Vine-ripened, oddly shaped, and packed with flavor: There’s nothing like an heirloom tomato. We asked farmer Gary Ibsen, who’s been growing and selling these beauties for almost 40 years, for a personal introduction.
Since 1972, Gary Ibsen has been growing heirloom tomatoes on his small organic farm outside of Carmel, Calif. What began as a hobby soon became a lifelong passion. Ibsen, 67, has been instrumental in reintroducing heirloom tomatoes to grocery stores, restaurants and small farms across America.
It’s always been Ibsen’s goal to be a seed bank, and to date he’s collected and grown more than 800 heirloom varieties. You can buy heirloom seeds on his Web site at www.tomatofest.com.
“Gary’s a true pioneer,” says Julie Chai, associate gardening editor of Sunset magazine in Menlo Park, Calif. “He was growing heirloom tomatoes, and sharing them with the public, long before heirlooms became trendy. He’s really dedicated his life to educating people about the importance of preserving these old varieties.”
We talked with Ibsen by phone about his love of heirlooms, which are now at peak season.
How does an heirloom tomato differ from a hybrid?
“An heirloom is generally considered to be a variety of tomato that has been passed down, through several generations of a family, because of its valued characteristics. Generally, heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940.”
What do they taste like?
“They have intoxicatingly delightful flavors. From sweet to citrusy, from tangy and surprising, to complex, yet subtly nuanced. Each one is an adventure.”
Where can you purchase them?
“In the last 10 years, a greater variety of heirlooms have shown up at farmers’ markets, and in produce stands in larger markets, around the United States. The most common varieties to be found are Brandywine, Green Zebra, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Hillbilly, Abe Lincoln, Amana Orange, Early Girl, Black Cherry and Grape.”
Where do you get your heirloom seeds?
“The seeds for a lot of the varieties I’ve gotten, like, say, Homer Fike’s Yellow Oxheart, were sent to me by a family member with a handwritten note saying, ‘These were from my great-granduncle who had a farm in West Virginia. This is all he ever grew, and I wanted to share these seeds with you.’”
America seems to be having a love affair with heirlooms.
“People stop me on the street to say, ‘I’m still looking for the tomato that my Uncle Ralph used to grow when I was a kid. I’m trying to find something that will taste that good.’ I can’t think of another food that has so many people’s emotions and memories attached to it.”
Any heirlooms you don’t recommend?
“With globalization, markets can now get heirlooms year-round from any far-off, sunny place. Of course, they have to pick them under-ripe or green and transport them long distances. The result is a flavorless tomato that costs a lot. I have people calling me in the wintertime saying they tried an heirloom and it had no taste. I tell them, those aren’t mine.
Heirloom Grab Bag
Heirloom tomatoes come in all sizes, from beefsteak to cherry, and in a rainbow of colors, including pink, green, orange and purple. Their names are just as colorful: Mortgage Lifter, Amish Paste and Super Sioux, to name a few. On this page is a selection of heirlooms you might find at your local farmers’ market, along with Ibsen’s vine-ripened comments.
Flamme — “An extremely beautiful and prolific French heirloom variety that bears golf-ball-sized tomatoes in clusters of six. A delicious full-bodied tomato flavor that literally bursts in your mouth.”
Cherokee Purple — “An heirloom from Tennessee cultivated by the Native American Cherokee tribe. Dusky rose to purple colored, 1-pound, beefsteak tomatoes. Rich, complex and sweet — one of the best-tasting heirloom tomatoes.”
Red Brandywine — “An Old Amish heirloom dating back to 1885. Large, vigorous vines produce 8- to 12-ounce, deep-red fruits. Excellent, robust, old-fashioned tomatoey flavors.”
Green Zebra — “Wonderful lemon-lime flavors. A very popular variety. Gorgeous to put in a bowl with other colored tomatoes.”
Red Zebra — A delightful, beautifully striped heirloom that bursts with bold tomato flavors.”
Black Plum — “A Russian variety that has become popular in the United States. It produces 2-inch elongated plum-shaped fruits with a unique, sweet-tangy, earthy flavor.”
Plum Lemon — “Originally from an old seedsman in Moscow. A deliciously mild, sweet taste with a citrus finish. A perfect tomato for salads, tomato sauce or even a wonderful yellow catsup.”
Gold Medal — “Wonderful, 1 to 2 pounds, yellow and red bicolor beefsteak tomato with thin skin and luscious, sweet, well-balanced flavors.”
• Technically a fruit, tomatoes are the primary dietary source of lycopene, a potent antioxidant that may help prevent a variety of cancers, especially prostate cancer. Researchers have also shown that lycopene prevents oxidation of LDL cholesterol, in turn possibly lowering the risk of heart disease.
