Cooking Chapbook

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

Tag: tomatoes

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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Guy Friddell, columnist and tomato lover, will be missed

tomatoes

When I started at The Virginian-Pilot as an intern, Guy Friddell was a faithful figure in the night newsroom cast. He was legendary for his thoughtful columns and his decades covering Virginia politics. I can still see him, frail by then, in his 80s, walking slowly through the newsroom on a quiet evening, framed by his oversized glasses and kindly smile.

By the time I arrived, his column focused more on tomatoes and Boomer the dog than Richmond politics. It was a highlight of my night to rim a Guy column, though I knew it might come with the challenge of writing a fresh 1-column headline on another vegetable laudation. I loved his gentle prose, poetic in a way rare to reporters.

Guy was generous to all, and the copy desk was no exception. He would tell his editor, even an uncertain intern young enough to be his granddaughter, how much she improved his column with the tiniest suggestion. He was humble, sweet, sincere. He gathered devoted followers and fans like no other columnist I know.

Guy was a Tidewater icon, an old-school newspaper writer, and a Southern gentleman.

Earl Swift has written a wonderful tribute to Guy, who passed away this past Sunday at 92.

Of course, it includes a section on tomatoes. No one loved the tomato like Guy.

Earl writes:

His attention often lingered on nature’s contributions to his diet. Columns celebrated the taste and texture of buttered corn on the cob, decried the indifference accorded to okra, referred to black-eyed peas as if old friends. Apples, peaches and plums, squash and strawberries, pumpkins, onions, leeks – if it grew, Friddell ate it, loved it, and wrote about it.

Two fruits held special rank in his heart and stomach. Scores of his columns enumerated the merits of the watermelon, instructed the reader on how to pick a good one, or featured one as a central player in the narrative.

His feelings for the tomato, however, bordered on exaltation.

“With spring coming and summer close behind, thoughts of tomatoes tend to occupy my mind,” he wrote in March 1998, a year in which his byline appeared over 10 columns praising his favorite fruit – a tally he matched in 1990 and 1991, and topped with 12 in 1995. “Improve the tomato?” he wrote another day. “How can one perfect perfection?”

Left to his own devices, Friddell might have lived on tomato sandwiches: “Has it crossed your mind,” he wrote in August 1994, “that to eat a tomato sandwich, as well as build it, is a work of art?

Bobotie

I met this African dish in Germany.

I have no idea if it’s “authentic.”

“Ethnic” food here is often half-foreign, half-German.

But in this case, I didn’t care. Bobotie delivered a happy shock – what is this?? – and a curious euphoria for days afterwards.

Bobotie

Homemade bobotie, with a side of rice

Bobotie (pronounced ba-boor-tea, reports BBC) is an African casserole, made with ground beef or lamb and usually a thin layer of egg custard on top. It’s savory, rich comfort food, the kind that makes a monochromatic winter week feel almost cozy.

winter in Germany

Even the prettiest German towns, like Baden-Baden, feel a bit grim in the winter.

The version we tried in a charming Stuttgart restaurant was made with beef and peanuts, their luscious, savory note blazing through.

The bobotie recipes I found online leaned toward almonds and often used lamb with mango chutney and bread soaked in milk. Then I stumbled upon a version by Marcus Sammuelsson with peanuts. His memoir “Yes, Chef” follows how he was adopted from Ethiopia into a Swedish family and ended up cooking in America, all the way to a restaurant in Harlem called Red Rooster. “Yes, Chef” is a fun read, one I’d recommend if you are curious about African food and the ex-pat life.

Marcus’ bobotie also features cumin, coriander seeds, curry powder, red onion, tomatoes, and bread crumbs.

tomatoes and onions

It’s hard to go wrong with garlic and tomatoes.

I combined his recipe with others, using my memory of our Stuttgart dinner as a guide.

I browned the beef and chopped onions, then added minced garlic, curry powder, ground cumin and ground coriander, and two tomatoes. Instead of bread crumbs, I added the bread slice soaked in milk that all the other recipes used, and a 1/4 smooth peanut butter. I mixed it well with mango chutney and raisins, then pressed it into a buttered dish and chilled it in the fridge.

Pack ground beef in dish for bobotie

I started pouring the custard on top, and then remembered the camera!

The custard versions seemed all over the place. I couldn’t even discern the egg in the version we had in Stuttgart, so I didn’t want to make a veritable omelet on top. I dialed back to 2 eggs, 1 extra yolk, and 2/3 cup milk, hoping for a thin layer.

The egg-milk mixture gets poured on top before it goes into the oven. Marcus recommends a water bath, but I find it generally too fussy and unnecessary. (Meaning: I have not figured it out yet.)

After baking it covered in foil for 20-some minutes, and another 15-20 uncovered, the custard should turn a nice golden brown. Like brownies or cakes, bobotie is decidedly done when a knife or toothpick comes out clean.

Bobotie, baked

Bobotie, baked

It may not look like much, but it was heavenly.

This version is similar to the one we had in Stuttgart, but laced with sweetness from mango chutney and raisins.

A bit of African sunshine in a dark winter drawing, I hope, to a close.

Bobotie

Bobotie

Bobotie recipe

Adapted from Marcus Samuelsson, BBC, and Epicurious

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 2 small white onions or 1 medium
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 small tomatoes chopped
  • 1 bread slice, soaked in 2-3 tablespoons of milk
  • 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sultanas (golden raisins)
  • 2 tablespoons mango chutney
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ground nutmeg (optional)
  • Butter to grease the baking dish

Heat a large skillet or dutch oven, slicked with a bit of oil, to medium. Add the beef  and onion. Stir to break up the beef. Cook until the beef is browned, but no longer.

Add the garlic, curry, cumin, coriander, and tomatoes. Let simmer on low for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour about 2-3 tablespoons of milk over a slice of bread. Let it soak for a few minutes, then mash with a fork. Here, you are creating binding, which could also be done with breadcrumbs instead.

If the beef mixture is very oily, drain off the oil now.

Stir in the peanut butter, bread mash with its milk, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook for 15 minutes or so. Stir in the mango chutney and raisins.

Butter a 2-quart baking dish. Pack the ground beef mixture into the baking dish. Chill in the fridge for 10-20 minutes; meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180C/350F.

Mix together 2/3 cup milk, 2 eggs, 1 egg yolk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a sprinkling of nutmeg (optional).

Take the beef mixture from the fridge and pour the egg mixture on top. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 20-25 minutes, then remove the foil lid. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the egg top is golden brown.