By Chef David “Smitty” Smith ·
Fresh tomatoes of your choice
Extra virgin olive oil
Layer a few different types of tomatoes with the fresh mozzarella, sprinkle with fresh, chopped basil and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
The crowd had gathered early in raptured anticipation of the event that was about to unfold and reveal the answers to all of the long-sought after questions. The cluster of ceiling lights beamed on the exquisitely carved bamboo cutting board that had been past down for generations from one worthy chef to another in the greatest traditions of his ancestors. Just to the right of the chef’s position, seated in a small cluster around the end of the counter, the seven most highly decorated and knowledgeable judges sat with score cards at the ready. Now, as the chef approached his station, the finest stainless steel slicing knife ever forged visible in his hand, the crowd pressed forward for a better view …
OK, so it was just one light, the cutting board was one of those classic white nylon, dishwasher-safe boards, it was a $30 serrated knife from Resco, there was no crowd, and I was the only judge. I had gone to the farmers’ market, and while I was there I took an impromptu survey of what the most popular item was that people were shopping for. Of course, the first answer was always simply, fresh produce, but when asked for specific items, the two most common answers, at least from that day, were tomatoes and then fruit. I have to admit, that is usually the case for me. I will get other things, too, but the tomatoes are always what I really go for. I was there kind of late, and as it turned out, most of the tomatoes were already gone.
With such a high ratio of people picking tomatoes as he or her main target, I decided to take it one step farther. When you look at the tables, there are usually two signs for tomatoes: red tomatoes for the regular slicers and heirloom tomatoes.
Seems pretty straight forward, but when you look at the heirloom tomatoes, there are all different sized, shaped and colored ones. Are they all the same? No, definitely not, but did you ever really take the time to see what the differences are? I mean, I always buy the tomatoes because they taste so much better than anything you can find the rest of the year, but I never really tried to pick a favorite or identify the specific varieties, so I thought it was time to check it out.
I thought about asking the farmers about his or her favorites and the differences, but they were pretty busy and I wanted to do a little testing on my own first so as not to cloud my judgment. I picked out one of each of what they had and then, because I really only saw about five varieties plus one slicer, I picked up two more at Whole foods along with another regular slicer at Save-Mart. That gave me what I thought to be eight types of tomatoes, one slicer was farm fresh the other store bought. I say thought because I’m not a tomato expert and some varieties look similar to others. Case in point: To me, the black brandy wine and black krim look pretty much the same after checking out some charts. I’m guessing the ones I had were the black krim, but again, that’s a guess.
What did I find? First, there are a lot of similarities and differences between varieties. Some are subtle differences and some quite huge. It was a lot like doing a wine tasting. The yellow tomato I had was sweeter than any other. It really was like eating a piece of fruit, and not a tomato. I know, tomatoes are fruit, but you know what I mean.
The store-bought slicer was, not surprisingly, the least flavorful, but at the same time, the one that would hold up and last the longest. They are hybrids grown for that reason, so they can handle the mass picking and shipping better.
Did you know that heirloom tomatoes are called that because they are open pollinated – the seeds passed down for several generations instead of cross pollinated with another type to produce a specific crop, like the slicers. For heirloom tomatoes, any cross pollinating occurs naturally, and then, I’m guessing after a few generations, they can be called heirlooms.
As far as the rest of the heirlooms, the green zebra (yellow with green stripes), was the one I found to be a little more tart than the rest, but still had a ton of flavor. The rest were all different shades of red and the differences were more subtle.
My two favorites were the black krim, which had a deep purplish color, and the Brandywine. The krim was slightly sweeter with great flavor, but the Brandywine had such a great, rich, tomato flavor; it was really a tossup.
Final conclusions: First, taste testing is always fun. If you do the same test that I did, would we come up with the same results? Maybe, but not necessarily. Some of the tomatoes I used were not at the peak ripeness, which would have an effect on flavor, but in order to do a side-by-side comparison, I couldn’t wait or some would be past the prime. It’s one thing to test nine tomatoes side by side, but you need to be ready to use the rest of all those sliced tomatoes pretty quickly.
I think another way to do it is to make a classic caprese salad layering a few different types of tomatoes with the fresh mozzarella, sprinkled with fresh, chopped basil and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Then, the next time you make that salad, change up the tomatoes. Enjoy the rest of the summer’s tomato supply.
Smitty is a personal chef specializing in dinner parties, cooking classes and special events. Trained under Master Chef Anton Flory at Top Notch Resort in Stowe, Vt., Smitty is known for his creative use of fresh ingredients. He has been a chef for PGA’s Memorial Tournament for more than 15 years and ran the main kitchen at the World Games. For more information and archived copies of Stir it Up, visit chefsmitty.com. Smitty welcomes questions and comments at [email protected], [email protected] or (530) 412-3598.