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Dallas Morning News: Heirloom tomatoes stand the test of time

 

07:15 AM CDT on Friday, May 12, 2006 By NANCY MYERS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

What would life be without homegrown tomatoes? A long, sizzling summer devoid of this fresh-off-the-vine delicacy would indeed be pretty bland, and while traditional hybrid favorites satisfy many tastes, red-hot right now are heirlooms.

"Heirloom" means a fruit or vegetable has been bred from seed gathered from a plant that was pollinated the old-fashioned way, via birds and bees. Unlike hybrids, heirlooms produce in a way that's true to type, meaning there is little variation in the fruit from generation to generation.

An heirloom variety must go back at least 50 years. Some become heirlooms because they are prolific, resist disease or boast superior flavor.

You don't have to be a home gardener to get a piece of the heirloom-tomato action.

 

Kent Pirkle of Raindrop Farms in Comanche, Texas, is Central Market's chief (and at the moment, only) supplier of heirloom tomatoes.

"Up until now, chefs and hotels have been the primary markets for heirlooms," Mr. Pirkle says. He can barely keep the stores supplied with heirlooms because of the growing demand, he says.

"People are seeing tomatoes that they've never seen before," he adds, noting that this year he has 22varieties and is aiming for 90 next year. "There are many extinct varieties of heirlooms that can no longer be found that appear in old seed catalogs, as far back as the late 1700s."

He finds their history and lore fascinating: "I could write a book, but I don't have time." Stay tuned. (Reach him at raindropfarms@yahoo.com.)

"It's just as easy to grow heirlooms as any other tomato," according to Ben Swett, CEO of Windowbox.com, Inc. The Vernon, Calif.-based company ships plants nationwide and, through its new Heirloom Tomato Collections, solves the problem of deciding which of the many heirloom varieties to try. Three- and six-packs of hardy young plants are available in themed assortments starting at $15.99 at www.windowbox.com.

Will they fare well here at home? "I think the thing to remember is that tomatoes are native to Central and South America, and there's no place closer to that in the U.S. than Texas," according to Joe Maloney, an Austin-based associate of Windowbox.com.

"Tomatoes love the sun, and many varieties, including heirlooms, are good in extreme heat. All growers must do is watch over the young plants and keep them well watered."

Other sources: Smith & Hawken sells an Heirloom Garden Collection for $34 (www.smithandhawken.com). Local nurseries include Redenta's, Nicholson-Hardie and North Haven, but call first. For instant gratification, Central Market and Whole Foods usually have colorful assortments.

Nancy Myers is a Dallas freelance writer and tomato gardener.

Vine-ripened pleasure
The origins of these heirlooms are varied: The red 'Brandywine' is of Amish descent, dating back to the late1800s; 'Jaune Flamm'e' is a French heirloom; 'Cherokee Purple,' rumored to have been grown by Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, was hailed by one Austin blogger as "the Holy Grail of the tomato kingdom"; 'Stupice' has Czech roots; the 'Green Grape' and 'Black Cherry' are bite-sized; and 'Garden Peach' is one of two remaining varieties that actually have peach-type fuzz on the outer skin most of the time, with a sweet citrus-like flavor.

Mark your calendars...
Tomatoes will take up Aurora chef Avner Samuel's June 24 cooking class. Mr. Samuel will share favorite summer tomato concoctions, including Heirloom Tomatoes with Cucumber and Black Truffle Vinaigrette.Aurora, 214-528-9400.

Gadgets...
The Italian Tomato Press, in shiny tomato red from Williams-Sonoma, is a bargain at $29.95. W-S's Tomato Slicer will make it easy to please perfectionists, as will the Kershaw Tomato Knife ($18), made of high-carbon steel with a colorful resin coating.
www.williams-sonoma.com

Fun facts...
The first cookbook to mention tomatoes was published in Naples in 1692 ... The 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes was Oscar-nominated in two categories, though actual tomatoes figured much more prominently in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! The latter film spun off three sequels, culminating in The Killer Tomatoes Eat France!

A $64 tomato? The horror! The horror!
"Only two things money can't buy, and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes." Guy Clark, Texas singer-songwriter

Apparently Guy Clark never met William Alexander. Nor had the Hudson Valley-based author of The $64 Tomato (Algonquin Books, $22.95) even heard of the Texas singer-songwriter or his sentimental ballad until an on-air snippet was played during a recent radio interview. But Mr. Alexander said the refrain hithome, and the often-hilarious trials and tribulations of his costly endeavor will strike a universal chord.

The book is a tongue-in-cheek account of the writer's quest for the perfect garden, chronicling how he "nearly lost his sanity, spent a fortune, and endured an existential crisis" along the way. When his seemingly simple dream led to countless complications, he decided, for fun, to run a cost-benefit analysis, and calculations revealed that it cost him a staggering $64 to grow each of his cherished Brandywines – hence the book's title.

Mr. Alexander says that the most difficult part of having a garden comes down to two things: weeds ("It's like shoveling waves back into the ocean") and keeping animals out.

"You can build all of the defenses you want," he says, "fences, wires ... the bottom line is - and the sooner any gardener recognizes this fact, the happier they'll be - you may be smarter, but they've got more time." A chapter is devoted to this latter philosophy, and other segments include "One Man's Weed is Jean-George's Salad," sort of an ode to purslane; "Nature Abhors a Meadow (But Loves a Good Fire)"; and "ChristopherWalken, Gardener."

The container's the key
Edward C. Smith, author of The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, offers a creative solution for gardeners on the go in Incredible Vegetables From Self-Watering Containers (Storey Publishing, $19.95). Tomatoes are among the author's top picks for this low-maintenance approach, designed for urban and suburban growers who want fresh edibles but lack the time for constant tending. Specially designed containers are available through Gardener's Supply Company (www.gardeners.com). Gardeners with conditions similar to those in Texas have had excellent results using these containers, Mr. Smith says, noting that with our climate and conditions, "a mature tomato plant can go through a gallon of water a day." He says heirlooms can be grown in these containers. "They'll just need the support of a cage."

One that got away
New from Keith Stewart, proprietor of Keith's Farm in Orange County, N.Y., is It's a Long Road to a Tomato - Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life (Marlowe & Co.,$16.95). Twenty years ago, Mr. Stewart was living in a small apartment in New York City, working as a project manager for a consulting firm, when his Green Acres epiphany hit. He left the world of briefcase sand computers behind and (almost) never looked back. Today he's a grower of organic vegetables and herbs and a self-professed happier man. Visually aided by his wife, illustrator Flavia Bacarella, this late-blooming farmer's almanac is full of anecdotes, humorous chapters, tales of animal antics and, naturally, an essay on tomato production.

Kitchen companion
The Tomato Festival Cookbook by Lawrence Davis-Hollander (Storey Publishing, $16.95) has traditional recipes such as classic tomato bisque, herbed goat cheese broiled in tomato sauce and the "world's best BLT," plus recipes from celebrity chefs and tips on seed-saving, advice on growing, tomato lore, instructions on preserving and profiles of tomato festivals and growers. ‘

And more ...
Other current books on the timely topic include 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden by Carolyn J. Male, a field guide with vivid visuals, detailed descriptions and historical notes (Tomato Supply Co., $17.95); and American Tomato, The Complete Guide to Growing and Using Tomatoes by Robert Hendrickson, an all-encompassing resource with cultivation tips, recipes, space-saving ideas, an heirloom-specific segment and more (Taylor Trade Publishing, $14.95).
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