Chicken-fried heirloom tomatoes


by Ari LeVaux

My first heirloom tomato was a big, bulbous and funky-shaped Brandywine. When the pink juice filled my mouth and ran down my face, it was like waking from a mediocre dream. What a relief! The pale fruit delivered a subtle yet potent tomato flavor, but was low in acid, like a rose without a thorn – which allowed my heartburn-prone gut to handle as many honkers as it could hold. Those Brandywines were just the beginning of my heirloom adventure. Chicken-fried heirlooms came later.

Once upon a time, heirlooms were displaced orphans of the cultivar world, old-school varieties that nearly vanished as supermarkets superseded gardens. But some dedicated gardeners, bemoaning the tomato’s homogenization by agribusiness, refused to accept the round, shiny red cardboard varieties available in stores. They had grandma’s seed to prove there were better options, and kept the lineages going, mostly out of self-interest. Many of these seed savers never left the homestead, or went to a store, or even knew about others doing the same. But together they saved heirloom tomatoes through a hundred lonely protests against a summer without flavor.

These days, the heirlooms are back, carried on the strong shoulders of a new generation of farmers who’ve rediscovered these whimsically named and odd-shaped treasures that come dressed in outrageous colors and patterns. They have distinct flavors that some aficionados pair carefully with wines, though chicken-fried heirlooms are best with beer.

An heirloom tomato, technically speaking, has been around at least 50 years and is open-pollinated, which means it can cross-pollinate with other open-pollinating strains, opening the door for evolutionary change. Farmers saved the seeds of the best specimens over the years, fine-tuning the lines by favoring flavor, production, heartiness, suitability to a particular climate and other nuances. The term “heirloom” can as well be applied to many other edible species as well, from pork to beans.

There are so many heirloom tomato varieties available – Hillbilly, Big Blonde, Green Zebra, Pink Oxheart, etc. – that farmers often lose track of what’s what. And if a farmer grows a bunch in the same patch and saves the seeds, the heirlooms will interbreed and produce an array of delicious oddball fruits. It’s not uncommon to find such tomatoes piled together in a common bin labeled, simply, “heirlooms.”

For those who like to keep closer track of what’s what, most farmers markets have their share of nerdy vendors who will happily talk you through their heirloom offerings and give advice on how best to enjoy them.

Mimi Luebbermann, who wrote The Heirloom Tomato Cookbook, goes deep in exploring wine/heirloom pairings. As with the classic white meat with white wine, red meat with red wine rule of thumb, she suggests pairing the likes of a Black Cherokee heirloom with a similarly dark wine, while the yellows, like Big Blonde or Georgia Streak, call for chardonnay.

Although there are heirloom paste tomatoes, the majority of heirlooms are heavy on water weight, making them inefficient for frozen sauce or salsa – there’s too much water to cook off, otherwise the sauce is too dilute. Thus, like the fleeting summer, heirlooms are best enjoyed right here, and right now.

If you’re new to the heirloom thing, you should calibrate your palate with a simple slice adorned with no more than a sprinkle of salt. Many people don’t advance beyond this stage, and I can hardly blame them.

But there are those who had big ambitions last spring and are now swamped with heirlooms, and they’re looking to take it to the next level, beyond slices, salads and BLTs. One way to deal with an immense pile of heirlooms is to juice them – perhaps along with the juice of other garden spoils for an heirloom-style V8. My favorite combo is tomato with celery and cucumber, because in this context you can still taste the delicate tomato flavor, which tends to get overwhelmed by the likes of carrot, beet, apple, etc. Or mix your heirloom tomato juice with clam juice and season with hot sauce and Spike powder to make an heirloom Clamato, which you can combine with beer for an heirloom Red Eye.

I also like cooking with heirlooms because they’re generous with their flavor but not overpowering. For breakfast, try cutting a big ripe one into 1-inch chunks and fry them in oil – or with bacon bits and their accompanying grease. When the chunks have fallen apart into simmering puddles, add half a medium onion (ideally a Walla Walla), two cloves chopped garlic, a bay leaf, and two tablespoons of brie, St. Andre 3X crème, or somesuch.

Let simmer on medium heat, stirring often, until the liquid is almost gone, and season with salt and pepper. Turn up the heat and add some beaten eggs. Stir once – just enough to mix everything together – and let it cook for a minute. If you have the dregs of a bag of corn chips, those too-small-to-eat crumbs at the bottom of the bag, consider adding them now. Or add intact chips if you want. Or not. Scramble briefly, turn off the heat, and serve.

If you’re ready to upgrade your heirlooms from supporting role to main event, then treat those fleshy spheroids like the meaty beasts they are. When you can stare down a crimson slab that practically fills the plate, juicier than a T-bone and cased in a deep-fried crisp, then you’re ready for chicken-fried heirloom tomatoes.

Slice inch-thick slabs off the bottom of a massive red heirloom tomato, like a Brandywine or an Anna Russian, holding it by the stem as you slice. Sprinkle the slabs with salt and pepper. Dunk them in a bowl of buttermilk. Sprinkle with flour. Dip in beaten eggs. Roll in cornmeal. Lay in a pan of hot oil (like safflower, sunflower or grapeseed). Fry until each side is golden brown.

Unlike chicken-fried steak, no gravy is poured over chicken-fried heirloom, because the gravy is already there, on the inside, contained by a solid cornmeal exoskeleton. But a dab of mayo never hurts.

It will look bloody enough for a steak knife, but you’ll do fine with a spoon. And a bib. •



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