Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fresh tomato time is here

Posted By on Tue, Jun 12, 2012 at 9:35 AM

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I pity people who live their whole lives thinking of tomatoes as the pale disappointments so prevalent in the supermarket. Those blasphemous imposter fruits are generally picked unripe, treated with ethylene gas, and shipped from points unknown to land on your plate with all the taste and texture of a dog-chewed tennis ball. I'm sure we've all bought a few of those in the winter months, but with the happy days of June upon us, there's one thing that's never far from you in Arkansas: high-quality, ready-to-eat tomatoes -- the kind that you don't even need to apologize for when the juice drips off your chin. And unlike those bland clones in the mainstream grocery stores, our local growers have tomatoes as diverse in taste and appearance as apples, ranging in size from plump cherries to big boys as large as a grown man's fist and possessed of colors ranging from purple and green to golden orange.

I stopped in recently at Argenta Market to take a look at their recent tomato arrivals from Deepwoods Farm, an organic tomato farm in Bradley County owned and operated by the Terry Donnelly family. Folks down in Bradley County are justifiably proud of their tomatoes, and the vine-ripened specimens from Deepwoods are some of the finest I've seen anywhere. I love shopping at Argenta Market because the staff is very friendly and knowledgeable, and I was lucky enough to encounter Stephanie Hamling, who runs the blog Proactive Bridesmaid in addition to helping folks like me out with our produce needs. She recommended the Cherokee Purples, and since that happens to be my favorite tomato as well, I knew it was going to be a good trip. If the world of heirloom tomatoes is new to you, though, I'll give a few different kinds to look for after the jump.

Cherokee Purple: This tomato cultivar is one of the most striking in appearance with its dark purple bottom and bright green top. These are some of the best eating tomatoes around, because the flesh is dense and juicy and has a rich, mellow flavor that is the perfect combination of sweet, tart, and savory. While the story around the Cherokee Purple is that it was grown over 100 years ago by Native Americans, our modern version comes from a small packet of seeds from a man named John Green in Tennessee in 1990. Like many heirloom varieties, this little known cultivar has spread and gained in popularity, and it is easily found this time of year.

Bradley County Pink: Bradley pinks are the classic beefsteak tomato. This is the Platonic ideal of a tomato that those limp, sad supermarket tomatoes all aspire to. Bradley Pinks are mild and slightly tart, and while most folks just want to slice them up with salt, I find that they make really spectacular sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes, salsa, and pasta sauce. This is a no-frills, basic tomato -- but it gets the job done so well that they hold an entire festival to celebrate it.

Amelia: The Amelia tomato is a hybrid cultivar that is loaded with flavor. This one might not be a true heirloom variety, but it's a plump, sturdy little fruit that is loaded with sweet, juicy taste. These are some of the best smelling tomatoes as well, with a perfume that will fill your kitchen the minute you slice one. These work well in salads or with mild cheese; put a slice or three of this cultivar on your next grilled cheese sandwich or cheese pizza and then come back here and thank me.

Fresh tomato time is an exciting time in Arkansas, and in addition to Argenta Market, you can find local tomatoes at all our local farmers markets, local chain stores like Whole Foods or Fresh Market, or your nearest neighbor's garden -- and I'm of the opinion that if you want to make everybody be nice to you, bring in a bumper crop of tomatoes. Each different variety is something special, and that's the perfect excuse to go out and buy all the different kinds you can. I've barely scratched the surface here, so happy hunting!

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