Market produce in Germany in April

The winter edge is starting to wear off, slowly but surely, after the coldest March and the darkest winter on record.

Here in Southern Germany, the markets blooming with produce.

Here’s what I picked up this weekend. The lemon is from afar – Spain, I think – but the rest is local.

We’ve also hit upon the start of spargel season, the beloved asparagus, white or green, found during these brief weeks on restaurant menus all across the city. Spargel is still rather expensive, around $10 a pound at the farmer’s market, but the price will fall as the season nears its peak. (I leaned this the hard way after paying 9€ last year, in a newcomer’s green excitement.) I’m waiting now for a thick bundle of white stalks to peel down to their pearly cores and grill to that divine crunchy sweetness.

Fresh potatoes

Fresh potatoes

I baked up a batch of these potatoes today, so freshly dug up that they were smeared with dirt. I love that, a sort of authenticity badge of real food straight from the fields to the farmers’ trucks to our downtown market. Not plastic wrapped or infused with preservatives. Just dirt.

I find them delicious roasted very simply, tossed with olive oil and spices, and baked for 15-20 minutes around 375-400F degrees. Old Bay is nice, barbeque spices are tangy and sweet. My current favorite potato spice mix is paprika, oregano, sea salt, and pepper.

Dill, leeks mushrooms

Dill, leeks mushrooms

Leeks are a staple throughout winter. And despite all my American cookbooks warning me against the gritty dirt found in leeks, the German ones I’ve bought have been clean as a whistle. These are going to be chopped, sauteed in butter, and served with potatoes and steak.

Dill is a such a wonderful bright, spring flavor. I plan to sprinkle it on green beans with garlic and lemon and remember our Turkish cooking class.

I don’t know what the mushrooms will be destined for, but they were so irresistibly mellow and fresh. Any ideas?

Kohlrabi (German turnip)

Kohlrabi (German turnip)

This bulbous mysterious thing is one of my two cooking adventures of the week. Meet kohlrabi, otherwise known as a German turnip. I’ve read so far that you can eat it raw quite happily or cook it up. I’m debating between a kohlrabi gratin, kohlrabi fries, and kohlrabi risotto. Any votes?

Onions

Onions

Onions are Zwiebeln are onions. Same as in the States. But so pretty, tucked in a crisp brown bag.

Romanesco broccoli

Romanesco broccoli

Here’s adventure No. 2 of the week: Romanesco broccoli, aka Roman cauliflower. I’ve been eying it all winter, wondering what it was, delighting in its weird, alien-like spikes. I have no earthly idea how to use it yet, but I imagine, should no intriguing recipes turn up, I’ll roast it like cauliflower, with olive oil and garlic. You can’t go wrong with those two.