It's officially peak summer, which means our reward for putting up with the heat is farmer's markets, grocery stores, and home gardens overflowing with some of our favorite foods: watermelon, zucchini, peaches, and of course, tomatoes.
You can get tomatoes all year round, but there is something about a truly fresh, vine-ripened midsummer's tomato that doesn't compare. Depending on where we're shopping, we also see so-called heirloom tomatoes. At first glance, they look, physically, completely different from regular red, perfectly round tomatoes, but the true value of heirloom varieties goes much deeper than that.
Just like the name implies heirloom varieties are old. Like many food words, there is no strict definition or certification, but heirloom produce is generally understood to come from seeds whose roots go back at least 50 years — and sometimes much longer. Heirloom produce can't be hybrids, meaning plants that were cross-pollinated. Instead they need to come from a long line of stable seeds. It's like the difference between getting a puggle whose parents were both puggles versus one whose parents were a beagle and a pug.
Strict definitions aside, however, there's a reason people love heirloom tomatoes so much. Commercially-produced tomatoes have gotten blander and even less sweet in the past decades. Heirloom varietals often offer a more complex and unique flavor profile.
Gabriella Mann, chef and owner of Brooklyn's Baba Cool explains that the flavor is exactly why she loves them so much. "I remember the first time I bought one in the Farmer's Market in Madison, Wisconsin. It was $13 and had a bit of an indigo tint, and I just thought it was absolutely beautiful," she says. Since then, she say she "honestly" hasn't had one she doesn't like. Instead, she is guided by things like color and size when choosing. For example, as beautiful as they are, green zebra tomatoes might get lost in a bed of greens.
Her other piece of advice is to think of them differently than regular tomatoes. Since they are often more complex (not to mention pricier), she prefers eating them raw or simply prepared. "I think they serve a different purpose than other tomatoes. If I'm making a simple tomato sauce, I'm generally using plum tomatoes. If I just want something that's purely delicious on its own, I love to bite down into an heirloom tomato."
If you're not already salivating, try making one of Mann's favorite easy preparations. Serve them sliced with fresh mozzarella or with grilled scamorza (an Italian cheese similar to mozzarella but chewier in texture), and a bed of arugula or basil.