I remember, as a young child, my mother had grown some tomatoes in our backyard. It was mid-summer when she pulled the first red ripe tomato off the vine, sliced off a piece, salted it and handed it to me. Much like my first kiss, it was an experience I will never forget: sweet and slightly acidic, strongly floral with the unique fresh tomato aroma, firm but juicy, melting in my mouth. It was an experience so visceral it would leave an indelible mark on me as a child, as an adult and as a chef.
In the seventies and eighties, supermarkets carried F1 tomato hybrids that were bred for logistic purposes: transport, storage and longevity. Flavor wasn’t part of the equation. Even when tomatoes were in season, hybrids are what the local farms were selling. The tomato I experienced could only be had by growing it yourself.
Fortunately we live in a different world today. The US has come out of its culinary dark ages. The American palate has expanded greatly and with it we now have access to a broad range of culinary treats; an example of which is the heirloom tomato. An heirloom tomato is a tomato grown from a seed that has been passed down from generation to generation because of characteristics such as taste, and aesthetic appeal.
Obviously, heirloom tomatoes, given their nature, have been around for generations. In the past they were only available as seeds to grow at home. Because of the lack of interest by the general public, farmers would only sow the easier to grow and transport hybrid varieties. Now because of demand, heirloom tomatoes are popping up even at the large chain supermarkets.
The reason that I’m focusing on heirlooms is that they are bred for flavor. Many local farms grow hybrid varieties, which, when ripe, can also be very tasty. But my (and many other chefs’) obsession with heirloom tomatoes, comes from the range of tastes and flavors that the spectrum of heirlooms represent.
Picking your tomatoes
Not all heirloom tomatoes are created equal. Hydroponic indoor growing of tomatoes commercially has recently become very prevalent. Although these are mostly hybrids, you can find some heirlooms. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As an alternative to tasteless Florida tomatoes in the off-season (late October until late July), they’re great. And even better, there are now local greenhouses producing tomatoes all year long in the Hudson Valley.
Never-the-less, if you’re looking to buy the perfect tomato during tomato season, go to a farmer’s market or directly to a farm and look for ripe heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes, because they were not bred for transport, bruise easily and sometimes might not be as pretty as the tomatoes you are used to. Even though heirloom tomatoes come in a wide range of striking shapes and colors, don’t judge a tomato with your eyes; use your nose and fingers. In general, a fruit or vegetable will taste like it smells. Tomatoes are no exception. If you don’t instantly smell that distinct tomato aroma, move on to the next tomato (or blow your nose). Secondly, holding the tomato in your hand, it should feel slightly soft to the touch without being too hard or too mushy. Lastly, look for bruises and damage. Sometimes you’ll see a tomato that is so ripe it cracks. This might seem like a bad thing but it’s also a sign of a really ripe tomato. Also small bruises might only affect a small portion of the tomato. Choose wisely!
What to do with your tomatoes
The arrival of the first ripe local tomatoes is a major benchmark in my year. The first thing I used to do was to make a BLT to officially usher in tomato season. I would take lightly toasted bread, spread a little mayo, a leaf of lettuce, a couple of pieces of bacon, two or three thick juicy slices of tomato, topped with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper and I was done; summer had arrived. But I started simplifying, first no bacon, then no lettuce, until I finally ended up where I started as a young child: a slice of tomato with a little salt. There is no better way to truly appreciate the perfect tomato.
There are of course, many other ways to enjoy the gift of summer. Sliced on sandwiches, prepared in a salad, used for a salsa, or any other recipe you have that uses tomatoes, it will be better with a local ripe heirloom. Another great way is a fresh tomato gazpacho. Gazpacho is a cold tomato soup originally from Spain. There are as many variations on gazpacho recipes as there are types of heirloom tomatoes, which is to say, a lot! The version that I’m giving you lets the tomato be the star, with the other ingredients as bit players in the tomato’s opus. It is really quick and easy to make, and as long as you are starting out with great tomatoes, you’ll be sure to love the results.
Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho
5 pounds Heirloom Tomatoes, cored, seeded & chopped
½ cup Red Bell Pepper, chopped
½ cup Poblano Chile, chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
10 cloves Roasted Garlic
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
½ cup Extra virgin olive oil
To Taste Salt, pepper, honey
Diced, peeled tomatoes
Diced yellow peppers
In a blender combine all ingredients except oil, salt, pepper and honey. You will need to do this in batches, depending on the size of your blender. Fill the blender no more than 2/3 full. Add the oil to the blender while it is running to create an emulsification. Combine batches in a large pot or plastic container. In the container, season the soup to taste. Depending on the sweetness of the tomatoes and your personal taste, you may choose to add a little honey or leave it out completely.
For the garnish, you are looking to add a little texture to the dish. Add one or two tablespoons of chopped vegetables to each bowl and a dollop of crème fraîche. Serve with a piece of crusty French bread.
Chef Josh Kroner has been a driving force behind the farm to table movement in the Hudson Valley since he opened his first restaurant in 1998. As executive Chef/Owner of Terrapin Restaurant, voted Best Restaurant in Dutchess County in 2010 & 2011, he continues to please Hudson Valley diners with his New American cooking, blending aspects of French, Southwestern and Asian cuisines, and local, organic ingredients. He also currently serves as a board member for Hudson Valley Restaurant Week.