Cooking With Heirloom Tomatoes

Reader Contribution by Sheryl Campbell
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Bountiful heirloom tomatoes, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Tomatoes are the reason I started gardening. All summer you can find me in the garden, luscious fruit in hand and tomato juice dripping from my chin. This is where you need to start before learning to cook with heirloom tomatoes. Heirlooms have been around for years and were bred and kept because of their incredible flavors. Taste them. Get out in your garden or find a festival that offers a tomato tasting event. You’ll want to use different varieties in different recipes but you’ve got to get them on your tongue to know this.

Heirloom tomatoes can taste sweet, tart, spicy, smoky, or even have a hint of citrus flavor. Some of them have a strong old-fashioned tomato flavor perfect for marinara sauce, while others cry out for other uses. Make some recipes with single varieties, and create your own seasonal tomato blend of varieties for soup and bruschetta.

Heirlooms for great taste and amazing variety, photo by Sheryl Campbell

The things we’ve decided are important to our family include:

  • Taste, taste, taste! We like most of our tomatoes to strike a balance of sweetness and acidity, and to have complex flavor profiles.  We love the smokiness of black tomatoes, and the surprise of citrus undertones in some of the bi-color or yellow tomatoes.
  • A variety of colors and flavors in small cherry and grape tomatoes to roast for using in Roasted Tomato Goat Cheese Penne
  • A steady variety of tomatoes ripening together so that our Tomato Basil soup is a complex and tasteful work of art impossible to duplicate from batch to batch.

What Do Our Tomatoes Taste Like?

  • Amish Paste is a large, meaty, full flavored tomato good for sauce or paste
  • Opalka is rich flavored, sweet and slightly smoky, great for roasting or sauces
  • Cour di Bui, with its true tomato taste, is a meaty pink tomato great for dehydrating

Salad tomatoes are small at 2-4 ounces and tend to produce early giving me that first “fix” of the season eaten out of hand or on salads.  Our two favorite are:

  • Juane Flamme, a beautiful orange jewel that is sweet and fruity
  • Green Zebra which is sweet yet zingy with green-on-green stripes

Our favorite early season tomatoes include:

  • Cherokee Chocolate, a more stable selection of Cherokee Purple with a complex flavor
  • Pink Berkeley Tie Dye tastes sweet and spicy – it’s the tomato that caused my addiction!
  • Rebekah Allen has a nice sweet/tart balance and is our earliest producer.

My huge beefsteak tomatoes are in full swing by mid-summer, cranking out an abundance of color and flavor that combine into the most interesting meals imaginable:

  • African Queen with a robust tomato flavor is sized perfectly for enormous sandwiches
  • Red Rose has a milder, sweeter flavor which caramelizes nicely on tarts
  • Carbon has a deep, smoky taste delicious for pies and tomato jam
  • Hawaiian Pineapple is fruity with citrus overtones pairs up with Carbon in pies
  • Green Giant is a true green with tropical citrus flavors perfect in Bruschetta
  • Lillian’s Yellow is perfect in Cucumber/Tomato Sandwiches with its citrus overtones

Our grape, pear, and cherry miniature tomatoes have the same wide range of flavors and colors. They include Sunrise Bumblebee, Grape Doctors, Black Cherry, Sungold, Cherry Roma, Sugar Cherry, and Napa Chardonnay.

Cherry, grape, and mini tomatoes for roasting, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Let’s Start Cooking!

I love to cook – particularly with tomatoes. I love to eat – particularly tomatoes! So my collection of tomato recipes, found or created, grows larger every year.  Here are a few of my family’s favorite tomato recipes.

Roasted Tomato Goat Cheese Penne

This is one of our favorite summer meals. It takes two hours to roast the small tomatoes at 200 degrees, so I make up pounds of them and store them in the freezer in correct amounts for this recipe so I can make it in a few minutes on hot summer evenings. Add roasted chicken to it to make it a complete meal.

  • 1 pound penne pasta
  • 1 quart vegetable broth
  • 3 quarts water
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 6-8 ounces herbed goat cheese
  • 1 large bunch fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 cups roasted cherry or grape tomatoes (multiple colors and flavors)
  • 1/2 cup reserved cooking liquid
  • 1 tsp. good olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot bring the water, broth, and salt to a boil.  Cook the pasta in the liquid and then reserve ½ cup of the cooking liquid.  Then drain the pasta and return it to the pot.  Add reserved liquid, goat cheese, tomatoes, basil, olive oil, salt and pepper.  Toss well and serve immediately.

Roasted Tomato Goat Cheese Penne, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Rainbow Bruschetta

I could eat this straight out of the bowl!

  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes (variety of colors and bold flavors)
  • ½ cup chopped fresh basil
  • ¼ cup Greek or Spanish olive oil (it is milder than Italian)
  • 3 T. good balsamic vinegar
  • ¾ tsp. salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 dashes of course ground black pepper

Mix everything well in a bowl and refrigerate overnight so that flavors blend. Serve on thinly sliced, toasted baguette. 

Tomato Tart

  • 1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
  • 2 T. olive oil, divided
  • 1 cup whole milk ricotta, drained
  • 4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
  • ¾ tsp. Kosher salt, divided
  • ¼ tsp. black pepper
  • 1 pound Juanne Flamme and Green Zebra salad tomatoes, cut in ½ inch slices

On a floured surface, roll out pastry into a 10×15 inch rectangle; transfer to parchment lined baking sheet.  Score a border 1 inch from edge all around. With a fork, prick dough inside the border. Brush center with 1 T. oil.

In a bowl, stir together ricotta, goat cheese, eggs, basil, ½ tsp. salt, and pepper. Spread over center of pastry. Top with overlapping tomatoes. Sprinkle with remaining salt and 1 T. oil. Bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes.

Tomato Jam

We use this on pizza along with goat cheese, on grilled cheese sandwiches, and on appetizers.

  • 5 pounds smoky flavored dark tomatoes like Carbon
  • 3 ½ cups sugar
  • ½ cup bottled lime juice
  • 2 tsp. fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 T. sea salt
  • 1 T. hot red pepper flakes

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive pan. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low. Simmer, stirring regularly for several hours until it reduces to a sticky, jammy mess. It burns easily near the end. When done it will be glossy and not runny. Put in jars and store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth GardenerandGrit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts here.


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