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Beyond the Beauty

With heirloom tomatoes, the spectrum of flavor is truly stunning

August 14, 2002|DONNA DEANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's no arguing that heirloom tomatoes are beautiful. The same fruits banished from supermarket shelves, because they were too soft-skinned, too small, too large and too otherwise old-fashioned to endure conveyor belts and refrigerator cases, made their way back to retooled markets because of their thrilling range of colors and shapes.

Tour the stalls of a farmers market or wander the aisles of an upscale supermarket anywhere in America from August to October, and the displays of heirloom tomatoes are so bright they make Joseph's Technicolor Dreamcoat look as dull as wet tweed.

We not only love the rainbow displays, we expect them. But we have yet to embrace the greater story behind that blush of colors. This is a range of textures and flavors that almost renders the visual kick of heirlooms irrelevant.

Heirlooms come so tart they could supplant vinegar in a salad dressing, so sweet they are halfway to pie filling or begging to dive into a pot to be made into a thick winter jam. Slice into the steaky, purple flesh of a Black Krim, slip a cook's bite on your tongue, and you could swear it was already dressed. This tomato wants nothing but taking to table, fast, before you devour it.

"I don't think anything creates the frenzy that tomatoes do," says Maryann Carpenter of Coastal Organics, which sells both heirloom tomatoes and favorites such as Early Girl at farmers markets. "Our business kicks up a notch or two in summer when we have tomatoes--it's our busiest time of year."

Of course, chefs can't resist them either. Coastal Organics sells to more than 30 chefs every week, who buy tomatoes by the case. One, Josiah Citrin, creates a tomato tasting menu every year at Melisse in Santa Monica.

"The different varieties, flavors and textures are wonderful," he says. "I can create a whole menu of eight courses using tomatoes."

That menu, Celebration of Tomatoes, costs $95 a person and includes a lobster ceviche with Green Zebra tomatoes, a chanterelle risotto with roasted heirlooms and foie gras poached in a tomato consomme. Citrin loves tomatoes so that he's growing them on the roof of the restaurant.

Evan Kleiman, the chef of Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue, is so enamored of Costoluto Canestrino, an Italian sauce tomato with distinctive ruffled lobes, that for the past three years she has brought back packets of seeds for farmers to plant. She describes her crusade as a "mission from God."

"They are the best sauce tomatoes I've ever tasted," she says. "They don't have much water, but enough for meaty, juicy flesh that breaks down very quickly in the pan, leaving a sauce of great color, flavor and consistency."

Jean-Pierre Bosc, the chef at Mimosa in Los Angeles, supplements his restaurant supply with tomatoes from his garden. One of his favorite dishes is a tart of roasted tomatoes and pistou that practically sings with summery flavor.

The Times Test Kitchen isn't immune to this seasonal tomato fever. Over the past week, we created recipes that celebrate pure tomato flavor--you'll find no overwhelming additions of cheese or herbs or cream here.

For instance, our soup is made by simply skinning fresh tomatoes and saving every last drop of their juice, so every last bit of flavor arrives in the bowl. Because the soup is pureed, it looks and tastes as rich as if it were made with cream, yet it has none. It would also be beautiful made with yellow tomatoes.

Our heirloom tomato salad is so easy--heirlooms need little to shine. Just cut them into thick chunks, toss them with a vinaigrette and fresh arugula, and add a sprinkling of fleur de sel and cracked black pepper. The result is juicy and tangy with a bit of crunch--perfect for a hot summer day.

We also loved cookbook author Ana Thomas' recipe for Charred Tomatoes With Garlic and Olives. Rich and concentrated, it's like a tomato butter. While it would be good with crusty bread, we couldn't resist it plain, so powerful was the fresh tomato flavor.

Of course, if you'd rather not cook, there are even simpler ways to enjoy great tomatoes. Rub a half of a ripe tomato on a toasted garlic baguette. Drizzle a beautiful platter of sliced heirlooms with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with a good salt. A favorite dish, of course, is insalata Caprese: slice tomatoes, arrange them on a platter with fresh mozzarella and basil leaves and then just add a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

Or you can grill some tomato halves, sprinkle them with fresh herbs and Parmesan, and you have good complement for steaks, fish or poultry.

Just be sure to start with good tomatoes, and don't let them linger. Ripe tomatoes should be eaten within a day or two, and should never, ever, feel the chill of the refrigerator. Or that precious flavor will be lost.

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Times staff writers Emily Green and Jennifer Lowe contributed to this report.

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Garden Tomato Soup

Active Work Time: 35 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 55 minutes * Vegetarian

From Donna Deane, director of the Times Test Kitchen.

3 pounds tomatoes

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