Multiple varieties of heirloom tomatoes and eggplants are finally in season. Their crazy colors and shapes can now grace your counter with their Dr. Seuss-like presence. They are calling for a culinary experiment with each touting its own flavor profile and subtle texture difference. Prepare your palates for the great vegetable diversity that is suddenly available.
There’s a lot of talk about heirloom tomatoes and how delicious they are, but what exactly is an heirloom tomato? Is the excitement justified? Absolutely. Heirloom tomatoes are varieties of tomatoes that have been around about 50 years and are often connected to a specific region or even a farm. These tomatoes have been bred for taste, texture, heartiness, and sometimes resistance to pests and disease. But let me warn you, once you have bitten into a fresh, heirloom tomato, the thought of buying another grocery store tomato will make you want to cry. The reason for the hard, flavorless tomato that is sold in the grocery store is that heirloom tomatoes do not ship well, they are much too delicate. Whenever you buy heirloom tomatoes you may notice how thin their skin is and how easily they bruise—don’t worry, it is just important eat them before they spoil. Heirloom tomatoes are not just delicious, flavorful tomatoes, but they are also full of history, full of hard work, full of the spirit of your region. They are different everywhere you go, so eating one is like reading a story.
There are several big-name heirloom tomatoes that are popular in North Carolina, each with its own claim to flavor-fame. Here in NC we have a tomato connoisseur named Craig LeHoullier that grows a multitude of tomatoes, check out his website for all the tomato information you could ever need! Here are a few that you will most likely come across:
Cherokee Purple is purple-skinned, red-fleshed, and sweet. It is big and thick—a perfect slicing tomato—and gloriously ugly.
Mortgage Lifter is pink and large, it can weigh up to three pounds. They have a mild flavor and are also fantastic sandwich tomatoes.
Brandywine tomatoes are the most well-known heirloom tomato. They are what you think of when you think of the perfect tomato—sweet, acidic flavor, perfect texture, and slicing size.
Chocolate Cherry tomatoes are small, brown cherry tomatoes with a reddish tint. They, unfortunately, do not taste like chocolate, but they are still deliciously sweet and delightfully juicy.
There’s a lot of heirloom tomato pride in the south and a strong love of the perfect tomato sandwich (white bread, Duke’s mayonnaise, tomato, and salt and pepper if you want). Heirloom tomatoes are a must for these summer delicacies, and now is the perfect time to experiment and find your favorite heirloom tomato. Scott Huler wrote a fantastic article about the tomato sandwich in Our State Magazine that will ring true to any southerner.
Eggplant is in the same family as the tomato—the nightshade family—and is surprisingly difficult to grow because a multitude of pests are attracted to it. It was once considered to be poisonous and believed to cause insanity, but lucky for us eggplants are very edible and very delicious. There’s a bit of debate about whether or not eggplant is poisonous when eaten raw, and after a bit of research I found the general consensus believes that to be untrue. So, eat on eggplant lovers and don’t worry about undercooking your eggplant!
Eggplant is found in many different cultures and can be found in Mediterranean, Italian, Indian, and French cuisine. The most common variety of eggplant is the dark purple Globe eggplant, but they come in many different varieties from tiny green fruit to totally white. Here are just a few varieties you may find available in North Carolina this summer:
Ghostbuster eggplant is ghost-white and sweeter than the traditional dark purple eggplant. It is usually about 6-8 inches long and the skin is a bit thicker.
Hansel eggplant is a thinner, longer variety of eggplant that can be harvested at three inches or ten inches and still maintain it’s sweet flavor. It is considered to be very versatile because it grows well in many different regions and because of the long window you have to harvest the fruit before it begins to lose its flavor.
Nadia eggplant is a traditional Italian eggplant that grows to be about 7 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. It is similar to the globe eggplant and is firm and flavorful.
Orient Charm eggplant is thin and light purple. It is a sweeter variety that doesn’t last very long once it’s harvested, so eat within a few days once you get it!
Kermit eggplants are small, round, light green eggplants that are the American hybrid of the Thai eggplant. Their tender skin makes them easy to cook and they soak up different flavors well, so they’re very versatile. These also do not have a very long shelf life, so be sure to eat the quickly.
This is my favorite time of year, with the bounty of fresh produce knocking down our doors and filling up our counter space. Too much eggplant and tomato is never a problem in my book. Enjoy the variety and report back with any delicious recipes you find!