Farmhouse Style EXTRA
Written by Lynn Coulter.
Not all heirlooms are pocket watches or antique desks. Old vegetable varieties count as heirlooms, too, when their seeds are handed down from one generation of gardeners to another, or when the stories behind them connect us to the past.
Today, an increasing number of gardeners are growing heirloom tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, peppers and other old-timey produce. Lee Buttala of Seed Savers Exchange believes heirloom plants are trending because people want to be more self-reliant and know where their foods come from.
Heirlooms also help keep our food crops diverse, and saving seeds is economical, but it's more than that. "We're taking [seeds] from the past, using them in the present, and storing them into the future." Buttala says. "We're looking for things that make us feel like we're doing something restorative and good."
Matthew Hoffman, co-owner of The Living Seed Company, notes that varieties that have been around for at least 50 years are usually considered heirlooms, and they're open pollinated. That means you can save their seeds, and they'll grow true-to-type [or produce plants that look like the parent].
In addition to healthier plants, growing heirloom vegetables can be fun, especially when discovering their fascinating stories. "Some feel like fables," Buttala says. "Like the story about a farmer's wife who dressed a goose for dinner and found beans in its craw. The family grew them out, and now they're known as ‘Mostoller Wild Goose' beans."
Growing heirlooms isn't hard, says Kathy McFarland of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. "They don't need anything that hybrids don't. The most important thing is to look at your [USDA plant hardiness] zone and pick a variety that grows well there."
Buttala agrees: "Some people say hybrids are more vigorous, but if there's a problem, maybe you need a different variety. Look over the fence and see what your neighbor's growing successfully."
Chris Smith of Sow True Seed suggests, "Be prepared to celebrate differences and nuances in heirloom varieties. Some gnarly, ugly tomatoes end up being the best tasting!"
Heirloom veggies are delicious and nutritious, and as Buttala says, "Seeds and food bring everyone to a common table." Saving your seeds, Hoffman adds, is "a beautiful way to connect more deeply to your garden. Maybe you'll even discover one of your own heirlooms. You never know what kind of treasure you might find."
Seeds image photographed by Kristen Early; courtesy of Johnny's Selected Seeds.
• Cherokee Purple, a purplish-pink heirloom tomato from the Cherokee Indians. "It's juicy and delicious, mainly for eating fresh, but you can can it," says Sow True Seed's Chris Smith. He also likes chunky, flavorful "Zapotec Pleated" tomatoes. "I haven't confirmed it, but the seed donor said it's one of the oldest heirloom tomatoes, with a link back to Central American breeding stock."
• Bradford watermelons from the 1850s. "It's an incredible-tasting watermelon thought lost for many years," Smith says. "Along with this reintroduction came many of the cultural uses of watermelons, like watermelon molasses and watermelon rind pickles."
• Dr. Wyche, a yellow tomato. "Dr. Wyche owned a circus, and it's said he grew this luscious tomato on elephant dung," explains Lee Buttala of Seed Savers Exchange.
• Boothby's Blonde, a light-skinned cucumber. Matthew Hoffman of The Living Seed Company recommends it for eating fresh, to enjoy its delicate, refreshing flavor.
• Whipple beans, heirlooms from Oregon. Hoffman soaks the speckled, dark maroon beans overnight and then cooks them until they thicken. He seasons them with sautéed garlic, onions and cumin to make baked beans.
• Andy's Polish Pink, a family heirloom tomato from Poland. Hoffman suggests slicing it for eating fresh or making it into paste. "It's not too juicy, and it tastes like summer."
Tomatoes photograph from Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History.
HEIRLOOM SEED RESOURCES
Annie's Heirloom Seeds, www.anniesheirloomseeds.com
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds.com
W. Atlee Burpee Company, www.burpee.com
Johnny's Selected Seeds, www.johnnyseeds.com
The Living Seed Company, www.livingseedcompany.com
Seed Savers Exchange, www.seedsavers.org
Sow True Seed, https://sowtrueseed.com
Territorial Seed Company, www.territorialseed.com
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History by William Woys Weaver, 2018, Voyageur Press: www.voyageurpress.com
Jamie DeMent, chef, restaurateur, farm owner and rural North Carolina native, grows and cooks with heirloom vegetables. Here is one of her recipes from her cookbook The Farmhouse Chef.
Makes 4–6 servings
1 unbaked piecrust
2 large heirloom tomatoes (different varieties and colors)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
½ pound fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1" strips
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. Blind-bake the piecrust first. Press the crust evenly into a 9" pan and prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork. Line the crust with parchment paper and fill the pan with pie weights or dried beans. Bake until the crust begins to turn slightly golden around the edges -- approximately 10 minutes. Remove the piecrust from the oven and set it aside to cool.
3. Once the crust is cool, slice the tomatoes evenly and arrange them in the piecrust in a single layer. Drizzle the olive oil over the top. Sprinkle the chopped fresh herbs on top of the tomatoes, and then arrange the slices of cheese on top.
4. Bake the tart for 30 minutes -- until the tomatoes are tender and the cheese is just starting to bubble. Let the pie cool completely. When ready to serve, season with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
From The Farmhouse Chef: Recipes & Stories From My Carolina Farm by Jamie DeMent. Copyright © 2017 by Jamie DeMent. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press, www.uncpress.org. Photograph © Felicia Perry Trujillo.
Read more about Jamie DeMent and discover more recipes in the first 2018 Farmhouse Style issue. Click here to order
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