Tomato Tasting!

Countryside Conservancy’s Howe Meadow Market held their 10th Annual Tomato tasting event last weekend. Looking at a bountiful table of 50 or so varieties of locally grown tomatoes really reinforces the importance of  access to a farm market. Market Manager Erin Molnar says it’s the most popular event of the season. By 9:15 am the sampling table was full of eager shoppers indulging in more tomatoes than I had ever seen in one place!

“The difference between a store-bought tomato and a market tomato are pretty extreme, so this can make a real impact on folks,” Erin says. Hey, we get it! In fact, some of us would choose a perfectly ripe tomato over candy (I am not the only one, right?)

DSC_0650Volunteers and market staff chopped and diced a colorful array of tomatoes – red, green, yellow, orange, purple(ish), and even striped – and labeled them. They fell into four broad categories: cherry/grape, saladette, slicers, and plum/paste.

The tasting offered a comprehensive list of all the varieties that also listed the grower and whether the tomato was an heirloom or a hybrid. Heirlooms have been reproduced for generations, while hybrids are a cross between two varieties. Which is better? That’s really up to individual preference.

Tomatoes are in the nightshade family, which also includes peppers, eggplant and potatoes. Technically speaking, they are a fruit. But let’s not get all caught up in those details and just focus on how they taste.

DSC_0640The yellow and orange varieties are most definitely lighter, and dare I say, “fruity.” I started my sampling with the pop-in-your-mouth cherry and grape tomatoes, where I discovered Breezy Hill Farm’s Green Doctor, Infinite Garden’s Clementine, and the delightfully-named Sunrise Bumblebee from Martha’s Farm.

Tasting all 50 or so was possible with a little patience, but I zeroed in on some of the more cleverly named tomatoes. I could not resist tasting the beefy red Mortgage Lifter (Breezy Hill, Infinite Garden), the firm yellow Pork Chop (Breezy Hill), or the Iron Lady (Baker’s Fresh Produce) which are all considered “slicers.” Doing a little research on the varieties, I learned that the Iron Lady is a particularly disease and blight-tolerant hybrid, hence the strong name.

TomatotastingThe plum/paste category reflected that rich, fleshy consistency that bodes well for cooking down into sauces. Among the varieties offered were the popular ruby red San Marzano (Martha’s Farm), the green and red Speckled Roman (Little Bean Farm & Larder and Martha’s Farm), and a curious Japanese Black Trifele (Martha’s Farm) that is pear-shaped with the slightest hint of a black/dark purple hue.

I used to skip over those “ugly” heirloom tomatoes, but no more. Just feeling the fleshy weight of them in my hand makes me salivate (and wish I had brought a salt shaker). Likewise, I thought green tomatoes were only good for eating breaded and fried. Now when I see a good assortment of the yellow or green heirloom variety I make plans for a simple tri-color tomato salad with a good olive oil and fresh basil to my menu.

“My favorites are: Green Zebra (a green striped salad variety) for its unique appearance and light flavor, Pineapple (a yellow and red bicolor beefsteak) for its juicy fruitiness, Black Cherry for its smokiness and firm texture and Sungold (a yellow cherry) for its bite-size sweetness,” Erin says.

FullSizeRender-6If you didn’t make it to the market this weekend, don’t despair. You have several more weeks to get your tomato fix from the weekly vendors, and don’t be shy about asking questions or trying something new. These vendors, and many more, are there week after week well into the fall. Eat seasonally and you’ll always be eating the very best.

So, regarding the humble tomato, it turns out the easiest decision is whether to say “to-MAY-to” or “to-MAH-to” after all.

–Lisa Sands

Sidenote: Find yourself with a batch of  “bad tomatoes” try these great ideas courtesy of Food 52.