“Burgundy is a fickle and unreliable lover. It’s the source of more heartbreak than country music radio. Burgundy is like the girl with the curl in the nursery rhyme. When she’s good she’s very very good and when she’s bad she’s horrid.”–Jay McInerney
If you drink a lot of wine, you know the quote above to be true. I feel the same way about tomatoes. Yes, even the foodie-worshipped in-season heirloom type. Especially the heirloom type.
I live in New York City, where cooks wait through months and months of root vegetables for ramps, those musky wild leeks. Then it begins–the onslaught of asparagus, strawberries, snap peas, English peas, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, zucchini, eggplant and finally, finally, tomatoes that weren’t grown in a greenhouse.
We load up our canvas bags (who cares that they’re $6+ per pound!), walk home with them as delicately as possible and slice one greedily as soon as we get into the kitchen. Sometimes, it’s perfect. The color is saturated all the way through. The flesh can barely hold all of the liquid–it’s like a juicy piece of stained glass. The flavor is that perfect blend of sweet, tangy and savory with a slightly ferny quality that reminds you why you treat tomatoes like a vegetable, not the fruit that it is.
But sometimes, I find myself at home with imperfect tomatoes even though they looked great at the farm stand. They’re a little bit cottony or the slightest bit underripe. Even sadder, they bruise from the walk home and almost immediately start to ferment.
I’ve learned a few tips for choosing better tomatoes (for example, you really don’t want the heirlooms to be soft because it usually means their overripe) but I still feel like I have to hold my breath as a slice them. Will they be salad worthy or will I have to relegate them to sauce?
Luckily, we’ve already had one transcendent tomato experience this summer. The tomatoes were from the always reliable Eckerton Farms and part of a box I buy from a company called Quinciple. Inspired by my friend Nancy Singleton Hachinsu’s excellent book, Japanese Farm Food, I dressed them with a little soy sauce and rice vinegar. Then I cooked a steak (grassfed, from Quinciple, and one of about five we eat each year), which I basted with some butter, and poured those buttery steak juices over the tomatoes. It was ridiculous.
Since then, I’ve had some tomato heartbreak, and it’s leaving me wondering whether I want to invest my precious grocery dollars in such a “cruel lover” when there are so many other great vegetables to eat right now. I guess I could always stick with cherry tomatoes, which are less delicate and more reliably delicious if not capable of producing a religious. tomato. experience.
But driven by the goose-bump-inducing flavor memories of those tomatoes with steak juices, I’ll undoubtably shell out for more $6+/lb pound heirlooms at least once more this summer. Because soon enough, the root vegetables are coming and it’ll be a long wait once again for ramp season.