heirloom tomato salad

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Supermarket tomatoes. What do these two words mean to you? Ease of purchase, uniform redness, blemish-free shiny skins and all-year-round availability? Yes, these would be the positives. But hopefully it won’t be a surprise to you to find out that tomatoes aren’t supposed to be like this.

In their natural state, tomatoes are seasonal, perishable and… well, occasionally ugly. But as large supermarket chains and their practices have started to dominate the retail market, growers have started to conform to their requests for uniform, disease-resistant fruit that can be stored and sold all-year round. Yes, it sounds practical. Convenient, even. But it’s highly unnatural.

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So, in case you’re interested, to follow is a bit of a back story on how supermarket tomatoes have moved from A (being natural agriculture) to B (the tennis ball fruit in today’s supermarkets). Keep in mind that this is my abbreviated version of events, so if you’d like to read more take a look at my references below.

Here goes: about 70 years ago, small green grocers started folding up as large supermarket chains and their cost-cutting ability started to dominate the fresh food market. Supermarkets had the ability to import international produce or buy transported produce from across the country, rather than sourcing fresh stock from local independent farmers. Over time, consumers got used to produce being available almost all-year round, consequentially losing all concept of the natural ‘seasonal’ nature of fresh produce. Supermarkets moved to further meet this demand whilst also trying to minimise transport costs. This led to the practice of cold-storing bulk amounts of fresh produce for gradual sale according to market demand. knife

In its basic form, cold storage is a beneficial form of refrigeration that involves chilling fresh produce as soon as possible after harvest, preserving nutrients and preventing deterioration. However, most supermarkets go a few steps further. As far as I understand, most large supermarket chains buy fruit and vegetables before they’ve reached full ripeness (as mature-but-green fruits and vegetables are usually more resilient during transportation), chilling them as soon as possible after harvest, then storing them in a controlled-atmosphere area (with lower levels of oxygen and higher levels of carbon dioxide than normal air) to prohibit deterioration.

Some supermarkets also use a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP) to block the biochemical changes that occur as a fruit naturally ripens and matures. This extends the shelf life of the fruit even longer, but tests have shown that when the fruit eventually ‘ripens’, it has less flavour and often remains partially hard (yep, that’s why your last lot of supermarket nectarines tasted like crap). Oh, and just in case the above process isn’t enough, most units also spray the produce with some additional fungicide to prohibit the growth of mold. Ah, lovely.

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So, back to specifics: why do today’s supermarket tomatoes taste so terrible? It’s not just because they’re picked in an unripe state before being cold-stored for 4-5 calendar weeks. They’ve also been genetically modified through a process called heterosis to increase uniformity (in shape and colour), product yield and disease resistance. Unfortunately, these benefits were gained whilst sacrificing nutritional quality (in particular, carotenoids) and the essential sugars that provide a tomato’s characteristically sweet taste. But hey, you can buy them all year round, right? And if you drop them, they bounce.

Sadly, as these resilient and aesthetically beautiful tomatoes began to monopolize the commercial fresh food market, many non-genetically modified heritage varieties were lost to the general public (along with many small, family farms that were growing them). But here’s the good news: throughout the years, some small heroic producers, backyard gardeners and boutique seed collectors continued to grow these varieties, whilst drying and storing seed samples from tomatoes and other rare heritage produce. As interest in heirloom produce has blossomed, many of these people have started selling seeds in a not-for-profit manner via the internet. Excitingly, there are even some independent growers who are starting to produce heirloom vegetables for public sale at local farmer’s markets.

If you’re a Perth dweller like I am, I’d encourage you to visit the Subiaco Farmer’s Market (more details under ‘Retailers’ below), a small project run by like-minded Western Australians who sell organic and bio-dynamic fresh produce that’s been sustainably farmed. The stallholders at this market are the only local stockists of organic heirloom seedlings and selected heirloom fresh produce that I’ve found in Perth, so I’m definitely making every effort to support them. If you live locally, I’d encourage you to do the same. If you don’t live in Perth and you’re having difficulty sourcing organic, heirloom produce from a local grocer, I’d encourage you to prepare a patch of soil, get your credit card ready and check out the list of online seed retailers below. Yes, it will take a little longer, but there’s nothing like eating freshly harvested produce from your own garden. That’s agriculture, the way nature intended.