• Cooked tomatoes, such as those found in sauces, purées and soups, contain much higher amounts of lycopene than raw tomatoes. Lycopene is fat-soluble, so in order to increase its bodily absorption, enjoy your tomatoes with healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, fish, and cheese from grass-fed animals.
• Low in sugar and high in fiber, tomatoes are also a rich source of potassium, manganese, and vitamins A, C and K (which helps bone health) and a good source of some B vitamins.
• Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family, which contains alkaloids. If you are sensitive to nightshades, eat only cooked tomatoes, since cooking greatly reduces the strength of the alkaloids.
Quick and Easy
1. Dried — Dehydrating tomatoes is a way to preserve them without having to do the work of canning. Simply slice tomatoes in half and place on a cooling rack and dry in a low oven, about 125 degrees F, overnight. Add to salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes — or just nosh on their own.
2. Deglazing — After sautéing meat, fish or veggies in a pan, add chopped tomatoes to deglaze. The juice works like wine to balance the rich flavors, while the liquid loosens what’s stuck to the pan.
3. Stuffed — Stuff an heirloom tomato half with your favorite salad. Scoop out the center of the tomato (you can add the flesh to your stuffing mixture)and add zesty quinoa tabouli, with lots of chopped fresh parsley and mint, lemon juice, and extra-virgin olive oil. Tuna and turkey salads are also nice options. (For a quick bite or appetizer, stuff cherry tomatoes with marinated cheeses or olives.)
4. Roasted — Drizzle a baking sheet with extra-virgin olive oil and place tomatoes on the sheet. (Cherry tomatoes roast beautifully uncut, as do smaller tomatoes, but larger heirloom tomatoes roast better when cut in half and placed on the baking sheet cut-side up.) Roast at 450 degrees F for 15 to 30 minutes, until the tomatoes deflate a little and the juices begin to caramelize. Once roasted, the tomatoes can be added to a soup or sauce, or eaten as a side dish with your morning eggs. (For a simple Roasted Tomato Basil Soup recipe, see the Web Extra.)
5. Raw — Make a pretty stack or display of sliced heirloom tomatoes. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar reduction, sprinkle with chopped fresh basil and cracked black pepper, and top with shavings of Manchego cheese.
• Invest in a good serrated knife — it can quickly cut through your heirlooms without leaving all their lovely, piquant juices on your cutting board. Another handy tool is a soft-skin-vegetable peeler, which allows you to easily strip off the tomato skin without all the hassle of blanching. (For a model we love, see our Healthy Eating Worthy Goods picks.)
• When cooking tomatoes, use nonreactive cookware — stainless steel is perfect — so that the acid from the tomatoes does not interact with the metal in aluminum or cast-iron pans, which can create an unpleasant flavor.
• Some people think that tomato seeds lend dishes flavor and a rustic touch. Others think they taste slightly bitter when cooked. If you opt to seed your heirlooms, simply slice in half crosswise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon.
Shopping and Storage Tips
• Look for ripe heirlooms that are heavy, have a little give when squeezed, and are free of wrinkles and blemishes. If you’re at the farmers’ market, ask for a little slice to taste.
• Opt for locally grown organic tomatoes. They’re much higher in antioxidants than conventional tomatoes.
• Store heirlooms at room temperature — refrigeration ruins the flavor of tomatoes.
• Overwhelmed by an abundant crop? Simply put whole tomatoes into freezer bags and pop in the freezer for later use in cooking.
Shrimp and Heirloom Tomato Cevice
Enjoy as an appetizer with raw veggies or whole-grain chips. Choose wild-caught or sustainably farmed U.S. shrimp over imported shrimp, which may be contaminated with antibiotic and pesticide residues. For a vegetarian version, substitute canned black beans for the shrimp.
Makes four servings
1 cup fresh lime juice
½ pound raw, peeled and deveined shrimp, cut into half lengthwise
1 jalapeño, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups diced heirloom tomatoes; use a colorful variety
¼ cup minced red onion
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 ripe avocado, cut into cubes
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
For an authentic ceviche, marinate the raw cut shrimp with the lime juice for 30 minutes to “cook” the shrimp. (If you are not comfortable with this process, you can cook the shrimp in boiling water for one to two minutes before tossing with the lime juice.)
Toss the shrimp in a big bowl with the remaining ingredients and refrigerate for two hours before serving. If you find that your ceviche is too juicy, you may drain off some of the liquid before serving.
Heirloom Tomato and Garbanzo Bean Salad
This lemony, Greek-inspired salad can be enjoyed on its own or can be tossed with a cup of cooked barley, quinoa or brown rice to make a more substantial dish. It also makes a great sandwich filling for pita bread. You can easily use dried garbanzo beans in place of canned. Just soak beans for several hours or overnight, then simmer for an hour or so, until soft.
