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August is Heirloom Tomato Time

By James Parker, August 2, 2011  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by James Parker

Tomatoes are complicated. The confusion sets in with the question, “are they fruit or vegetable?” They are legally defined as fruit in the agriculture industry but that doesn’t jive with the multitude of ways I use them. Then there is greenhouse versus field production, gas green verses vine ripened, north verses south, local verses long haul, and on and on…. For me, the only thing that’s simple about tomatoes is when they’re at their best – in my part of the world that’s August; and the shining jewels in my August tomato crown are heirlooms. My own attempts at growing full-sized tomatoes of any kind are pretty pathetic. I can get great plant growth and I always have fun building elaboate plant supports out of bamboo, but getting good fruit (vegetables?) from my labor is a challenge. Field tomatoes, particularly large heirloom varieties like Brandywine and Marvel Stripe, need long periods of hot weather to grow and mature and it just doesn’t get hot enough where I live in California. The fruit that come off my vines tend to be small with poor texture. Tomatoes can also react badly to big swings between daytime and nightime temperatures; hot days and warm nights are ideal. But tomatoes have a remarkably resiliant and diverse variety base so I am certain that someday I will find a tomato variety sutiable to my climate. Since I can’t grow heirlooms, I have to buy them and where I live there are plenty to choose from, starting in the late spring with greenhouse production, later under hoops (plastic sheets that hold in the heat), followed by field production during mid- to late summer. Heirloom varieties all have slightly different characteristics but there are some simple selection tips you can follow. Heirlooms should be somewhat firm to the touch. This is more important with the larger varieties but if you buy a soft heirloom of any size, chances are it’s overripe. You should avoid tomatoes with open splits and cracks. A tomato with a large surface area where the stem was attached will likely have a hard area inside that is unusable. You should also buy only what you intend to use over a few days. Most heirloom varieties ripen quickly and do not keep as long as regular tomatoes. Here in California there are several excellent large and small heirloom growers. In the north there are the Barnes brothers growing heirlooms in the Capay Valley and Jim and Deborah Durst near Esparto, California. The Central Valley has Ginger Balakian, Brad Johnson, and Hans Wilgenburg. Further south Chris Caldwell works his central coast fields near Buellton and Bill Brammer farms near San Diego. All of these folks (and the dozens of smaller growers that provide product directly to our stores) share a common passion for great tomatoes, as well as patience for the quirks that come with producing heirloom varieties. The popularity of commercial production heirlooms out west and the difficultly involved in shipping these tomatoes long distance has led to an increase in east coast production as well, most notably Hepworth Farms of Milton, New York, where Amy and Gail Hepworth and Gerry Greco farm dozens of varieties in the rich soil of the Hudson River Valley. Timing for field production in tomatoes matches up well with an overall decline in salad leaf production due to higher temperatures, so I generally shift to tomatoes as a base for my summer salads replacing lettuce. My perennial favorite is a mixed heirloom salad with some crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, roasted pecans, and some basil (topped with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar) but my salads will evolve over the summer. Another favorite is a Brandywine sandwich – a thick slice of tomato between my favorite bread of the moment (and some cucumber slices, cheese, and whatever else happens to be in my fridge). My relationship with tomatoes is complicated too. It changes with the seasons and there are times when I won’t go near them. But August is heirloom time and every year I look forward to the mild acidity and sweet flavor of the Cherokee Purple, the beautiful yellow and red blush of the Marvel Stripe, and the wonderful texture and rich flavor of my personal favorite — the Brandywine. I’m always looking for new recipes or varieties to try, so share your favorites in the comments below — this is one vegetable (fruit!) I can’t get enough of in August.

Category: Produce




David Shepherd says ...
I love heirloom tomatoes. I enjoy the variations and varieties as much as the heirloom history behind each. I try to introduce at least a couple new heirlooms each year as well as building off my list of favorites. I even put out an article with a bit of a different/techie approach to some of my growing problems etc. http://wp.me/p1rE6R-cI Our growing season is quite a bit slower up in the Pacific North West, also we have had milder weather than normal. Most of our fruit is still green ;-( None the less, we look forward to a great harvest and great recipes!!!
08/05/2011 11:22:03 AM CDT
Rachel Stone says ...
My family grew some delicious heirloom tomatoes this year, with seeds from Baker Creek. We've eaten tons & tons fresh, but since we've got so many, I developed a really simple Thai-inspired eggplant-tomato curry (with a little organic beef) that features cherry tomatoes (in our case, old world Riesentraube tomatoes) added at the last moment, so that they retain all that's lovely about a fresh tomato. As it happens, I posted this on my blog today; check it out at http://eatwithjoy.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/sunday-recipe-summer-thai-curry/. Growing your own=the recession-friendly option! Otherwise, I think we'd have only the stuff from cans.
08/07/2011 9:06:57 AM CDT
Sam says ...
To Dawn, Thanks for the great information. I've heard that that is the case with the yellows. However, I haven't heard too much about the rainbows before......interesting. Anyways, I will have to give it a try, I have been suffering from stomach problems for months and can no longer eat some of my favorite foods with tomato sauce so I am hoping to figure out a low-acid tomato sauce recipe. Thanks again.
08/06/2011 4:37:33 PM CDT
Nicole says ...
I have always wanted to try a spin on the Caprese Salad with Heirloom tomatoes. I am still working on variations for it, too. I write down any good ideas I have involving tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. My current one involves adding Proscuitto San Danielle/Di Parma to the mix. :-)
08/03/2011 11:19:42 AM CDT
Pat says ...
I always have trouble getting adequate fresh produce into my daily diet but I could eat heirlooms all day and night, they are simply my favorite food right now. So juicy and delicious!
08/03/2011 1:10:32 PM CDT
Sam says ...
Does anybody know of low-acid tomatoes, or anything that won't upset that stomach of someone who can't eat a normal tomato? Please let me know if you know of anything. Thank you all so very much.
08/05/2011 3:29:35 AM CDT
Dawn says ...
Addressing the low-acid tomato question - generally speaking, white, and Yellow/gold tomatoes tend to have lower acid levels than red tomatoes. They come as standard sized, plum, and grape tomato sizes. Check your local farmer's market. If the heirlooms are labeled, the red/yellow mottled varieties "Rainbow" and "Pinapple" tomatoes are considered low-acid. Growing conditions will affect sugar content and perceived acid - higher sugar = lower perceived acid - so all you can do is try some and see how they work out for you.
08/05/2011 4:22:35 PM CDT
Steph says ...
I live in San Diego and have had great luck with Green Zebras (my personal favorite type) and Roman Candles. The Green Zebras aren't quite ready yet, but I have at least 10 on my plant with more on the way. They have a nice tangy flavor with firm flesh. I've never had the Roman Candle, but I've heard they are tangy as well. I love heirloom tomato season!
08/02/2011 9:45:44 AM CDT
joanne Wild says ...
I am minding a neighbour's Purple Heirloom Tomatoes on the Vine. They don't ripen in the sun when picked. Very hard tomatoes. Any suggestions for Recipes?
04/20/2015 1:29:40 AM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@JOANNE - This reminds me of a similar texture of green tomatoes so you might want to try a recipe like this: http://food52.com/recipes/13612-fried-green-tomatoes-with-panko-and-parmesan
04/21/2015 10:35:06 AM CDT