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Below, you’ll find a very simple recipe for an heirloom tomato salad. It’s back-to-basics, rustic cooking (or rather, ‘seasoning’) that’s intended to accentuate the beautiful quality of the hero ingredient, rather than complicate it. Though I’ve included some rough measurements, everything should be adapted to your personal taste and the quality of your produce. For this reason, I’d suggest that you taste one of your tomatoes prior to beginning the process. Contemplate its sweetness, juiciness and intensity. Does it need extra salt? Some additional complexity? Once you’ve decided, add extra ingredients to taste.

I’d suggest that you eat this salad on a warm sunny day with a glass of white wine, a good friend and some buttered crusty French bread to mop up the sweet tomato juices. Deliciously good food, heirloom style (you’ll never be satisfied with a supermarket tomato again).

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Heirloom Tomato Salad

  • 1kg mixed heirloom tomatoes, washed and sliced (I usually do a mixture of wedges and horizontal slices)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbs red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbs balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, washed and torn roughly into pieces
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • a pinch of caster sugar, if your tomatoes aren’t sweet enough
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup fresh Parmesan, shaved

Place your olive oil into a medium pan over low heat. Add in your garlic clove, and saute gently until the clove becomes translucent and the oil is fragrant. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Place into a small bowl and whisk in your vinegars, the caster sugar and some sea salt.

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Place your mixed tomatoes into a large bowl. Add in the basil leaves and some of the shaved parmesan (reserve some for garnish). Drizzle over your dressing, making sure that the garlic clove doesn’t fall into the salad. Mix well, then season to taste. Place onto a serving platter and garnish with your remaining shaved Parmesan.

ingredients

Notes:

  • Heirloom tomatoes are generally heritage varieties that are open-pollinated and grown from seed. Unlike hybrid varieties, their seeds can be collected and replanted year after year, with the same genetic result (hybrid tomatoes will often produce different plants from seed, due to having a combination of ‘genes’ and both dominant and recessive traits).
  • In general, heirloom tomatoes are less disease resistant and may be ‘uglier’ or prone to cracking. If you’re wondering why my tomatoes above are so pretty, well… yep, you picked it. They’re not all heirloom (as unfortunately, I couldn’t find enough). The heirloom varieties you’ll see are Dr Carolyn yellow cherry tomatoes, some Green Zebras and Purple Russians. There are also commercially available Italian Roma tomatoes from my local green grocer, and a singular red cherry tomato from my mother-in-law’s house (thanks Bev! My mother also grows fresh, organic apples, which get dropped off at my house during the fruiting season. You’ll see them on this blog eventually… I am a lucky daughter).
  • You can easily collect seeds from any heirloom tomato you buy. Just squeeze the seeds from 3 or 4 small tomatoes into a jar or small container. Add in about the same quantity of water, then allow the mixture to ferment for 3-5 days. It will probably smell, but allow it to continue decomposing until a thin layer of mold has formed on the top. At this point, pour the mixture into a fine sieve, and wash your seeds out under the tap. Rub them well, until they’re clean and free of any tomato flesh or other residue. Spread them out on a paper towel to completely dry. Your seeds are now ready to plant.
  • This salad is also beautiful with baby buffalo mozzarella or soft bocconcini in place of Parmesan. If using either of these cheeses, I’ll usually let the cheese marinate in the dressing with some additional lemon zest for at least 20 minutes prior to mixing and serving.
  • Though this salad can be kept overnight, I find that the acid in the dressing changes the texture of the tomatoes quite quickly. Your tomatoes will also oxidise (react with oxygen) once cut, losing vitamins C, A and other essential nutrients such as calcium, potassium, sodium and phosphorus. For both of these reasons I’d encourage you to try and consume your tomato salad on the day that it’s made.
  • Basil pairs beautifully with tomato in this salad, however if you’d like to mix things up a little, other herbs that complement beautifully include sliced chives, garlic chives, fresh Italian parsley or a little (and I mean, a little… trust me, it’s a strong flavour) fresh oregano.

