Wild and varied heirloom tomatoes on display at the Silas Marder Gallery in Bridgehampton
(8/12/2008) When Amy Goldman, a farmer and the author of “The Heirloom Tomato,” is asked where is the best place to grow tomatoes, she points straight down to the ground. “Right here,” she insists. “They are highly adaptable. There are just three important things to remember to successfully grow tomatoes. Full sun, space them widely, and stake or cage them. If you grow plants with the best practices, you are less likely to have pests and diseases.” (Wide spacing means a full five feet apart, allowing seven feet between rows.)
In the less than two centuries since they were embraced as edible, tomatoes have become almost as ubiquitous in the kitchens of the world as corn, beans, squash, or potatoes. There are thousands of varieties, colors, and flavors to the “fruit” (as school kids like to remind you) called Solanum lycopersicum. “Astonishingly vigorous,” as the tomato is enthusiastically described in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” it is also highly marriageable to such mates as basil, garlic, onion, thyme, oregano, peppers, cheese, even some fish and meats.
Commercially cultivated varieties are bred mostly for sauces, ketchup, and soups. They are picked green, then sprayed (when desired) with ethylene gas to hasten ripening. Sounds tasty, huh? As most of us out here know, any tomato that has ripened on the vine is far superior to the gassed supermarket varieties. And, luckily, there are many, many types of heirloom tomatoes, ranging from green and yellow to orange, brown, purple, white, pink, mottled, and striped. They grow as tiny as currants, sweet as candy, to the big ribbed four-pound “mortgage lifters” which originated in central Appalachia. The names are alternately whimsical, descriptive, romantic, and practical: Amish Paste, Banana Legs, Cream Sausage, Japanese Oxheart, Purple Smudge, Golden Bison, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, Schimmeig Striped Cavern, Wild Sweetie, and just plain Ugly.
The earliest known printed tomato recipe appears in a Neapolitan book by Antonio Latini published in 1692. It describes a tomato sauce (“Spanish Style”) that sounds as delicious and contemporary as those we know today. It calls for adding finely chopped parsley, onion, and garlic — with salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar — to the finely chopped flesh of previously seared and peeled tomatoes.
According to Andrew Smith’s “The Tomato in America,” the tomato probably originated in the highlands of the west coast of South America, then migrated to Central America. The Pueblo believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds would be blessed with powers of divination. Early references to tomatoes in North America occurred around 1710 when the herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in what is now South Carolina, perhaps having been introduced from the Caribbean. In the 1830s a Dr. John Cook Bennett claimed that tomatoes could cure everything from diarrhea to dyspepsia to cholera. His theory was mostly mocked heartily, but tomato consumption (along with sales of tomato pills!) in America increased tremendously as a result of his proselytizing in the 1830s and ‘40s. By the late nineteenth century, tomatoes waned again in popularity due to the belief among religious zealots that the pomme d’amour could conceivably be — gasp! — an aphrodisiac.
Amy Goldman is not only an expert on growing heirloom fruits and vegetables. As chair of Seedsavers Exchange, a living-history museum based in Decorah, Iowa, her goal is to collect, conserve, preserve, and share heirloom garden plants and seeds. Her parents, Sol and Lillian Goldman, ran Goldman’s Italian-American Grocery in Brooklyn and encouraged her youthful interest in an abandoned greenhouse on the back of their property on the North Shore. She began growing tomatoes there, and later at the family’s home in East Hampton (now shared by her sisters, Jane and Diane), and now also upstate, on a 200-acre farm in Rhinebeck.
Ms. Goldman is a passionate advocate for biodiversity and Third World agro-independence. And, she jokes, when it comes to her family she is like a one-woman community-supported agriculture organization.
“When someone couldn’t pay my dad for groceries, he would just deliver a bag of food to them. For me, there is nothing better than a gift basket of heirloom tomatoes for my friends and family.”
Nothing cultivates a bit of happiness like a backyard tomato.
Asked to name her five favorite varieties, she had trouble narrowing the list down. Red Brandywine, Alberto Shatters, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Black Krim, Delicious, Big Rainbow, and Orange Banana were among them. Many of these can be found locally or can be easily grown from seed next year. Sang Lee Farms, East End Community Organic Farm, Quail Hill, Pike’s, and many other farm stands and markets are growing some of these unique, colorful, and completely different kinds of tomatoes.
Whether you buy them, grow them, or just get a gift from a friend’s garden, enjoy these pommes d’amour. They are more beautiful, more delicious, and more nutritious than any of the supermarket specimens we have unfortunately gotten used to. As Jeff McCormack,the seedman and pollination expert, says about growing heirloom tomatoes: “The world is a large garden, and there is room enough for everybody to cultivate a piece of happiness.”
Spaghetti With Cherry Tomatoes and Toasted Crumbs
Here is Amy Goldman’s all-time favorite tomato recipe from her new book, “The Heirloom Tomato.” It is divine and simple as can be.
1 loaf rustic bread
1/2 cup pure olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Cherry Tomato Salad:
1 pint Sherry Shallot Vinaigrette (recipe to follow)
2 pints cherry and currant tomatoes, mixed
1 gallon water
1/4 cup salt
2 lbs. spaghetti
3 green basil sprigs
3 purple basil sprigs
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove crust from bread and cut into large dice. Pulse in food processor until pieces are small. In large bowl toss with olive oil and salt and pepper, then bake on cookie sheet until browned.
Combine sliced cherry and currant tomatoes with sherry vinaigrette and let rest for an hour.
Cook pasta in water until al dente; drain.
Chiffonade the basil leaves.
In large bowl toss pasta with tomato salad.
Plate the pasta and garnish with basil, Parmesan, and toasted crumbs. Serve immediately to keep crumbs crisp.
Sherry Shallot Vinaigrette
2 shallots, cut into fine dice
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Salt to taste
1 cup pure olive oil
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
In medium bowl, soak shallots in vinegars for 30 minutes.
Whisk in the oils, taste for seasoning. Will keep up to five days refrigerated.
Fried Green Tomato Slices
There are healthier versions of fried green tomatoes, but this is the classic Southern recipe and none tastes better.
Allow 2- 3 slices per person.
Green tomato slices, fairly thick, about 1/2 to 3/4-inch thick
Cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper
Enough bacon fat to grease your well seasoned cast iron skillet
Heat pan to medium-high heat. Dredge tomato slices in seasoned cornmeal. Fry in bacon grease until lightly browned and crispy, about four to five minutes per side. Drain on paper towel and serve immediately.
Thai Tomato Cocktail
Here is another of Amy Goldman’s favorite recipes. Try this as a creative change from good ole Bloody Marys.
4 lbs. tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
4 strips lime zest
3 Tbsp. husked and finely chopped lemongrass
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
2 tsp. fish sauce
2 Tbsp. peeled and finely grated ginger
1/2 Thai hot chili
1 Tbsp. coarsely chopped Thai basil
1 garlic clove, crushed
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Vodka to taste
8 stalks lemongrass, peeled
In a mixer fitted with a paddle, combine the tomatoes, salt, and sugar. Crush the tomatoes. Let sit in large nonreactive bowl for two hours.
Blanch lime zest in boiling water, until tender, about five minutes. In blender combine lime zest with lemongrass, lime juice, fish sauce, ginger, chili, and garlic and purée until smooth and almost liquid. Season with black pepper and add to the macerating tomatoes.
Pass mixture through a sieve, taste to adjust seasoning, then refrigerate until serving time. Serve over ice, with vodka if desired, garnished with lemongrass stalks.