Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bye Bye BLTs!

As the days get cooler, fall approaches and the end of the first annual BLT Bonanza is upon us! Tomorrow will be your last chance to snag one of these tasty treats from most of the participating restaurants-- that is, except for Uncommon Ground. They will keep serving their awesome BLT as long as their rooftop gardens keep producing heirloom tomatoes.
We'd also like to send out a huge thanks to all those restaurants who decided to put their resources toward an important cause and join the Bonanza! They have helped us start what will hopefully become a tradition, supporting and endorsing healthy, eco-friendly and obviously delicious local produce that's available in Chicago. We could not have done it without them.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bonanza from the Blogosphere

With the help of, I searched around to see what variations on the BLT have been making their way around the foodie world. Here were some of the most interesting.

Some were semi-traditional sandwiches:

The BLAST (Bacon, Lettuce, Avocado, Shrimp, Tomato)

The Classic

The Fried Green Option:

Some were veg-friendly:

The TMT (Tempeh, Matche, Tomato):

Some interesting tomato-less (boo!) ones for those who've been victims of blight:

Is That Watermelon?

Plums and Bacon!!

And some did away with the sandwich idea entirely:

Savory BLT Cheddar Pancakes

BLT Salad

Here is the full list of results. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

TomatoFest on Vocalo

This morning, our very own Damien Casten was interviewed at, WBEZ's sister station! He discusses all things tomato-related, especially the Second Annual TomatoFest Potluck Supper this Thursday afternoon at the Honey Coop! Please click here for details and to buy tickets.

Damien's segment is available online! Give it a listen here.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Back to Basics: The Beginner's Guide to Heirloom Tomatoes

I distinctly recall the very first time I tasted an heirloom tomato. It happened a couple summers ago on Frog Holler organic farm outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where occasionally volunteering to help snip salad greens and thin carrots sometimes earned me a free meal. One warm July day, lunch featured a reddish gold, pumpkin-fat heirloom behemoth, fresh from the tomato field. I was taken aback by its incredible shape and color. Though I don’t know the variety of heirloom we ate that day, I remember its perfect balance of tart and sweet flavor, rich juiciness and tender flesh. All the other tomatoes I’d eaten in my life suddenly didn’t compare. I was hooked—but I had no idea why these mysterious heirlooms were so good.

The farmer explained that they were open-pollinated, that is, pollinated by natural means (wind, insects, etc.) and allowed to develop without genetic engineering or controlled modifications. As a result, the daughters of an open pollinated plant are always slightly genetically different from the parent and, naturally, promoting biodiversity. Despite genetic evolution, his hefty fruit had more in common with the tomatoes eaten a hundred years ago than the supermarket kind I’d been eating all my life.

However, heirloom tomatoes do have traits that make them challenging to grow, especially for commercial farmers. For instance, they often take longer to ripen, are more susceptible to blight and disease, are difficult to stake and keep organized in the field, and, once ripe, don’t last very long. Nonetheless, maintaining the correct conditions (and growing heirlooms that are suited to the local climate) makes all the difference for these sensitive fruits, which make up for any difficulties in their exceptional quality and contribution to biodiversity.

Genetically modified tomatoes, the ones found in standard produce sections across America, have been bred to avoid these undesirable traits: they are often smaller than the irregular, bulbous heirlooms, and rarely have any of the beautiful heirloom variation in color. The standard coloring and sizing make them easily recognizable for the supermarket shopper, simplifying their sale. Genetically modified tomatoes are also bred for durability, with thicker skin and harder, drier flesh for easy transportation, avoiding crushing or bruising. Convenient though they may be, these tomatoes are nearly unrecognizable shadows of their ancient ancestors when it comes to taste and texture.

