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Heavenly Heirlooms

A true bounty of the summer season, heirloom tomatoes are often at their best when combined with other sweet and savory vegetables.

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Did You Know?

The very first salsa probably originated with the Aztecs; their writings mention tomatoes prepared with chile peppers and salt.

Summer can be a tomato bonanza when farmers’ markets pop up like wildflowers. And one of the tastiest and healthiest “vegetables” you can find there are tomatoes. They appear in as many varieties, colors, and sizes as flowers do. A constant favorite are the heirloom varieties.

A tomato earns the heirloom distinction when it has not been hybridized or is from a strain that is at least 50 years old and is an open pollinator, a plant that is naturally pollinated by wind, animals, or bees. This is important because it creates a healthier plant due to natural biodiversity. Other types of tomato plants are artificially pollinated using a tightly restricted male plant to ensure a pure strain without variation.

In rural communities, heirloom seeds are usually thought of as varieties that families have selected, cultivated, and handed down from generation to generation, sometimes for many decades or centuries.

Many strains of heirloom tomatoes are a very closely guarded variety that only one family or community grows. Other well-known “commercial heirlooms” are available from seed companies or nurseries. Some of the best known of these include Big Rainbow, a large yellow tomato with red swirls and a sweet mild flavor, and the Cherokee Purple, a rose-colored tomato that was cultivated by the Cherokee Indians over 100 years ago.

Each variety is defined by its flavor, size, color, heartiness, and required growing conditions. Some heirlooms do well in dry, sandy areas, while others fare better in moist clay and humidity. Growers select their heirloom tomatoes by the flavors and textures they or their customers prefer, and the growing environment they can provide for the tomato.

Some growers may also consider health benefits when choosing from among the different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Very dark red strains of heirloom tomatoes have large amounts of vitamin C, lycopene, coumaric acid, and chlorogenic acid, all of which are powerful antioxidants. Research has shown these compounds lower the risk of many types of cancers. Other types of heirloom tomatoes taste better when cooked or heated. These tomatoes can release even more lycopene into the system, because as they are cooked, the cells in the wall of the tomato open, allowing the human body to absorb the nutrients better.

This summer, gather a bouquet of heirloom tomatoes for a tasty meal or nutritious snack. The diverse flavors and colors of the beautiful heirloom tomato are a delightful, healthful, and delicious addition to any summer table.

Wedding Chow-ChowServes 4

Often served at weddings and other large gatherings, this refreshing summer recipe from the Mennonite community of Latham, Mo., uses any variety of sweet, firm heirloom tomatoes. Serve over toasted whole-grain bread for a fresh, nutritious side dish.

2 ears sweet corn

5 heirloom tomatoes, chopped

1 cucumber, peeled and chopped

¼ cup chopped red bell pepper

1 cup chopped cabbage

½ cup chopped green onions

½ cup chopped cauliflower

¼ cup chopped celery

3 tsp. red wine vinegar

1 tsp. dry mustard

1 tsp. raw sugar (or ½ tsp. agave syrup)

2 tsp. sea salt

1 Tbsp. fresh chopped dill

5 Tbsp. olive oil

  1. Cut corn from cobs into colander, and pour boiling water over corn. Immediately pour ice water over corn to stop cooking.
  2. Put corn, tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, cabbage, green onions, cauliflower, and celery in large bowl; set aside.
  3. Combine vinegar, mustard, sugar, sea salt, and dill in small bowl. Whisk in olive oil, and add to vegetables. Chill.