From Too Many Chefs -

August 31, 2006
Heirloom Caprese

I've thought about it, and if I ever find myself in a situation where I'm offered a last meal (probably in food jail as a result of beating a vapid tv chef to death with a day-old baguette), I think a salad caprese made with fresh mozarella, good olive oil, fresh basil, and heirloom tomatoes will be my choice.

I emphasize heirloom tomatoes because unless you're growing tomatoes in your back yard, you're just not likely to find tomatoes that smell and taste like tomatoes. Because of the rigors of shipping, most tomatoes are picked while still hard, green, and relatively flavorless. The tomatoes are stored in a warehouse and treated with a gas that makes them turn red, but that doesn't really ripen them the way they would ripen on the vine.

Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, tend to come from local farms. And I don't mean local the way some places define it - within a day's drive. By that sleight of hand, supermarkets in DC/Maryland claim Florida produce as "local" even though it comes from 800 miles and a couple of climatic zones away. I mean local as in down the street, up the road, no more than a few miles on your odometer away.

They have to come from a local producer because heirloom tomatoes aren't engineered for travel. The skinson heirloom tomatoes tend to be thinner, they tend to bruise more easily, and unlike the hyper-engineered beautiful red smooth beefsteaks you see so often in the market, they often are kinda ugly, maybe lopsided with splits, streaks of black, or even wormholes. What they lack in beauty, however, they more than make up for in taste.

I selected about 5 pounds of various heirloom tomatoes from Dave's Natural Market in Columbia Maryland. All the tomatoes come from within 15 miles or so from the store, and at $2.89/pound, they aren't cheap. My nearly $20 worth of tomatoes have reminded me just how good this schizophrenic fruit/vegetable can be.

I don't know the names of any of the varietites I found, though I thnk there were a few green zebras in there, but I discovered a variety of flavors. Some were deep, rich, and complex like a tomato version of balsamic vinegar. Those I used for the caprese above. Some were sharp and sour, and some of the yellow tomatoes were a tangy sweet mix of flavors. You have to try them to learn which heirlooms are right for different applications.

These dark red beauties above were a bit larger than the average beefsteak tomato, and more crinkly at the top. That makes for slightly more complicated cutting, but leads to a caprese salad you can be proud of.

The basic recipe for a salad caprese is two tomatoes, one 8 oz ball of fresh mozarella, 5-15 fresh basil leaves - chopped if large, just laid carefully on the plate if small, and a drizzle of your best olive oil. I add a high pinch of salt. By that, I mean I hold my hand way up over the plate and let a small pich of salt fall from my fingers as I wave my hand above the plate to distribute it evenly.

Check your markets for heirlooms and start with this simple recipe. You might be surprised by how much flavor you're missing out on.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at August 31, 2006 8:00 AM

Last night I made a Locavore Heirloom Tomato sandwich that was outrageously good. From bottom to top:

1. Whole wheat pita, brushed with olive oil and toasted as the bun bottom
2. Two thick slices of sauteed tomato, salt and pepper each side and top with bread or cracker crumbs about 7-8 minutes in to the saute
3. Sauteed onion, peppers, garlic, parsley, and basil
4. Mesclun mix, with balsamic vinegar splash
5. Top slice of toasted pita
6. Garnish with sprouts (in this case, micro radish greens)

The tomatoes were so good. So, so good.

All of the produce came from our CSA, and the pita was baked at our local store, so the only things that traveled were the olive oil (Turkey) and the vinegar. (California)

Posted by Kuz on August 31, 2006 at 11:27 AM

if you end up with any preferences for particular varieties, please do share them. we've had such success with our tomatoes in the yard this year (i just picked 50 on tuesday) that i'm going to go for some heirlooms next year...

Posted by paul on August 31, 2006 at 1:37 PM

Paul, I wish I could identify the varietals. The store we go to that has such great heirloom tomatoes doesn't know which they are, they just buy them from the local farmers and sell them all for one price.

Maybe I'll look at a Burpee catalog and see if I can figure out some likely candidates.

Posted by barrett on August 31, 2006 at 1:56 PM