The summer growing season is the best season in the Northwest. We are overrun with a plethora of foods that will satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. It is a time of year to take advantage of the foods available from our own backyard—right here in the Northwest.

All year long we eat the foods that we are used to eating, not because they are in season, but because they are what we are used to. But this puts us in the position of eating foods that are not necessarily the most flavorful. A good example are tomatoes.

During the off season for Northwest tomatoes we are able to get tomatoes from California and Mexico. But with the distance traveled and the need to pick greener, these tomatoes just can’t compare to a freshly picked local tomato. Late summer we are not only able to get good tomatoes, we are able to get amazing tomatoes grown right here in our backyards. And the heirloom tomatoes are the ones that really take the spotlight this time of year.

An Heirloom variety is a type of vegetable seed that has been cultivated and saved for over 40 – 50 years by farmers who make it their goal to preserve old varieties that have been long forgotten by the majority of the food industry. In order for these heirloom varieties of vegetable seeds to be saved, they must be open pollinated. When the seeds are of an open pollinated variety, they are capable of producing seedlings that are identical to the parent plants. Not all plants can do this.

The flip side of the coin are the hybrid vegetables. These are the result of a plant breeder who has selected two varieties of a vegetable that are compatible and cross-bred them through crosspollination to create a new variety that features traits of both the parent plants. Generally this is done to produce plants that are more resistant to disease or blights. Hybrid varieties produce seeds that are most often sterile. If the seeds germinate at all, they produce a plant that will display the traits of only one of the parent plants.

Hybrid varieties should not be confused with genetically modified organisms or GMOs. GMOs are any plant, animal or microorganism that has been altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning or protein engineering.

Each variety of heirloom tomato brings its own unique qualities to the table. Heirlooms have a wide range of colors, intense flavors, and unique shapes.

One of the most common heirloom tomatoes is the Brandywine. This tomato is one of the larger varieties, with an excellent flavor that is not too sweet and not too acidic. It is a very good tomato to eat fresh. Brandywines start out pink and slowly turn red. When fully ripe they have a purple color to their skin and flesh. Brandywines are named after Brandywine Creek in Chester County, PA. The Marvel Stripe is a large beefsteak tomato that originated in Oaxaca, Mexico. It is a great all-purpose eating tomato that is excellent when eaten raw. Marvel Stripe is a red and yellow bi-colored tomato that has a sweet and fruity flavor. The Cherokee Purple is another large beefsteak tomato that hails from Tennessee. It has a purplish to pink color to it, is relatively uniform in shape, and very juicy and very sweet.

These are just some of the more common heirloom tomato varieties that we see come through the store. There are more varieties out there than I am able to write about. Some seed companies will offer over 600 hundred varieties of seed. We will start to see diminishing quantities of local heirloom tomatoes as the weather gets colder and the rain starts to make its presence known. Take advantage of the heirloom tomato season while it lasts.

Recipe: Heirloom Summer Salad

Slice tomatoes into one-quarter inch slices. Layer basil leaves one on top of another and slice them into thin long strands. Slice English cucumber into ½ inch slices. Slice mozzarella into thin slices. Layer tomatoes, basil, cheese and cucumbers on a platter and drizzle olive oil and vinegar over the dish. Add salt and pepper to taste. Or if you wish you can also lightly toss all ingredients together with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.
Photo by: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML