Red or yellow, small or large, striped or ribbed…we can’t get enough of summer’s bumper crop of delicious heirloom tomatoes. We turned to expert Amy Goldman, gardener extraordinaire and author of The Heirloom Tomato, to learn how to make the most of these summer gems. Read on to learn more about the history of heirlooms and Amy’s tips for planting, growing and eating these special tomatoes.
What inspired you to start growing tomatoes? Why tomatoes, over other
fruits or vegetables?
I’ve been growing tomatoes–the world’s most beautiful fruit–for over 40 years. This is no casual acquaintance. We’re talking true intimacy here, and I’m definitely biased towards the luscious, fleshy, savory, mouth-filling ones. Consider their looks alone: tomatoes come in an almost unbelievable array of colors, shapes and sizes. Red may be the norm, but vive la difference!
Let me start with some definitions: an heirloom tomato is a tomato of value that breeds from true seed and thus can be handed down to the next generation. Many are old-timers; some are of a more recent vintage. All of them are keepers, worth preserving. In contrast, modern F1 hybrids don’t come from true seed.
My years of experience as a gardener, coupled with lots of book learning, have taught me that heirlooms, ripened on the vine in full sun, are the most delicious tomatoes of all. Heirloom tomatoes have become the backbone of the home garden in America because they’re so good, and so versatile in cookery.
Flavor isn’t always the most important criteria for judging a tomato. Many heirlooms that I rate as “fair” or “poor” in flavor will grow where fine-flavored varieties will not. They’re tolerant to cold, drought and adversity; some tend to be highly productive and early ripening.
Tell us about an unusual or exciting variety you discovered.
Unusual: the “peach” tomatoes are a rare treat so fragile that they’re strictly garden-to-table. These should inspire everyone to become a home gardener. These velveteen tomatoes –covered with a delicate bloom like a peach – are plush on the outside, sweet and juicy on the inside. Raw or cooked, they’re tops in my taste tests, with a cool and refreshing “tomato lite” flavor. Varieties include: Pink Peach, Yellow Peach, Wapsipinicon Peach, Peach Blow Sutton.
Exciting: Tom Wagner-bred striped tomatoes like Green Zebra and Casady’s Folly are psychedelic – like a vegetable Jimi Hendrix poster. Inside, they’re fun and nourishing. It amazes me to think that Tom was only a ten-year-old kid when he began breeding Green Zebra, on the family farm in Kansas.
What are some of your best tips for beginner tomato gardeners?
There’s no single right way to grow tomatoes but I’d recommend the following:
- The greatest gift you can give your plants is a plot situated in full sun. First runner up is well-drained, fertile, crumbly, warm soil.
- Stake or cage your plants rather than letting them sprawl on the ground.
- Use wide spacing and, if you have ample room, allow three to five feet between plants in a row, and five to seven feet between rows.
- Mulching will also produce earlier and more abundant harvests.
- These techniques will increase air circulation and sun exposure, prevent disease and insect damage, and produce earlier and higher yields.
You grow a bounty of tomato plants — how do you like to preserve them?
I do lots of cooking, canning and preserving; seed saving; and sharing. What to do with the bounty is a matter of personal preference, but if you’re looking for ways and means, I’ve got lots of ideas for you in the recipe section of the book. Share the wealth with friends and family: a gift of sun-ripened heirlooms is not soon forgotten.
These categories are based on fruit size and shape:
Cherry and currant tomatoes are multipurpose: great for fresh eating, garnishes, oven roasting.
Ribbed: tomatoes such as Costoluto Genovese are made for making into sauces or purees.
Globe-shaped/slicers are multipurpose: fresh eating, salads, gazpacho; some, like Marglobe, are splendid for canning.
Beefsteak: fresh eating, served with a dash of extra-virgin olive oil, basil, salt; juicing; and tomato sandwiches.
Pear and plum: cooking and canning, sauces, soups, purees and oven roasting.
Are there any varieties you are personally partial to?
I have 200 favorites and they’re all in my book! Here are a few of my favorite favorites and I highly recommend them: Big Rainbow, Black Cherry, Flamme, Goldman’s Italian American, Red Brandywine, Sara’s Galapagos.
Tell us about the recipes in your book.
Tomatoes are tremendously versatile in cookery. You’ll find a range of recipes in my book, from hors d’oeuvres such as Spanish tomato bread to desserts such as roasted tomato crunch, Sicilian-style. If you use homegrown tomatoes rather than store-bought in any of these, your satisfaction quotient will go way up.
Are there any special flavors or ingredients you love to pair with tomatoes?
Tomatoes seem to have a natural affinity for garlic and olive oil. And even lousy tomatoes taste good when sprinkled with salt – or even sugar.
What heirloom tomato dish do you make most often in the summer?
Favorites include gazpacho, fattoush, spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and toasted bread crumbs. And it’s hard to beat slices of Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes, any which way: eating a thick, juicy Mortgage Lifter slab, marbled with white – like fat – is like having a last steak supper before you die and go to tomato heaven.
Have you ever met a tomato you didn’t like?
Over a five year period, I grew over a thousand varieties of tomato so that I could find the most delicious, beautiful, historic, unusual and worthy for my book. There were many I didn’t like. But with so many good tomatoes to choose from, we are all lucky to be living in such wonderful tomato times.