Every summer, I get a “hankering” for tomatoes with fresh basil. The paring works so naturally together– it’s fresh and subtly sweet and wonderfully herby. The flavor takes me back to my grandpa’s garden, where as a child I used to help him harvest tomatoes fresh from the vine. Sweet, freshly picked vine-ripened tomatoes… now that’s a taste you never forget. I can almost smell it now, those happy growing plants and the freshly turned earth.
Like most Americans, I grew up eating red tomatoes (roma tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, etc.). It wasn’t till college that I discovered heirloom tomatoes. I was quickly enchanted by the colors and flavors of the various heirloom varieties. Only recently have I discovered why heirlooms taste so amazing… and of course, I found the answer in food history.
Heirloom vegetables are plant varieties from original seeds that are over 100 years old. For an heirloom vegetable to be considered a true heirloom, the plant must have been introduced prior to 1951, when plant breeders began to hybridize inbred plant lines. The plant must also be open pollinated in a natural way– by insects, birds, wind or weather. Popular heirloom vegetables include squash, beets, beans, corn, lettuce– and, of course, tomatoes.
According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, “Before seeds were bought from catalogs or from seed merchants, they were saved from one crop in order to plant the next and shared with neighbors and family. Before European colonization, North America had few varieties of indigenous domesticated food plants but had a fair amount of wild or semidomesticated species. People emigrating from the Old World, including Africa, as far back as the 16th century, brought seeds with them to America. When the seeds were planted, many of them were able to adapt to the new weather and soil conditions. These hardy species brought considerable genetic diversity to the New World. As a result of centuries of natural adaptation, many heirlooms are resistant to different forms of blight and can survive bad soil and climate extremes.”
Experimenting with and cultivating heirlooms has been a popular passtime for centuries. Even Thomas Jefferson was a fan. Today, heirlooms are prized not only for their interesting colors and shapes, but for their natural genetic variation. In the past century, genetically modified seeds have been developed for commercial farms. Today, most vegetables are grown in large single-species crops from genetically modified seeds. Vegetable species are genetically altered to create specific traits– drought and frost resistance, tolerance of pesticides, and the ability to withstand long shipping periods. Flavor is often sacrificed in favor of other genetically desirable traits. You’ve probably experienced this yourself, if you’ve tasted a tomato from the grocery store that appeared ripe, and found it bland and not at all sweet.
The more these genetically modified vegetables are cultivated, the less biodiversity there is, and the more we become dependent on large corporations (who own the patents to the genetically modified seeds) for our food. This means that heirloom vegetables don’t just taste better– they’re better for the environment and biodiversity. Heirloom enthusiasts cultivate these varieties in hopes of preserving the species for future generations.
This is all my round-about way of telling you why I use heirloom tomatoes in this salad! Heirloom tomatoes are super flavorful, and this salad celebrates their natural goodness– you don’t need to add much in the way of dressing, just enough to make the flavors pop. There are all kinds of ways to dress the salad up. You can add some sliced sweet onion to it for crunch and spice, or some minced fresh garlic if you like. A little fresh mozzarella or crumbled sheep’s milk feta cheese wouldn’t hurt, either.
Personally, I prefer the salad as written– simple, gluten-free*, vegan and pareve– the perfect side dish for a grilled summer meal. Enjoy!
*Note: The online gluten free forums I read said that Tabasco pepper sauce is gluten free, but you may wish to contact the company directly to confirm this, since I have not. Or you can just leave it out and sub a dash of cayenne pepper.
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- 2 1/2 lbs heirloom tomatoes in a variety of colors
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
- 1 fresh lemon, juiced
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 4-5 drops tabasco pepper sauce (optional - adds spice)
- Slice the heirloom tomatoes into 1 inch chunks and place them in a large mixing bowl.
- Add fresh chopped basil to the bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, sugar, salt, black pepper and tabasco sauce (optional).
- Pour dressing over the salad and toss to coat all ingredients evenly.
- Cover salad with plastic wrap and let the tomatoes macerate for 30 minutes.
- Serve salad at room temperature with a slotted spoon. Liquid from the tomatoes will collect in the bottom of the bowl, and the slotted spoon will allow you to serve the salad without making a wet mess of your plate. You may also wish to drain off some of the excess liquid from the salad bowl prior to serving.