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.
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.”
At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Executive Chef Dwight Collins says his department is lucky to be close to the world’s largest hydroponic farm, which keeps him stocked with heirloom tomatoes. The department hopes to have them year-round, but for now the team takes great care to showcase the tomatoes when they do have them available.
“The ideal goal would be to incorporate the heirloom tomatoes into a dish that shows off their looks and flavor,” Collins says. “I think they work well in our panzanella salads, which feature large chunks of tomato and cucumber and large chunks of day-old French bread with a red wine vinaigrette. We also do a bistro series of salads that feature a Greek salad and a caprese salad. They also go well on pizzas like our caprese pizza or flatbread. The flatbread is actually a puff pastry that we brush with a mustard glaze and then put Gruyere cheese on top and melt it.”
Other fun dishes Collins’ department has dished up with the heirloom tomatoes include a ratatouille-stuffed tomato, which featured eggplant, onion, mushrooms, zucchini and a little cheese, and a rustic heirloom tomato soup, which featured larger chunks of tomatoes with their skins, basil, a little cream, Parmesan cheese and onion.
“I like that one because we don’t purée it all the way smooth, so it’s a very colorful and chunky soup,” Collins says of the tomato soup. “We also do a great chicken and goat cheese quesadilla that features heirloom tomatoes. It’s stuffed with goat cheese, ricotta, corn, roasted red peppers, cilantro, diced chicken, heirloom tomatoes and avocado. I think handling the tomatoes as little as possible is key, but if they are tasting really good, it doesn’t matter what you do to them. They will make any dish you put them in taste that much better.”
Beyond putting them on salad bars, it’s often tough for schools to get creative with heirloom tomatoes. But Keith Haigh, foodservice director with NutriServe at Haddonfield Public Schools, in New Jersey, says there have been a few chances to have some fun with different heirloom varieties.
“The middle school and the high school are no longer in the school nutrition program, which allows us to be a little more creative with our dishes,” Haigh says.
One example was a salsa that was made featuring multicolored heirloom tomatoes, which were served with a soft taco made of battered rockfish and shredded lettuce. In addition to the tomatoes, the salsa included lime juice, red onion, a touch of garlic, sea salt and cracked black pepper. “You got the tartness of the lime juice, the sweetness of the tomatoes and the saltiness of the fish and it really just was incredible,” he adds.
Haigh also has used Brandywine tomatoes for grilled cheese sandwiches. “What I like about [the Brandywine] the most is that they have a tendency to contrast the food as opposed to overpowering them with the tomato flavor,” he says. “They have a higher density to them and a sweeter taste and so they go nice with a grilled cheese and tomato. We also do a roasted veggie sandwich with spinach, roasted red peppers, some heirlooms and red onion on a crusty seeded Italian bread, topped with provolone cheese. You can use it as a teaching moment to teach the kids that tomatoes come in all different colors.”