Food & Drink

Heirloom tomatoes star on many farm-to-fork menus

A beloved local has emerged as the star of Sacramento’s 2014 celebration as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” – the heirloom tomato.

Check out the three dozen or so participants in the “Restaurant Weeks” portion of ongoing farm-to-fork festivities, and you’ll spot heirlooms all over the special menus.

Frank Fat’s features them as a “Szechuan heirloom tomato soup.” They’re paired with king salmon at Hock Farm. At Sunday’s gala dinner on the Tower Bridge, which wraps up the 15-day event, these prized tomatoes are included in the opening-course salad.

After all, this is the city dubbed “Sacratomato,” and each summer farmers markets are flooded with locally grown heirlooms. They come in myriad colors compared with the standard red tomato – purple, pink and orange, sometimes striped with yellow and green. Heirlooms are coveted for their pronounced flavor profiles that can be especially sweet or spicy, depending on the breed. Some are so chunky that a slice is like the vegetable version of a steak.

The local tomato season kicks in when the weather is at its most sweltering, typically late July and throughout August. Heirlooms then make their way to restaurants such as Grange, which currently offers a salad of the flashy fruit from West Sacramento’s Watanabe Farms among its Restaurant Weeks offerings. Oliver Ridgeway, Grange’s executive chef, said he cooks through 15 cases of heirloom tomatoes each week.

“It’s this fruit that resembles summer in Sacramento,” Ridgeway said. “The heirlooms have the complex flavors and appearances.”

Other produce gets plenty of play during Restaurant Weeks, including organic squash, corn and watermelon. But the heirloom tomato has become a common denominator of farm-to-fork dining, whether it’s stuffed in a Dos Coyotes burrito or the centerpiece of salad at Ella Dining Room & Bar or at downtown’s DeVere’s.

Tomatoes are an easy summer pick for farm-to-fork menus given their regional prominence. According to the Yolo County Agricultural, more than 34,000 acres of tomatoes were harvested in 2013 and they brought in $107.9 million. Those figures made tomatoes the top commodity in Yolo County.

But heirloom tomatoes are different than the type usually grown in Yolo, which are primarily used for processing, making their way into sauces, pastes and other packaged goods. Heirloom tomatoes haven’t been crossbred with other varieties and tend to use “open pollination” via insects and other natural forces, vs. a controlled approach that opts for specific pollens to limit inbreeding and enhance specific genetic traits.

Heirlooms focus on old-time breeds, usually at least 50 years old, with such varieties as the plump and pink Brandywine and the strawberry-shaped Tomatoberry.

“(Heirloom tomatoes) weren’t bred for packing and shipping,” said Shawn Harrison of Sacramento’s Soil Born Farms, a popular local source of heirloom tomatoes. “They tend to have high flavor, water and sugar content, but they don’t ship or store well.”

The Sacramento Valley’s dry heat and rich soils make it conducive to growing all types of tomatoes. The sandy loam soils found throughout the region provide thorough drainage that prevents fungus issues.

“We have all the right conditions for good tomatoes,” said Harrison. “We don’t have a lot of moisture in the air when (tomatoes) are maturing, which can lead to diseases. If you don’t overwater, it really helps the flavor. You get that heat on, and that’s what tomatoes love.”

The result is a bounty of heirloom tomatoes that feature an array of colors and shapes. The miniature Chocolate Cherry variety nearly looks like ripe red grapes. The plum-shaped Green Zebra boast green and yellow bands when it’s fully ripe.

And unlike cucumbers or sweet peppers, heirloom tomatoes make a formidable statement on the plate without much fuss.

“Simply on their own with salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar, they’re perfect,” said Ridgeway.

The Caprese salad, which pairs tomato with fresh mozzarella, olive oil and a bit of basil, has become an omnipresent dish for summer dining in Sacramento. The seasonal flush of heirloom tomatoes finds the fruit utilized in many other ways, such as the foundation for a bisque at Pizza Rock or blended into gazpacho at The Kitchen, both on offer during Restaurant Weeks.

Farm-to-fork gets to take advantage of the tomato season’s tail end. It’s also the point in the year when some chefs get a little fatigued from tomato overload, but they’re usually missed soon enough.

“I do look forward to the next (growing) season, like, ‘OK, great, we have something else now,” said Ridgeway. “But it’s nice to have all these tomatoes on hand, even if it’s just for a simple sandwich or a burger. Some of the sliced tomatoes are as big as the bun. We’ve got tomatoes all over the place.”