Paradise Found…In Locally Grown Tomatoes

Paradise Found…In Locally Grown Tomatoes

The organically grown dry-farmed Early Girls, heirlooms and Beefsteaks truly are the three best eating tomatoes of the year.

By Robbie Sigona

Though fall is settling in around the country, it’s still tomato season in our neck of the woods. Due to an unusually cool summer season, most produce was delayed about three weeks so the tomatoes we have now, such as the dry-farmed Early Girls, heirlooms and Beefsteaks, are absolutely fantastic! These truly are the three best eating tomatoes of the year.

From fruity and citrusy heirloom tomatoes, to rich and meaty beefsteak tomatoes, and even to the dreaded no-flavor tomato…a bane to the tomato lover’s caprese…tomatoes come in a range of

Ryan Casey (pictured) and Ned Conwell of Blue House Farm in Pescadero grow dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes. Picture from Blue House Farm.

flavors. The flavor variance is a result of several factors, such as differences of chemical make up, but sometimes it’s as simple as how and where the tomato is grown.

Take the dry-farmed Early Girl tomato, for example.

Dry-farmed Early Girls aren’t much bigger than a golf ball.

These little gems are the most flavor-packed tomatoes we have and are a result of dry-farming, a farming practice used by Ned Conwell and Ryan Casey of Blue House Farm, a small (12 acre), all-organic farm in Pescadero, Calif. Once the plant is in the ground, dry-farmed produce isn’t irrigated; the roots grow deep seeking a water source as it’s grown without any more water than what Mother Nature provides through rainfall and what lies underground. As a result, the produce itself doesn’t receive or retain any extra water, so what you’re left with is fruit that’s simply exploding with pure, natural flavor.

“In the tomatoes, what dry-farming does, is it causes the plant to be slightly stressed out the whole season, so the plant has to work extra hard to create its fruit,” said Ned Conwell of Blue House Farm. “This process makes the plant think it’s going to die so it concentrates its resources, the food and water and energy, into the fruits. This enhances the flavor, gives the fruit a thick skin, and makes for a very juicy tomato. Although they grow to be just about golf ball size, I like to say these tomatoes have a 10-tomatoes-in-one flavor.”

Not all farmland is as suitable for dry-farming as Pescadero, where the marine influence coupled with moderate temperatures and rich soil make for the perfect setting. The ground composition is such that it retains water and nutrients, making for optimum growing conditions as roots of dry-farmed produce grow deep in the ground, in search of water to keep the plant alive.

“Anywhere further north of here it’s a little too cool for dry-farming, but south of there through Santa Cruz is prime dry-farming land,” said Ned. “The thing about dry-farm tomatoes is that there are all kinds of ways people do it; some farmers have strict regimens they’ve incorporated to the practice, but no matter the process, the proof is in the taste.”

The Beefsteak tomato is another tomato known for its great flavor. The organic “Big Beef” Beefsteak tomatoes we get from Phil Foster of Pinnacle Organic Produce in Hollister, Calif., are, in my opinion, the best tasting large tomato in our store.

Beefsteaks are meaty and firm tomatoes with a light reddish-pink flesh bursts with a fresh-from-the-backyard flavor. Beefsteaks grow to be very large — one slice is usually big enough for a sandwich because it can be just about as big as slice of bread! Anyone else thinking of a BLT for lunch?

We’ve worked with Phil and his wife Katherine for about 15 years to bring in different organic items, including Swiss chard, tomatoes and heirloom melons from their certified organic ranch. Phil’s Big Beef variety Beefsteak tomatoes are, year after year, the tomato I look forward to most. They’re near perfect in every way.

Phil tried several different varieties of Beefsteaks before they settled on the Big Beef as it grows well at the ranch and thrives under his sustainable farming practices. Phil and his dedicated crew have, over the years, incorporated eco-friendly and sustainable practices at the certified organic ranch. For example, they use crop rotation and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to naturally control various pests, they create their own compost, they have installed reusable drip irrigation on every acre of the ranch, they have transitioned all ranch vehicles to run on bio-diesel, and they’re slowly but surely adding solar panels to new and existing buildings, which has offset electrical energy costs by 50 percent so far. We love hearing from our local farmers as they incorporate new practices to their farming techniques!

As for heirloom tomatoes, the test of time is a simple testament to the outstanding quality and flavor. These varieties have been scrutinized the most the sophisticated palates, and time and time again, from generation to generation, they’ve earned their keep with gardeners, farmers and consumers alike.

As you may know, for produce to be considered an heirloom, the variety has to have been passed along from generation to generation for at least 50 years. We’ve had heirlooms in for a few months, but I’m particularly fond of the Marvel Stripe and the Cherokee Purple varieties we just got in from farmers in Hollister and Santa Rosa.

Cherokee Purple

My Grandpa Sigona, who lives in Morgan Hill, has grown heirloom tomatoes for many years. We consider him to be the family expert on heirlooms, both in growing and cooking, and agree wholeheartedly when he says the Purple Cherokees and the Marvel Stripes make the best marinara or ‘sugo,’ which, when roughly translated, means ‘gravy’ in Italian.

Rob Sigona and Grandpa Sigona out on Grandpa Sigona’s farm in Morgan Hill.

The Purple Cherokee is a very old variety, with roots that trace back at least 100 years to Cherokee, Tenn. It’s a dark red tomato with some spots that are so dark they look black, and its great tomato flavor is balanced with a sweet-acidic punch. The Marvel Stripe, an all-purpose eating tomato, is a golden-yellow with lovely red stripes running across the background. It adds great color to caprese salads and its mild, low acidic flavor lends nicely to sauces and soups.

While I may be a bit biased, his sugo recipe (which changes a bit each time) is the absolute best. The combination of a mild, low acidic Marvel Stripe and the flavor explosion of a Purple Cherokee, mixed together with the just-right blend of jalapenos, onions, bell peppers and fresh

Marvel Stripe

herbs, is practically perfection. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. His secret? Instead of using sugar to sweeten the sauce and dampen the acidity, he uses a little ketchup.

Tomatoes are a very healthy food. They are a good source of Vitamins A and C, and research shows that tomatoes contain high amounts of lycopene, an antioxidant related to beta carotene that helps counter the effects of cancer and disease-causing particles called free radicals. Tomatoes, pair well with olive oil which, when fresh like our very own Sigona’s Fresh Press Extra Virgin Olive Oil, is high in polyphenols and oleic acids. The combination of both lycopenes and polyphenols in the tomatoes and olive oil is a deliciously easy way to help fight off free radicals and the possibility of some cancers in both men and women.

We hope you come by to enjoy some of the season’s last local tomatoes. Like I said, these are the three best eating varieties we have in the store. Whether your favorite is the flavor-packed dry-farmed, the large and juicy Beefsteak or the lusciously unique heirloom tomato, we guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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