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Farm-Stand Heirloom Tomato Salsas

There are few things more cherished by gardeners than home-grown summer tomatoes. These sun-kissed beauties are unlike the traditional tomatoes you'll find on most supermarket shelves. Yes, those tomatoes are red. Yes, they call them "tomatoes," but that's where the similarities end.

"Many supermarket tomatoes are picked as they're just starting to break color on the shoulders of the tomato, no where near ripe," said Paul Wigsten, produce buyer for The Culinary Institute of America, "Then they're put on trucks where ethylene gas is pumped in and they are ripened in the box. These tomatoes are bred for traveling and appearance, not taste."

Wigsten, a third generation farmer, knows tomatoes. He grows heirloom varieties on his 40-acre Pleasant Valley, NY farm. So in demand are these agricultural blasts from the past that he has sold his entire crop already, a month ahead of harvest. Heirloom tomatoes are self-pollinated and their seeds can be saved, handed down (thus the heirloom) and sown to create the same tomato generation after generation. 

Commercially produced tomatoes are hybrid and artificially pollinated. A simple observation of hybrid veggies from a home-composter; if you throw a store-bought hybrid green zucchini into the compost and the seeds take root, what grows could be a yellow long zucchini, a bulbous green one, a round green and white striped one. Why? The genes and chosen characteristics from all those individual plants were crossed to form one commercially perfect green zucchini.

Likewise, traditional hybrid, supermarket tomatoes all look the same - round, pinkish red and often lacking in robust flavor. Heirloom varieties don't look like these tomatoes. Their colors are deep and rich with rippled skins and varied sizes and shapes. "We market them at the farm-stand as "ugly" tomatoes, but the taste is out of this world," said Wigsten.

And while store tomatoes have thicker disease-resistant skins that won't split in transport, heirlooms don't. "Heirloom tomatoes are not grown for travel. They don't ship well and are easily damaged," said Wigsten. He recommends purchasing heirloom tomatoes at your local farm-stand. 

To choose the best tomatoes, smell them. Farm-fresh tomatoes smell sweet. They should also be heavy, from all the vine-ripened juiciness. These vine-ripened goddesses were picked just hours before their arrival at the farm stand and they might still be warm from the sun. 

You'll find farm-stand tomatoes in a variety of shapes and colors including the Striped German or Cherokee purple. Wigsten reminds people never to refrigerate tomatoes (which is how commercial tomatoes are stored), as it changes their chemical composition and sugar content, and can make them mealy and unappealing. 

Heirloom tomatoes might cost a little more, but the flavor is worth it. For these three tomato salsas from The Culinary Institute of America, use the freshest locally-grown tomatoes you can find. 

The CIA's tomato salsas won't conceal the tomato's delicious fruitiness. The small amount of lime juice or vinegar will brighten and balance the tomato's natural sweetness. Simply combine salsa ingredients and let stand briefly to allow the flavors to blend.

Using heirloom, organic, fresh-picked local tomatoes will yield a salsa bursting with flavor and natural sweetness. The toughest part will be finding a chip worthy of your salsa's greatness.

The following recipes, along with additional ones for your summer fruits and vegetables can be found in the CIA's two new beautifully illustrated cookbooks, Vegetables (2007, Lebhar-Friedman) and Hors d'Oeuvre at Home (2007, John Wiley & Sons).
CIA's Farm-Stand Heirloom Tomato Salsa recipes

Ingredients

Chayote-Jicama Salsa

Serves 6 to 8

  • 1 chayote squash, peeled and sliced
  • 1 jicama, peeled and julienned
  • 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 jalapeño, minced fine
  • 1/2 cup diced red onion
  • 1 Tbsp cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper as needed
  • Dash of Tabasco to taste

Blackened Tomato Salsa

Serves 6

  • 5 plum tomatoes
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Spanish onion, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • 1/2 dried chipotle chile
  • Salt to taste

Salsa Fresca

Serves 16

  • 1 lb 2 oz tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1 tsp chopped oregano
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 1 jalapeño, minced
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Chayote-Jicama Salsa

  1. Bring about 1 inch of water to a rolling boil over high heat in a sauté pan. Add the sliced chayote and cover the pan. Pan-steam the squash for about 12 minutes or until the chayote is very tender. Drain it, and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking.
  2. Combine the chayote slices with all of the remaining ingredients in a bowl.
  3. Chill the salsa for at least 2 to 3 hours or overnight. Taste the salsa and adjust the seasonings with additional vinegar, salt, pepper, or Tabasco, as needed.

Blackened Tomato Salsa

  1. "Blackening" the tomatoes gives them a smoky taste, as well as making it easy to peel the tomatoes.
  2. Place the tomatoes on a wire rack directly over a gas burner or on a medium-high grill. Turn them frequently until they are blackened over their entire surface. Set aside.
  3. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion slices and cook on both sides until they are a very deep brown, about 15 to 20 minutes total cooking time.
  4. Coarsely chop the tomatoes and onions. Combine the tomatoes, onions, chili, and salt in a blender of food processor. Puree the mixture in short pulses to make a chunky salsa. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Salsa Fresca

  1. Combine all ingredients, taste, and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate leftovers.

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