It’s a bright, sunny morning in August and you set-out to the farmers market, basket or reusable upcycled bag in hand and full of excitement to buy fresh ripe tomatoes. But you get there and freeze, overwhelmed by the abundant variety. Cherries, plums, heirlooms, red orange, pink, brown, green, striped!? What to do? They all look so delicious! Which one is best for my burger, salads and sauce? How much should I buy? How long will they last? Oh the decisions!
It happened to me recently on a simple trip to pick-up tomatoes for bruschetta. Knowing that if it was happening to me then it was happening to a lot of you too, I decided to consult with one of my favorite expert farmers, Brenda Slack, owner of Milk House Farm Market in Newtown, PA. Brenda’s family has been farming since 1813. Brenda established the market in 2007 and is the first generation to grow fruits and vegetable on the farm, which has become known for it's sweet corn, eggs, 50+ varieties of tomatoes, and 27 varieties of pumpkins, gourds and winter squash! Here’s what I learned.
Z: I love coming to your market especially for tomatoes. How many varieties do you grow?
B: Milk House grew 57 varieties of tomatoes this year and has over 4000 tomato plants on the farm. I know that seems overwhelming.
B: But you really can't go wrong with any of the varieties. In reality a tomato is a tomato but there are subtle differences in flavor, differences in texture, and purpose. It breaks down into 4 categories.
1. Traditional red slicing tomatoes, for burgers or sandwiches. Holds together well when sliced, not too watery, great tomato flavor. At our farm this is Mt. Fresh, Country Taste, and Goliath. For reds you want firm but solid red color all the way around. Too soft and your burger/sandwich will be messy. Too orange and the flavor and texture will disapoint you.
2. Cherry Tomatoes. solid color all the way around. Tight, shiny skins indicate freshness. These are for snacking, salads, over pasta, or roasting. Tiny sweet little morsels. At Milk House the favorite is Sungold (orange), Cherry Bomb (red), and Pink Bumblebee (pink striped).
3. Heirlooms- Hands down my favorite for flavor. Please know and love them for what they are. These are "ugly", softer, have natural splits and cracks throughout, “green shoulders”, and can be pink, white, yellow, orange, green, salmon, red, striped, purple, brown, and anything in between. These are confusing for the customers to choose as they may look like they are not even ripe. The green shoulders doesn't mean they are not ripe, it's just their thing. They will have blemishes, white and black cracks, which I know are not attractive but it's who they are. Not too many farms grow them as they aren't tough and don't hold well. Trust the farmer to pick them when they are ready. Don't squeeze them to death.
Z: They’re my favorite too. I look forward to them all year. But you need to eat them quickly, right?
B: Yes. Heirlooms are meant to be picked and eaten the same day. Come to the farm every day or every other day for these, don't over buy or you'll be sad you didn't use them before they went bad. This is why not too many grow these anymore. These are old varieties passed down over generations for their flavor and vigor in the garden. These are meant for slicing for sandwiches, burgers, or served with basil and mozzarella. They can be cut up for salads, served over pasta, juiced, roasted etc. They will knock your guests socks off if you choose 3 or 4 to slice up and place on a platter for everyone to sample. The colors and flavors are memorable. Reds-higher in acid, more traditional tomato flavor. Yellows, orange, whites, greens are low acid and deep flavored. Pinks are right in the middle for acid and have great flavor. Purples and browns are mid scale in acid and flavor but with a slight smoky flavor.
Z: I enjoy them in my roasted tomato tart - fresh crust, fresh ricotta, roasted heirlooms on top. Yum!
B: My favorite is Kellogg's Breakfast. I also love Dester, Carbon, Great White. Rose, and Gold Medal. Because I eat 2 to 4 tomato sandwiches a day (Peppridge farm thin white bread with mayo, salt and pepper and a 1 inch thick slice of tomato) I tend to stick to the low acid tomatoes.
Z: That’s a lot of tomato sandwiches. I like your old school preparation. So what about tomatoes for sauce?
4. Plum/Sauce Tomatoes- These are more egg shaped, usually red, thicker skin and flesh that are meant to cook down nice for sauce and salsa. Milk House sells a lot of San Marzanos and Roma in this category, but Plum Regal is also a new promising variety as it is larger which equals less cutting in the kitchen. Slightly soft to indicate ripeness. Solid color all the way around. San Marzanos can have a little orange on the one side and not effect the flavor.
Z: San Marzanos - hands down my favorite for sauce . This is a lot of valuable information to simplify the tomato buying process. Thank you for taking the time to break it down for us. If I may summarize - before you go to the market, know your end use, know your time frame for using your tomatoes and trust your farmer!