Makes six servings
1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 pint (2 cups) heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved, or 2 cups heirloom tomatoes, cubed
2 cups chopped cucumber
½ cup red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup diced red bell pepper
½ cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1 cup (5 ounces) crumbled feta cheese
1 fresh lemon, juiced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Toss all the ingredients together in a large salad bowl. Salt shouldn’t be necessary since the cheese has enough salt to flavor the salad. Enjoy immediately, or store in the refrigerator until ready to eat.
Super-Quick Heirloom Tomato Sauce
Serve with whole-grain pasta (consider a gluten-free option made from brown rice), or on top of chicken, steak or fish. To make a primavera sauce, simply add diced veggies, such as zucchini, bell pepper, broccoli, cauliflower or carrots, to the tomato sauce.
Makes four servings (about 2 cups of sauce)
1 tbs. olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 to 3 large heirloom tomatoes, diced
Salt and crushed black pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
Splash of balsamic vinegar (optional)
All of this issue’s heirloom tomato recipes were created by Betsy Nelson — a.k.a. “That Food Girl” — a Minneapolis-based food stylist and recipe developer.
More with Gary Ibsen
There are those “aha” moments that change one’s life for the better. And then there are “aha” moments that wind up changing an entire country for the better. Gary Ibsen’s “aha” moment occurred in 1972, while living on a small farm that he had just bought outside Carmel, California. At the time, he wasn’t a farmer – but a publisher of local food magazines focusing on the organic farming and cooking.
His life-changing moment came with his first taste of an heirloom tomato, which are also known as heritage and antique tomatoes. These are open-pollinated, non-hybridized tomatoes that were grown throughout America before the early 1950s. There are hundred of varieties that come in all shapes, sizes and colors, sporting spiffy names like Mortgage Lifter, Amish Paste and Super Sioux. Although heirlooms are the crowning jewels of today’s farmer’s markets, a few decades ago many if not most of them were on the verge of extinction.
“I always loved tomatoes and gardening,” says Ibsen, thinking back to his first heirloom experience. “One day an old Portuguese farmer who lived down the road invited me over to see his organic soil, which was rich and dark and loamy. He grew heirloom tomatoes in his garden, and asked me if I knew what they were. I said I didn’t. So he sent me home with six seedlings, some of which had come from the old country. I went home and planted them alongside my hybrids. At the end of the season, I did a comparative tasting for my family.”
His “aha” moment had arrived: “I was overwhelmed with the flavor qualities of the heirlooms,” says Ibsen. “There was absolutely nothing like them.”
From then on Ibsen was obsessed with heirlooms. And not just eating them. “I became passionately involved with not only wanting to share their diversity and flavors, but with protecting them from disappearing,” he says. “Over the last few decades we’ve lost 30 percent of the hybrids as small farms replace them with hybrids. It was my goal to not just sell heirlooms, but become a seed bank.”
“Gary’s a true pioneer,” says Julie Chai, gardening editor of Sunset magazine in Palo Alto, California. “He was growing heirlooms, and sharing them with the public, long before heirlooms became trendy. He’s really dedicated his life to educating people about the importance of preserving these old varieties, and is also a true humanitarian, donating his time and seeds to help communities in need.”
After three years of growing heirloom tomatoes on his farm as a hobby, Ibsen decided to see if he could sell them. “At that point I had 50 varieties,” he says. “So I got in my truck and started delivering them to local stores.”
To Ibsen’s surprise, not everyone was ready to share his “aha” moment in heirlooms. After all, they weren’t all red, and didn’t fit the hybrid beauty profile — heirlooms can be squatty, pointy and weirdly misshapen.
“I remember bringing two, 20-pound cases to my local Whole Foods Market,” says Ibsen. “The produce team leader called me a few days later to say, ‘I can’t move any of these tomatoes. My customers won’t go near the black ones or the striped ones. They’re afraid of them.’ I said, ‘Well, set me up a table by your front door and I’ll be right over.’ I started tasting tomatoes with the customers. Within a day or two the store had sold out of heirlooms. Within a year, that one store went from buying two 20-pound cases a week to two tons a week.”
For the next six years Ibsen drove around Central California selling his tomatoes to grocery stores and farmer’s markets. “I was fascinated with what happened when I began selling them to restaurants,” he says. “The heirlooms gave chefs a whole new palette of colors and flavors to work with. Instead of a menu saying a dish was made with a tomato couli or a tomato reduction sauce, it now named the heirloom tomato the sauce was made with and where it was grown.”
