- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A handsome new book by Amy Goldman jump-started memories of my family saving seeds from our beloved yellow oxheart tomatoes through fall and winter for spring planting. This was our heirloom tomato, although we did not think of it as such.

In reading Miss Goldman’s “The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table” (Bloomsbury), I learned that one woman, who was involved with preserving a strain her ancestors had brought when they emigrated from Germany, still puts sugar on her sliced tomatoes.

I remember my grandmother doing this, although she also added a few drops of vinegar on the slices of beautiful, red-ripe - and juicy - beefsteak tomatoes and oxhearts as golden as the Virginia summer; she also put black pepper on cantaloupe. The slices of tomato were placed on a large white platter with exotic birds and flowers painted at either end. She added sugar and vinegar “to bring out the goodness.”

Good tomatoes from the garden were part of growing up. The surplus - and it was considerable - was canned whole, quartered, mashed and juiced for enjoyment in winter. The tomatoes were good, and they were seasonal; we didn’t know the hard, tasteless tomatoes found in today’s grocery stores, tomatoes bred to withstand mechanical harvesting and long-distance shipping.

Thanks to organizations such as the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, older and non-hybrid tomatoes - as well as vegetables, flowers and herbs - are being preserved so the world can appreciate “real” tomatoes.

Miss Goldman began growing tomatoes in childhood after her parents bought a home on Long Island’s North Shore; a dilapidated greenhouse was on the property. Her father, Sol, operated Goldman’s Italian-American, the family’s grocery store in Brooklyn. Her mother, Lillian, from near Budapest, made excellent Hungarian goulash and stuffed peppers with tomato sauce, about which, Miss Goldman says, “I swear they tasted better with my homegrown tomatoes.”

Her cousin Myrtle “Tillie” Lewis, known as the “Queen of the Pear-Shaped Tomato” in the food industry, introduced Italy’s San Marzano tomato to the United States. Aunt Tillie “was no farmer, but she knew a good thing when she ate it: pomodori pelati, imported from the fertile farmland near Naples.” She was the purchasing agent for the wholesale grocery business operated by her first husband, her sister and brother-in-law.

On one trip to Italy, Aunt Tillie met her future companion, Florindo Del Gazio, with whom she “hatched a plan to raise and pack the San Marzano in the San Joaquin Valley of California,” Miss Goldman writes. Their company, Flotil Products, opened a cannery in 1935 and “became one of the world’s largest canners,” Miss Goldman says.

The San Marzano is one of the tomatoes that worked its way into Miss Goldman’s book, along with its relatives, ranging from a pale yellow to orange, pink and red, green, brown and a purplish black. Zebra tomatoes are one type growing in several colors in flesh as well as skin; others can be shaped like bell and chili peppers.

Many of the names are fascinating: McClintock’s Big Pink, Alberto Shatters, Ukrainian Pear, Goldman’s Italian-American, Carter’s Mortgage Lifter, Pesta’s Mortgage Lifter, Believe It or Not, Ilya Muromets, Pruden’s Purple and Green Giant. Some of the tomatoes thrive in pots, especially the cherry and pear-shaped.

“I’d known that writing and illustrating a tomato book would be a huge undertaking - if only because there are more than 5,000 cultivated varieties to choose from!” Miss Goldman writes. “Over the course of five summers I trialed more than a thousand tomatoes, starting with my favorites and letting the tribe increase until I reached capacity.”

Miss Goldman raises her hundreds of tomato plants in Rhinebeck, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, where tomatoes peak in mid-July and generally are fine until Labor Day, when they commence to wane. For the book, she compiled her usual field notes, weighed and took measurements of the tomatoes, some “the size of a garden pea.”

Those that were selected for “The Heirloom Tomato” are listed in “eight horticultural groups based on the shape and size of the fruit. Those that defy description are labeled ‘eccentric.’”

The eight groups are currant, cherry, ribbed, globe, beefsteak, pear, plum and oxheart. There is an oxheart still, but Miss Goldman’s is the Japanese oxheart.

A great part of the enjoyment of “The Heirloom Tomato” also goes to Victor Schrager for his luscious photographs, which often are as amusing as they are beautiful. Mr. Schrager collaborated with Miss Goldman on an earlier book, “The Compleat Squash.”

For a woman with so many tomatoes, Miss Goldman naturally has recipes, and 55 of them are in her book.

She also supplies an alphabetical list of 81 sources for seeds of heirloom tomatoes and other non-hybrid seeds. Some of these sources offer free catalogs, while others charge, some refunding the charge upon a purchase. One source is in Mineral, Va., in Louisa County.

Wherever it is grown, a ripe, juicy tomato full of flavor may never be better than between two slices of bread. One can go uptown with artisan breads, and even turn it into a BLT, but a true tomato sandwich is made on ordinary white bread with Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise, a little salt and a dash of pepper.

Early this week, I feasted on such a sandwich with yellow tomatoes from the Sunday farmers market at Dupont Circle. It cried for champagne; I wiped the tears.

There is much more to savor in “The Heirloom Tomato” than Miss Goldman’s recipes, but here is one she says is comforting warm, hot or cold:

TOMATO BREAD PUDDING

1 pound brioche or hearty white bread 1/4 cup olive oil 2 cups small-diced onions 2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic 2 pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced 2 teaspoons salt 2 teaspoons finely chopped thyme 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley 7 eggs 2 cups milk 2 cups heavy cream 1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the bread into half-inch cubes. Spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Place in the oven and toast the bread, turning as needed, until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Heat the oil in a saute pan. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic. Combine with the tomatoes and herbs in a large bowl. Reserve. Whisk the eggs in a large bowl just to combine. Add the milk, cream and salt and stir lightly.

Toss the Gruyere with the bread and tomato mixture. Butter eight 8-ounce ramekins and divide the mixture among them.

Pour the egg-and-milk mixture over the bread mixture, dividing it equally among the ramekins. Let it rest, stirring occasionally, until the custard has been absorbed.

Top the ramekins with the Parmesan cheese. Place the ramekins in a baking dish and fill the dish halfway with boiling water to create a hot-water bath.

Bake for 25 minutes. Then put under the broiler until the top is crispy and brown. Makes 8 servings.

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