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Heirloom tomatoes

Cherry tomato on top

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The time is ripe to feast on heirloom tomatoes. These non-hybrid strains of the vegetable come in a number of colours from green and black to yellow and purple.

Tomatoes, sliced into wedges, sprinkled with sea salt and had with a hunk of good bread. That's the sort of thing I like eating in summer. This summer, I'll be eating a lot of heirloom tomatoes.
It's what I have been doing ever since I discovered these beautiful tomatoes that literally jumped out at me off the shelf at my local supermarket in all their colourful glory - green, black, yellow, purple, orange. There was no way I could have walked away from them. So I bought them all.

And yes, I did say tomatoes. Your parents might tell you of misshapen tomatoes they grew up eating. I faintly recall eating them as a child. But today all we see is the hybrid red tomato and the occasional unripe green tomato in season. I had certainly never seen tomatoes in different colours. Samar Gupta of Trikaya, the farming company that cultivates these tomatoes, says that heirloom varieties (also called heritage tomatoes in the UK) are open-pollinated, non-hybrid cultivars of tomato that have existed without genetic modification or hybridisation for generations. In the West they have been grown out of historical interest typically by people who desire wider varieties and wish to keep the seeds. Unlike hybrid seeds, heirloom seeds almost always have the characteristics of the original seed.

The variety of colours is marvellous: Red Giant and Red Globe (which are black in colour), Green Zebra, Orange Banana, yellow and green Brandywine, Great White, Green Maldovan and Cream Sausage. The tomatoes come in various shapes. Some are irregular, some long, some perfectly round. The Black Cherry Tomato and Sungold Cherry Tomato are the size of grapes while the miniature Spoon Tomatoes are so named because they are the size of peas and several of them can fit into an average tablespoon.

My first move was to assemble a platter of each kind with salt and taste them. A lot of the tomatoes tasted like tomatoes should, but some were distinctly different. The little spoon tomatoes were a delight, their thin skins bursting in the mouth in a spray of intensely tomato flavours. The Orange Banana assailed my olfactory senses with notes of pumpkin, tasting subtly sweet and fruity. But the biggest discovery was the Green cultivars. When I first picked up a wedge of the Green Maldovan, my mouth anticipated the tartness that one associates with unripe green tomatoes. But on tasting it, I was delighted to taste a ripe and juicy tomato. And the Green Zebra, a zany little number in lime green with dark green stripes zigzagging down the skin, was ripe, juicy and firm. It would lend itself well to grilling or frying. Even before I finished I was clear in my mind that doing too much with them would take away from their beauty. So I prepared one of the most classic ways to serve ripe tomatoes - an Italian Caprese salad. But with a 'tadka'.

I chilled the tomatoes until it was almost time to eat. Then I proceeded to paint a large platter with all the colours of the tomato. I drizzled over sea salt, the crystals making their way into all the nooks and crannies between the tomatoes and into their crevices, dabbed on soft clouds of fresh mozzarella (the kind that comes in water) torn off in bite sized chunks, its milky juices mixing with those bleeding off the tomatoes. On went a scattering of fresh, tender basil leaves and the finishing touch was a tadka-style dressing.

I fried a generous amount of garlic in olive oil till it was golden and crisp. Ten seconds before taking the pan off the flame, I threw in a few leaves of basil. The olive oil sensuously gilded the tomatoes, gently warmed the mozzarella and made its way right down to the bottom of the plate to add to the juices collecting there. When all the tomatoes were finished, the pool of juices was soaked up with hunks of good bread. It was the centrepiece of dinner that night which, appropriately, happened to be Valentine's Day.

It takes more than a salad to consume 16 boxes of tomatoes. So I decided to roast the leftovers. Slow roasted tomatoes were one of the first things I ever cooked in my early culinary explorations. Happiness has many definitions. For some, it involves fine foods and expensive wines, sparkly diamonds and silken fabrics. For others, it may be ice cream, old movies and the seaside. For me it is a spoonful of slow-roasted tomatoes smeared on a slice of freshly baked bread. Usually tomatoes are first halved lengthwise and slowly cooked in a low oven for several hours. I roast mine the same way but I prefer to use small cherry tomatoes.

That day I roasted the colourful cherry tomatoes and the little spoon tomatoes. Segregating the tomatoes into two separate pans according to size, I added generous amounts of olive oil, oodles of chopped fresh herbs, salt and smashed garlic and baked the lot slowly for five hours until their skins were wrinkled, their juices had thickened to syrup and their flavours intensified. When they cooled, I mixed them up and stored them in the fridge.

The heirloom Caprese salad is the only salad I intend to eat through this summer. And my second batch of roasted heirlooms is filling many gaps. They work incredibly well with carbohydrate-rich dishes. Toss rice, potatoes, pasta, especially a ravioli or gnocchi, with them while still warm for a quick comforting dinner. Or pair them with haloumi or grilled chicken and greens for a delicious, if slightly messy, sandwich. And on hot nights when standing in front of the gas seems profane, I seek solace in that magic bottle of tomatoes alongside a hunk of crusty bread, a wedge of cheese and a crisp salad.

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