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You Say Tomato…

June 18th, 2011 - By Lari Robling

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I say heirloom and local. So does Pennsylvania farmer Tim Stark, author of Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer. He reveals what makes a good Jersey tomato and answers the question, “to feel or not to feel.”


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“I love summer tomatoes, they are the best thing in the world.”
“I love those small cherry tomatoes, it just sings of summer.”
“I like tomatoes because they have good stuff for you.”
“I love tomatoes, so I put tomatoes on everything, so just ripe tomatoes, fresh, I’m actually going to make a nice turkey burger and put a tomato on top.”

The first tomatoes of the season are slowly coming into the market. Hurray! And if it is heirloom tomatoes, double hurray! Fifteen years ago, writer Tim Stark, fell into growing heirloom tomatoes and began selling them to high-end New York restaurants. It was the beginning of our tomato renaissance and his career as a farmer. But after years of seeing five star chefs use his tomatoes in fancy dishes, what is Stark’s favorite? “When they are really at the peak, I come in at ten o’clock at night and I can chop it up, throw it on some bread with a little mayonnaise and get to bed in three minutes. And have the best meal, better than if I’d gone out to eat.”

Pennsylvania farmer and author Tim Stark

It’s all in the simple pleasure of ripe, juicy tomato and not much else. With the weather and higher gas prices, tomatoes can be pricey. How to get the best our money can buy? We know to avoid those hardball fruits from points south, but today even our eponymous Jerseys can be a far cry from the real deal…

“The jersey tomato years ago used to be this cracked beaten up thing and that’s where it developed its reputation. And now, beware of those tomatoes that show up that say Jersey tomato with all the packaging. The only way you can get a good cracked and scarred tomato is to go the farmer yourself, and not be afraid of it. And refrigerating is just, well you are way out in left field if you throw it in a refrigerator!” So it seems beauty is in the eye of the taster and ugly tomatoes have the best flavor. “To me the secret of my tomatoes is there’s a lot of organic matter in there. There is a lot of minerals, it’s the mineral content in the soil, I don’t pump them up with fertilizer. We use compost and we use clover that we plow under, and rye that we plow under. A friend calls it a built in salt flavor in the tomatoes. You don’t need to add anything!”

Stark says the Farmer’s Markets offer the best way to buy. And you can ask how they are grown and picked and what’s the best variety coming in. “Try all the different farmers. There are non-organic farmers that are growing pretty good tomatoes too as long as they are growing locally. I don’t want to be just buy organic.”

How do you know if a tomato has spent it’s time in the sun and is at the perfect moment of ripeness? Stark says it’s all in the touch, “I can feel a tomato that’s just been picked a day before. You can still pick a tomato green and even without the gas let it sit for a week and it will eventually turn ripe. But you can feel when it’s ripe, it has a certain hardness to it. It has a sandbag quality to it is what I call it.”

And what about that age old question — is it bad form for a shopper to handle the produce? “Farmer’s don’t want you feeling their tomatoes to much especially heirlooms because you can bruise them. But, sneak a little feel in there from time to time, I don’t care.”

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