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Heirloom Tomato and other Heritage Seed Retailers:

  • Subiaco Farmer’s Market: This Saturday market at Subiaco Primary School (271 Bagot Road, Subiaco in Western Australia) is the only fresh food market I know of that stocks organic, heirloom vegetable seedlings and selected fresh produce. I’d encourage you to support these small producers if you live in my home town; your health and taste buds will definitely thank you.
  • The Lost Seed: A beautiful, Australian seed retailer that aims to make non-hybrid, non-genetically modified, open-pollinated, rare and heirloom seeds available to the public everywhere. Kerryn Martin, the company proprietor, says that it’s her passion to restore the availability of quality and nutritious produce that ‘…the industrialised world has taken away’ in the most natural way possible. I’m in full support of that!
  • The Digger’s Club: An Australian gardener’s club that was established in 1978 to preserve old-world varieties of fruits and vegetables that were being dropped from mainstream supermarket shelves. They sell both organic seeds and beautiful live, organically-grown plants that can be mailed Australia-wide. This is my favourite garden store, period.
  • Gary Ibsen’s Tomato Fest: This is an American-based company that specialises in the sale of heirloom and heritage tomato seed varieties.
  • Seed Saver’s Exchange: Another American non-profit organisation that’s dedicated to collecting, saving and sharing heirloom, heritage and rare seeds.
  • Beautanicals: Tomato Seeds Australia: an Australian heirloom tomato seed supplier. Yay for local resources.

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References (if you’d like to read more):

making pesto

I’m sitting on the couch, wrapped tightly in a blanket as a storm brews in the grey sky outside. Raindrops splatter against muddied glass and I watch them fall, flickering in shadow to the ground below. My eyes are also flickering as I gaze over my hand-written recipe notes; mostly due to lack of sleep, a banging headache and post-jovial fatigue from the Saturday past.

Ah, Saturday. I had all good intentions of writing a huge post this weekend, full of recipes for chocolate and minted berry pavlova, Moroccan carrot salad, honey balsamic roast beetroot with goat’s cheese, cumin-spiced pumpkin dip and hazelnut praline. Don’t get me wrong, all were successfully created, tested and consumed with slices of herbed roast beef, roast potatoes and fresh Turkish bread.  The only problem is… well, we washed everything down with quality Pinot Noir and great conversation, and I was so engrossed in spending time with everyone that I couldn’t be bothered with photographs. Especially when I was dragged upstairs for a never-ending game of Cowboys and Aliens before being ‘pecked’ in the stairwell by a plastic bird on a stick.

Anyway, back to today’s post. Due to lack of photography I’ve decided to leave the above-mentioned recipes for another time when I can provide a complete, methodical post, but be assured, all recipes have been dutifully scribbled onto blotched paper with accurate ingredient lists for later use. Today’s post however, is for a staple in our household cuisine: the incredibly versatile, herbaceous and fragrant Pesto. Though there are arguably endless ways that you can create a tasty mix, my favourites in recent months have been 1) rocket, basil and pine nut, and 2) parsley, walnut and lemon zest (with or without chilli flakes). The latter was invented when I had a glut of parsley in the fridge, collected on a recent trip to the farmer’s market. It ended up being a delicious combination, bright green in colour and wonderful when drizzled over freshly-toasted, blackened ciabatta.

Below you’ll find recipes for both of my concoctions in quantities that suit my family, however if you want to change, substitute or add more of anything, then definitely do so! One of the benefits of pesto is that it’s an extremely forgiving condiment. You can substitute almost any soft, fragrant herb or greenery with different nuts, chilli, citrus, oil or roasted vegetables (like semi-dried tomatoes or roasted capsicum) and  it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have a jar of deliciousness in under ten minutes. Just be careful with the garlic, and maintain the rule that it’s always better to add less of a strong flavour from the outset rather than trying to frantically save a garlic-soaked pesto with leftover chopped spinach from the vegetable box.

Rocket and Basil Pesto

Makes approx one and a half cups

  • 2 cups tightly packed rocket leaves (arugula)
  • 2 cups tightly packed basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (make sure you have a little more on hand, if required)
  • 3 tbsp toasted pine nuts
  • 2 tbsp toasted cashews
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1-2 minced garlic cloves
  • sea salt to taste
  • optional: lemon zest, to taste

Wash and thoroughly dry your rocket and basil leaves. Roughly chop and place in a food processor bowl. Add your garlic (I’d recommend adding one clove initially, as you can always add more later if required), olive oil, lemon zest (if using), 2 tbsp pine nuts and 1 tbsp cashews. Pulse until your oil begins to colour and ingredients are mixed thoroughly. Add in your Parmesan and pulse to combine – if the mixture seems a little thick for your liking, add more oil. Once at your desired consistency, taste and season with salt, if necessary.

