Flawless Flavor: Heirloom tomatoes need little to shine

What do you do with this tomato?” I asked the chefs. “As little as possible,” was the unvarying answer. Seems odd for a fruit so versatile it provides the basis for things as varied as ketchup, marinara sauce and the BLT. But these chefs were not talking about standard red cooking tomatoes. Instead, they were talking about the beautiful and exotic heirloom varieties that often appear at farmers’ markets, varieties with evocative names like Mortgage Lifter, Black From Tula, Granny Cantrell and Mule Team. The difference is immediately visible. Red is an oddity in the heirloom tomato world. You’ll see pink tomatoes, purple tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, even tomatoes with red, orange and yellow stripes. Shapes are different, too. Japanese Black Trifele and Red Piriform were two favorites at Bowood Farms last summer; both have blocky, pear-shaped fruits. The Oxheart varieties, like Cuor di Bue and Pink Oxheart, are shaped like Japanese plums. Other varieties have extensive fluting and ribbing, like that of pumpkins. But the wide range of flavors is the real reason chefs and gardeners covet heirloom tomatoes. According to David Guempel, former chef at Café Osage in the Central West End, “Varieties used for cooking have been bred to have a certain acid flavor, hold up well to canning and retain their taste. Heirloom varieties are different.” Each one has an individual flavor profile, often related to color. For example, dark varieties tend to be rich, with hints of chocolate and mushroom. White and orange tomatoes have fruity and floral notes. Green and yellow sorts tend to have citrusy tastes. With such a variety of flavor profiles, you’ll want to savor these tomatoes individually, without any of what Guempel called “flavor-covering products” – the strong tastes of cheese, meat and herbs that we often associate with tomato preparations. Instead, serve them as you would a fine wine: alone or with a companion that brings out the tomato’s flavor. Getting that flavor begins in the garden. “The No. 1 factor affecting a tomato’s intensity of flavor is the amount of water … the plant receives immediately before harvest,” said Edward Behr, proprietor of The Art of Eating, an independent culinary periodical based in Vermont. “Water absorbed by the plant will dilute the sugars within the fruit.” The proportion of foliage to fruit also contributes to a tomato’s flavor. “The more leaf area there is to fruit, the better flavor those fruits will have,” Behr said. He suggested that growers plant indeterminate varieties, those whose vines keep lengthening throughout the summer, for the best flavor. Ripening time is also a huge factor: The longer a tomato spends on the vine, the more flavor it develops. Brandywine, one of the figurehead varieties of the heirloom tomato movement, has both of these characteristics – a high leaf-to-fruit ratio and a very long ripening time. Tim Grandinetti of Clarksville Station Restaurant at Overlook Farm in Clarksville admires this one for its large fruits, which often weigh more than a pound. The plant is notoriously stingy: One of the large, rambling vines may produce only a half-dozen tomatoes all summer, an extravagant use of space for farmers. “It’s slow to mature, but wow-wow worth it,” Grandinetti said. Apparently so: His growers have planted more than 250 Brandywine plants Overlook Farm. Arkansas Traveler, another of Grandinetti’s favorite varieties, is known for its vigorous growth. Vines can reach over 6 feet high. This vigorous growth signals the presence of really tasty tomatoes. “The fruits aren’t as large as the Brandywines,” Grandinetti said, “but they’re still good half-pound tomatoes.” But what about the flavor? “Arkansas Traveler has a good sweet-tart balance,” Grandinetti said. “Its flavor is rich and genuine.” He suggested using Arkansas Traveler in a tartlet of fresh chèvre and slices of tomato in a savory crust. These two varieties will provide a nice foundation for any tomato planting. For a little more exoticism, try Missouri Love Apple, a pink-fleshed German heirloom with green-mottled skin. “You would cut into it, and the flesh would be bright pink, like the color of veal,” said Guempel. “It had a really nice deep, rich flavor.” Richness was an attribute often remarked on in these heirlooms – they have a depth of flavor you won’t find in supermarket tomatoes. For something completely different, try a white tomato. “These were a learning experience,” Guempel said. “If we picked them while they were completely white, they weren’t ripe.” Guempel’s crew learned to wait until faint yellow stripes appeared on the outside. Then, the tomatoes’ flesh would be sort of a pale pinky-yellow. “They had a cantaloupe-honeydew flavor unlike any other tomato we grew; they were actually sweet,” Guempel said At the other end of the flavor scale is Green Zebra, an oddball striped green variety that is a favorite of Jennifer Pensoneau, proprietor of JFires Market Bistro in Waterloo. “They’re really nice, not as sweet, with a balancing acidity,” she explained. She appreciates the small fruits’ firm texture and smooth skin. For a tomato that packs a great deal of sweetness into a tiny package, try Sungold. “They taste like they’ve been dipped in sugar,” said Chris Bork of The Mud House in South City. He drizzles them with olive oil, red wine vinegar, some anchovy and a little bit of chopped herb. “It doesn’t have to be basil; I liked using lemon verbena last summer for a light lemon flavor,” Bork said. “The best thing about these tomatoes is that you don’t have to do much to them,” Bork said. Sounds like what most of us are looking for – a perfect ingredient, ready to be eaten in the simplest manner possible. As Guempel said, “What more can you ask for?”