So successful was Ibsen at selling heirlooms that he soon had to rethink what he had started. “A lot of the farmers I had exposed heirlooms to began growing their own,” he says. “ Many of them had big farms that were cutting me out of the market. So I stopped selling fresh produce. I couldn’t compete. I chose to just focus on selling seeds.” Over the next few decades, he acquired and grew over 800 varieties from around the world. He currently offers 600 heirlooms for sale on his Web site. (To see Ibsen’s heirloom tomato inventory, and to order seeds, go to www.tomatofest.com.)
Where does he get them? In most cases, he says, they come to him. “The seeds for a lot of the varieties I’ve gotten, say Homer Fike’s Yellow Oxheart, are sent to me by a family member with a handwritten note saying, ‘These were from my great-granduncle who had a farm in West Virginia. This is all he ever grew and I wanted to share these seeds with you.’"
“If they don’t have a name,” he says, “I name them.” Thus the Julia Child, a large pink heirloom. “Julia and I were friends and travelled together,” Ibsen says. “One time she came for lunch and I told her, ‘Julia, if I were a composer I’d write you a love song. If I were an artist, I’d paint you a painting. I’m a tomato farmer, so all I can do is name a tomato after you. If I did, what kind of tomato would you like it to be? She didn’t even blink an eye. She said, ‘Tasty.’ That’s all she wanted.”
According to Ibsen, the heirloom’s success has a not-so-pretty side. “When I was selling heirlooms, stores would say to me, ‘They’re our biggest selling summer item. We need to have them all year long. Will you grow them for us in the winter?’ I told them, ‘I won’t even try. Your customers can do without. There’s nothing wrong with people looking forward to eating them in season.’ But now with globalization markets can get them year round from any far-off, sunny place. Of course they have to pick them green and transport them long distances. The result is a flavorless tomato that cost a lot. I have people calling me now saying they tried an heirloom and it had no taste. I tell them those aren’t mine.”
If you’re thinking your local farmer’s market might not have a large variety of heirlooms for sale, you might be surprised. “Most of my orders are from small farmers across the country who want to be the first to carry a certain variety of heirlooms in their vicinity,” says Ibsen. “They say it’ll be a big hit, and it is.”
Three years ago Gary and Dagma moved off the farm to a house in Mendocino, on California’s northern coast, where they now run their mail order business. “With the help of five ladies from the yoga class, we sort, package and mail out 200 seed requests a day,” says Ibsen, “five seeds to a packet.”
To the dismay of many heirloom lovers, their move put an end to a 17-year tradition, Salinas Valley’s annual TomatoFest. What began as a gathering of neighbors for a comparative taste testing at harvest time on their farm evolved into a charity event that attracted thousands of attendees and the national media. There was even a Miss Hot Tomato. “It was taking us ten months to put together a one-day event,” says Ibsen. “There were other things Dagma and I needed to do.”
Ibsen, who’s 66, and who has nine children and eight grand children, didn’t give up the farm, though. All of the heirlooms for his seeds are still grown there. Although Ibsen has his favorites, he says it would be impossible for him to identify the flavor of all of the ones he’s grown.
Could that imply that America’s “aha” love affair with heirlooms isn’t just about subtle flavor differences based on acid-to-sugar proportions? “I have people who stop me on the street,” says Ibsen. “They say to me, I’m still looking for the tomato that my uncle Ralph used to grow when I was a kid. I ‘m trying to find something that will taste that good. My first response is, ‘You never will find a tomato that taste that good because you’ve locked in that whole experience of your uncle or grandfather of parents with that tomato.
“I can’t think of another food that has that kind of quality – that has so many people’s emotions and memories attached to it.”
Recipe! Roasted Tomato Basil Soup
Makes four servings
- 6 medium heirloom tomatoes (about 2 pounds)
- 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 cup chopped yellow onion
- 1 medium parsnip, peeled and chopped (about 1 cup)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 cups vegetable stock
Chopped fresh basil and Greek yogurt to garnish
Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Cut out the stem end of the tomatoes and cut in half, and place tomatoes cut side up on a baking sheet drizzled with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Roast tomatoes with two cloves of garlic for 30 to 45 minutes, until tomatoes are soft.
In a saucepan, heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté the onion and parsnip together with fresh cracked pepper and salt until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the tomatoes and vegetable broth and simmer together until parsnips are tender, about 15 minutes.
Purée with an immersion blender or blend in small batches in a blender until soup is smooth and creamy. Serve warm in bowls with a dollop of Greek yogurt and chopped fresh basil.
To make a spicy soup, add a jalapeño to the roasting tomatoes, or ½ teaspoon ground chipotle peppers to the sautéing onions and parsnips.