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Heirloom Tomatoes

Tomato season has arrived! Farmers' markets and some grocery stores are overflowing with delicious heirloom tomatoes. On The Saturday Early Show, P. Allen Smith will tell us what an heirloom tomato is, describe how it differs from a regular tomato, show us some different types of heirlooms, offer a handful of growing tips, and show us how to save the tomato's precious seeds.

First things first: Let's get some important questions answered. The most obvious one: What exactly is an heirloom tomato?

Like a valued family heirloom, the seeds from these specific varieties of tomatoes have been passed down from generation to generation. In order to be termed an heirloom, a tomato must have been around for at least three generations. Others simply set the benchmark at 100 years. Suffice is to say, these tomatoes are old! Because the seeds have such a "pure" heritage, the tomato has not changed over the years.

What sets an heirloom apart from the regular tomatoes we typically see in the store?

The most obvious difference is that heirlooms are, well, weird looking. They come in odd shapes: Some are bumpy, others are striped, and they come in a variety of colors from purple to white to green - even when ripe.

The red, round tomatoes we are used to seeing in grocery stores have been genetically engineered over the years to look perfect, to be disease-resistant, to have a long shelf life, and to be sturdy enough to stand up to shipping and handling. In other words, they have been bred to be mass-produced and sold, and still look attractive to consumers.

However, heirloom enthusiasts will tell you that the most important difference of all is in the taste. Today's perfect little red tomato has had the taste bred right out of it, they claim. In fact, if you've never had an heirloom tomato, you've probably never really tasted a tomato!

Do the different varieties of heirlooms all taste different?

Tasting tomatoes is like tasting olive oils or wines. Differences exist, but they are subtle. In general, darker colored tomatoes contain more acid, and lighter colors contain less. Tomatoes with more red are sweeter, while greener tomatoes are more tart.

Where do you buy heirloom tomatoes?

Heirlooms are not mass-produced. You can find them at farmers' markets or green markets, and at some local grocery stores. Also, organic grocery stores such as Whole Foods often carry heirlooms.

Are they more expensive?

They typically do cost more. Expect to pay about twice as much per pound for heirlooms.

Do you grow heirloom tomatoes just like other tomatoes?

Yes. Tomato plants are not difficult to grow. All they require is lots of sunshine (to bring out the sugar and, thus, the sweetness in the tomatoes), some water when it's especially hot and dry, and plenty of space. You can even grow the plants in containers, but be sure to plant them in very large containers. Plants typically grow to between four and six feet tall. Now is harvest time; you plant tomatoes in the spring, after you are certain the ground will not freeze again.

Anyone who has grown tomatoes has experienced a problem called "blossom end rot." The bottom of the tomato flattens out and turns black. Smith has two suggestions for getting rid of the rot. There may be a calcium deficiency in your soil; try adding lime. Also, the plant may be dry; be sure to keep it consistently moist.

TYPES OF HEIRLOOMS

There are a few different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Because many of these have been passed down through families, they have names like "Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter" and "Aunt Ruby's German Green." Here are some examples:

  • Yellow Pear: You'll probably recognize this one; it's a popular cherry tomato that happens to be yellow and, yes, shaped like a pear. First grown in the late 1800s, it is quite sweet and a nice addition to any salad.
  • Green Zebra: It's unusual looking and very attractive. The tomato grows to about 2 inches around and ripens to a yellow-gold with dark green stripes.
  • Cherokee Purple: As you might guess, this dark tomato has Cherokee Indian origins. It's very meaty and is a pre-cursor to the familiar roma tomato.
  • Brandywine: Probably the first heirloom to truly achieve "cult status," this tomato began in the 1880s and has Amish roots. There are red, yellow and orange Brandywines.

    SAVING SEEDS

    If you want to grow your own heirloom tomatoes next year, now is the time to "harvest" seeds. The process takes some time and, to be honest, is a smelly business. However, it's not difficult to do.

    1. Cut tomatoes in half and squeeze their pulp and seeds into a plastic deli container.
    2. Loosely cover the container with a lid, but be sure that air can still circulate. Place it in a warm spot, but not in direct sunlight. Now the contents of the container will begin to ferment. (This is the stinky part!)
    3. After three to five days, you should see a white film appear on top of the liquid. Once this happens, scrape it off and add some water to the container. Swish it around and carefully pour off the liquid. Continue adding water and dumping liquid until the water runs clear and only the seeds are left in the container. During this process, all the good seeds will drift to the bottom; only the bad seeds will float and be washed away.
    4. Pour the seeds out onto a coffee filter so they can dry.
    5. After they have dried completely (about one week should do it), store them in a small container with a tight-fitting lid, such as a film canister, and put it somewhere cool and dry. Once spring arrives, you'll be able to plant these seeds in the ground and watch them grow!
    Of course, if all of this sounds like too much work, you can order the seeds on the Internet or buy them at various tomato festivals across the country.EATING HEIRLOOMS

    Heirlooms may look strange, but you can cook with them and eat them just as you would other tomatoes. Here is the recipe for one of Smith's favorite tomato salads, which can be served in many ways. It is great on its own, delicious as a garnish for chicken or fish, perfect as a topping on pasta with Parmesan cheese, or even works well as an appetizer served with slices of toasted French bread.

    Ingredients:
    1 quart of golden cherry tomatoes (This recipe also works with red cherry, grape, pear and currant tomatoes.)
    1 shallot, cleaned and finely chopped
    3 tablespoons of capers
    3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
    1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
    3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
    salt and pepper to taste

    Directions:
    Begin by washing the tomatoes and cutting them in half. In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, shallot, capers, garlic, oil, and vinegar. Cover and marinate at room temperature for at least one hour. Season with salt and pepper.

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