There are some heirloom varieties that have been preserved for many years by preventing cross-pollinating with other varieties. These are the tried and true tastiest, ones that people know and love, and continue growing year after year. I decided to give some of these famous varieties a try, and visited the Green City Market last week to stock up on as many as I could. Thanks to Nichols, Kinnikinnick and Green Acres farms, I conducted a taste test, to see if the differences between heirloom varieties were noticeable to an untrained palate. The results were pretty incredible—each fruit definitely had a specific consistency and flavor. Here they are, for your information and complete with gorgeous photographs by Julia V. Hendrickson!

Cherokee Purple: This dark fatty was tender and juicy, with a subtly sweet, earthy flavor. It’s evidently one of the strongest heirlooms as far as susceptibility to blight and disease. The origins of this variety are indicated by its name—it is said to have been grown and preserved by the Cherokee nation hundreds of years ago. The color is an incredible dusky purple and has that classic heirloom shape. 8-9 in. diameter.

Amish Paste: A weirdly named variety, this bright red fruit was curiously elongated. It was not the best one eaten fresh (which was how I sampled it) but a fellow tomato enthusiast at the GCM said they are great for canning and making sauces. I could definitely see that—the consistency was a little harder than some of the other tomatoes we tried, but the flavor was bright and delicious. 5 in. in length, 3 in. wide.

Green Zebra: True to its name, this tomato is bright green with fair yellow stripes when ripe. It is very juicy, though not as tender as the larger heirlooms we tasted. It has a really bright, lemony flavor (one tester compared it to the taste of kiwi). This is the variety currently being used by chef Mark Mendez in his BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato) sandwich at Carnivale! 3 in. diameter.

Brandywine Pink: This was probably the most beautiful of all the tomatoes in the taste test. It was a fair pink with green tinges on the “shoulders.” Unfortunately, this one wasn’t quite ripe, and didn’t have the flavor I’d hoped for. After reading up on it, I learned that the Brandywines in general are some of the most beloved heirlooms, and the pink seems to be especially popular. It’s said to be one of the oldest Brandywine varieties with a complex, rich and sweet flavor. Make sure it’s pretty soft before you taste it, to be sure that it’s ripe! 7-8 in. diameter.

Nyagous: This was another strangely dark tomato, about the same size and spherical shape of the Green Zebra, but similar in color to the Cherokee Purple. It had a similar flavor to the Purple, but a not as sweet and rich. Apparently, this variety was introduced from Russia several decades ago. There were two Nyagous varieties that we sampled here: the Russian Black and a mysterious, unnamed second one with reddish skin and green striations on the sides. They tasted identical. 3 in. diameter.

Black Cherry: These little cherries were unbelievably delicious. They had an earthy, rich flavor that tended to be sour, rather than sweet. About the size of an average cherry tomato, they would be incredibly good in any salad. 1 in. diameter.

Red Pear: These were the most precious tomatoes I’d ever seen. They looked like little gnomes, perfectly pear-shaped and leaning against each other for the pictures we took. They were sweet and juicy and brightly reddish orange. 1 in. length, .5 in width.

Striped German: This tomato was by far my favorite out of the bunch. It was another thick, juicy monster, with tender flesh and beautiful orange to red color. What shocked me about this tomato, grown by Green Acres farms and affectionately referred to by the sales people as “Mr. Stripey,” was its sweetness. At times, this was more like eating a ripe peach than a tomato. I ended up dismissing the salt, pepper and olive oil with which we’d been sampling the others, and eating it plain. It was delicious. 8-9 in. diameter.

If you don’t get the chance to hit up your local farmer’s market to taste test these guys on your own, attend and participate in the Second Annual TomatoFest Potluck Supper on September 10th at the Honey Coop! Click here for details on this lovely, family-friendly event!

The Amish Paste

Cherokee Purple

The Brandywine Pink

The Green Zebra and Black Cherries

Red Pears

Striped German

The Nyagous variety, with some light mozzarella and homegrown basil.

A beautiful assortment (clockwise from bottom left): Brandywine Pink, Cherokee Purple, Striped German, Black Cherries, Big Beef, Green Zebra, Nyagous, and the little Red Pears!