Make a tomato upgrade

Heirloom tomatoes offer endless varieties of colors, shapes, sizes and flavors.

Published in FSD Update

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

uc-santa-cruz-panzanella-salad

UC Santa Cruz’s panzanella salad.

With their variety of shapes, colors and tastes, heirloom tomatoes have become highly coveted by non-commercial chefs—when they can get them. Though availability can be an issue, when heirloom tomatoes are in stock, operators have found many ways to take advantage. Scott Spiker, executive chef at The Erickson Alumni Center at West Virginia University, in Morgantown, says his department substitutes heirlooms for traditional tomatoes whenever and wherever they can, but finds that heirlooms do best in dishes that allow their flavor to shine through.

“I do a roasted heirloom tomato soup, which is a chilled soup similar to a gazpacho,” Spiker says. “We fire roast the tomatoes to color the skin and then pop them in the oven. Then we chill them, remove the seeds and purée them. Then we add some shallots, a tomato-based broth and puréed homestyle bread as a thickener. It’s a really nice summery soup.”

Spiker favors Brandywine tomatoes because they remind him of the ones his grandparents grew in their garden. He’s used the variety in a traditional BLT, which he’ll amp up with fresh basil and a fried egg for a little extra flavor. The tomatoes also work in fresh tomato stacks, a simple dish of grill-marked heirloom tomatoes stacked with fresh mozzarella.

Tomato variety

One way to combat heirloom tomato availability is to grow your own. Kevin Klingensmith, executive chef for Parkhurst Dining at Reed Smith, in Pittsburgh, has planted six or seven types of heirloom tomatoes on the operation’s rooftop garden.

“We planted some Sun Sugars, Brandywine and Cherokee Purple heirlooms,” Klingensmith says. “We plan to use them in sauces and on our salad bars as much as we can. Those varieties should give us a bunch of different shapes, sizes and colors. Some are sweeter and some just have a great general tomato flavor. Some, like the Brandywine, are better for the grill and for sandwiches. I think the key with heirloom tomatoes is to remember you are using them for a reason. You shouldn’t try and hide them. Let them stand out.”

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