I know, I know, I know from working at the Cable farmer’s market since 2001 that you are on a hunt for the perfect tomato. Red, round, shiny…and without one single blemish. We’ve been taught from our years of shopping at grocery stores that perfect food is what we should desire and expect. But our experience of local foods can be so much more!
If you’ve ever kept your own garden, then you will know that raising such uniform, non-blemished foods comparable to what is in the commercial market is neither easy nor reasonable. Sometimes cucumbers get a curl at the end (due to the lack of full pollination), or a vole took a bite out of your zucchini, or your tomato has a little sun scorch on the top. These are all simply natural parts of keeping a garden in harmony with nature, where pests are not systematically and chemically obliterated or crops drip-fed a slurry of hollow nutrients manufactured in a former ammunitions plant. I mention the latter because the rise in NPK (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus) fertilizers came after WWII, when the manufacturers of bombs for the war effort found that their same ingredients could be turned into spreadable formulas for agribusiness. A little scary?
So, let’s turn around the idea of eating perfect food to eating foods with character. I like the thought of “character” because it implies a uniqueness—a definitive sense of place, heritage, and direct link with the people who grew it. Foods with character have a story, are often heirloom and ancient varieties, and are less common and more delightful to discover than commercially grown stock. Here are a few key thoughts for embracing foods with character.
Flavor. Sometimes, the more interesting heirloom tomatoes are as ugly as sin, but what hides beneath that purple-green sheath with its lumps and lopsided bumps is absolutely exquisite. When browsing at the farmer’s market, ask your farmer what the different varieties are and what they taste like. Sometimes there may even be samples available. While we have all been trained to shop for the eye-candy food, the real reward of eating foods with character is their robust, luscious flavor. The first thing that often happens to roses when they are hybrid for longer stems or better shipping qualities is that they lose their pungent fragrance (ever smelled a wild rose?). Likewise, often the first sacrifice in selecting foods for better uniformity and packability is the loss in flavor. Learn to embrace foods that look a little different on the outside in exchange for discovering something truly magical on the inside.
Color. Eat more color is one of the best things any of us can do for our health—and by that I don’t mean eat more foods with fake coloring in them. When embarking on purchasing Swiss Chard, choose a rainbow chard with stems that are yellow, purple, red, and green, instead of the traditional ones with white stems. Adding more color to your plate is not only visually pleasing, but the properties of those colors often carry cancer-fighting elements or important vitamins for healthy nutrition. Choose foods rich in color, like beets (and be sure to lightly steam and eat the greens too!), carrots, and eggplants. Why worry if that carrot lists a bit to one side; it probably had to grow around a rock in the soil. It will still taste just as sweet and crunchy as its straighter bunch companions.
Heirlooms. Now, I do agree that sometimes in northern climates, you have to raise hybrids. But the more we can support heirloom varieties (heirlooms being strains of crop that have been cultivated for a very long time), the more biodiversity we are encouraging for the planet as a whole. If only one type of green pepper was raised everywhere in this country because it always produced a perfect green pepper, what would happen if a blight specific to that variety struck? Supporting biodiversity by purchasing heirloom varieties of foods is an essential “voting with your dollar” practice worth embracing. Besides, each one offers a unique eating experience.
In the world of livestock, heirlooms are called “heritage breeds.” I raise a heritage breed of turkeys called Jersey Buff, which are cinnamon colored. Sleeker than a traditional Giant White turkey, they dress out smaller than and not as broad-breasted as their standard alternative. While a Giant White turkey offers that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving presentation, Jersey Buff turkeys pasture much better, have significantly fewer leg troubles, and offer a wonderfully rich flavor and texture. There are also amazing varieties of heritage chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and so much more! Why stick with an agribusiness standard when so many exciting choices abound?
If your mouth isn’t watering yet for a flavorful, colorful, heirloom food with character, here is a recipe to set you on the hunt—not for the perfect tomato, but for an experience all of its own.
Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta
6 meaty tomatoes, preferably a mix of red, yellow, and pink varieties, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
¼ cup fresh basil, stems removed and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 loaf crusty bread
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat broiler in the oven. In a large bowl, combine the chopped tomatoes with the garlic, oil, vinegar, basil, salt and pepper. Allow mixture to stand for 10 minutes. Cut crusty bread into ¾ inch slices. Arrange slices on a baking sheet in a single layer. Broil 1 to 2 minutes or until slightly browned. Divide tomato mixture on top of the bread slices and top each with some of the cheese. Broil for 5 minutes or until the cheese melts. Serve immediately.
So, grab your market basket, embrace a bit of curiosity, and try some new foods with character this week. We’re still picking our heirloom tomatoes, so maybe I’ll see you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com