Mix through extra whole nuts (I usually roughly chop my remaining cashews) then seal your mixture in a sterilised jar. If the solids in your mix are exposed at the top I’d recommend covering your pesto with a thin layer of fresh olive oil to preserve colour and freshness (any greenery exposed to the air with oxidise and darken). Your finished pesto will keep refrigerated for a couple of weeks, or if required, it can also be frozen (*see ‘notes’, below).

Parsley, Walnut and Lemon Pesto

Makes roughly one cup.

  • 2 cups tightly packed flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
  • 3/4 cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1-2 minced garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp lemon zest
  • sea salt

Wash and thoroughly dry your parsley leaves. Roughly chop and then place them in a food processor bowl with 1/2 cup walnuts, olive oil, garlic to taste, lemon juice and zest. Pulse until thoroughly combined, and if too thick for your liking, add more oil until the mixture reaches your desired consistency. Taste and season with salt, if necessary.

Add in your remaining 1/4 cup walnuts and stir to combine. Seal in a sterilised jar. As per basil pesto, mixture will keep in a sealed jar for a couple of weeks (*see ‘notes’ below for instructions on freezing).

Notes:

  • ‘Pesto’ is an abbreviation of ‘pestello’ in Italian where the recipe first originated. It means ‘pestle’, hinting back to traditional mortar-and-pestle preparation of the condiment in old Italian kitchens. You can still prepare small-batch pesto in a mortar and pestle if desired. It brings a beautiful rustic quality to the dish, and is great for the biceps (actually, maybe I should stick with this method more regularly).
  • High quality oil is non-negotiable in pesto. I usually use extra virgin olive oil (my favourite oil at the moment is Australian Reserve Picual by Cobram Estate) but you can also substitute high quality macadamia oil, walnut oil or another oil of your choice that will compliment your chosen ingredients. I sometimes add a splash of walnut oil to the Parsley, Walnut and Lemon pesto which is deliciously fragrant.
  • Great herbs/leaves for substitution in pesto include: spinach, rocket (arugula), coriander (cilantro), parsley, nettle and the traditional basil.
  • If you’re using a stronger herb, such as coriander, use parsley as an extender to diffuse the flavour. It has a mellow, delicious flavour that will compliment rather than clashing.
  • Good quality cheese is also a must for flavoursome pesto. Great substitutes for parmesan include: asagio, romano.
  • Nut substitutes: my favourites are almonds (preferably blanched), walnuts, pine nuts and macadamias.
  • If you love the flavour of garlic but find pure cloves to be too strong, use garlic chives. They add a bright green, fragrant hint of garlic without being overpowering. You can also experiment with green shallots if desired.
  • *freezing: mixture can be frozen in ice-cube trays for up to three months. Just pop out a cube or two and defrost for spreading, or add straight to hot pasta as required.

My favourite uses for Pesto:

  • I stuff field mushrooms with a mixture of breadcrumbs, a generous amount of pesto, crispy bacon & semi-dried tomatoes. Oven bake for 15-20 minutes (add a mixture of parmesan & mozzarella to the top for the last 5-10 minutes) at 180 degrees C for a deliciously juicy addition to any meal.
  • Add it to grilled cheese sandwiches. My favourite is Rocket and Basil Pesto, mozzarella, sliced mushrooms, roma tomatoes and baby spinach on Turkish bread, grilled in the oven (or in a sandwich toaster, but I don’t have one) until the outside is crisp, the inside is molten and fragrant with basil oil and the mushrooms are tender. If I’m feeling lazy, homemade pesto with cheese is just as good!
  • Add two generous tablespoons of pesto to hot al dente pasta with some of the cooking water then mix til well coated. Add in some roasted cherry tomatoes for a delicious dinner.
  • Melt some pesto over the top of your roasted or steamed vegetables
  • Spread it on grilled ciabatta for a tasty bread entree, topped with roasted cherry tomatoes (or alternatively, like garlic bread, spread pesto between the half-cut slices in a baguette, wrap in foil and toast it in a hot oven).
  • Add it on top of your pizza. I particularly like pesto, roasted pumpkin, bacon and pine nuts with fresh goat’s feta and rocket.
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