Harvest is ripe for heirloom tomatoes

Picture a world of Big Rainbows and Green Zebras, where Princes and Queens rest on beds of Mountain Gold and Roses right on your dinner table. While you're at it, throw in an Arkansas Traveler, a Big Boy with a Big Beef against Lemon Boy, and a Fabulous Celebrity on a Supersonic Jet Star.

It sounds like a modern fairy tale, but in fact, it's a tomato salad. A very colorful, exotic salad at that.

I should confess that before meeting farmer Steve Verrill, I was aware of only a few tomato varieties. There were the supermarket's big light-red ones, the little cherry type, plum tomatoes, and the pricey ones sold on the vine. I've seen, but seldom eaten, the orange, green, and yellow varieties – not to mention the black and purple types.

But after talking with Mr. Verrill, my culinary world suddenly expanded.

The owner of the Verrill Farm in Concord, Mass., chuckled at my initial ignorance of the world of tomatoes.

"Variety is very important. Most places you shop at don't know what variety is," he informed me.

He should know.

His land yields more than 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, all of which can be tasted and bought at different times throughout the summer at the farm's highly acclaimed stand.

It's hard for Verrill to recommend just one variety of tomato. He says it's best to taste-test as wide a range as possible and make up your own mind.

A few years ago, Verrill and his wife decided to provide their customers with a description of how each variety tastes. They devoted a night to sampling all the tomatoes. But, alas, they couldn't agree.

"Ever since," says Verrill, "we don't try to describe them too much. You have to look for the flavor you like."

His favorite is the purplish-brown Black Prince. "It looks terrible, but tastes great," he says with all the authority of a connoisseur. It's a medium-size tomato with outstanding flavor.

At Verrill Farm's Corn and Tomato Fest – which attracted folks from near and far one Saturday in August despite temperatures hovering in the high 90s and the humidity not far behind – the modern Celebrity variety proved a favorite. This is an attractive and dependable all-round tomato, according to a list available on the farm's website (www.verrillfarm.com/tomatotypes.htm).

But whatever your preference, farmer Verrill says tomatoes are at their best when they've ripened on the vine. These aren't easy to find in most supermarkets, which often put quantity before quality. "That's an important distinction," he says. "Flavor is our first criterion. Yield is not." So it may be a good idea to visit your nearest farm stand every so often.

Be a sport, though. Don't be afraid of Sun Gold, Yellow Brandywine, a Mortgage Lifter, or even Mr. Stripey. They are, after all, only varieties of tomatoes.

Interestingly, Verrill says, the best place to store tomatoes is not in the refrigerator, but rather in a fairly open, cool, dark place. He uses a big old barn to store his produce.

Verrill Farm Corn & Tomato Tart

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Kernels from 5 ears of fresh corn, uncooked
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup smoked Cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 pint cherry or grape tomatoes (Cut them in half if too large)
3 scallions, chopped, white and green parts
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream

Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil until translucent.

Add corn and cook 5 to 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Remove from heat.

Put half of the corn mixture into a pie shell. (Either use a store-bought crust or make your own. See recipe above right.) Layer shredded cheese on top.

Add the remaining corn mixture. Put cherry tomatoes and scallions on top.

Whisk eggs, milk, and cream with a pinch of salt and pour over tart.

Bake at 375 degrees F. for 30 to 35 minutes, or until set.

Serves 8.

Variation: Add chopped cooked bacon and/or jalapeño peppers to tart.

Pie crust

This recipe is for a 9-by-10-inch ceramic pie plate. A tart pan may also be used.

2-1/2 cups flour
8 ounces (2 sticks) butter
1/4 cup iced water

Pulse flour, butter, and salt in a food processor until the texture resembles corn kernels. Add water and pulse until mixture forms a ball. Roll out dough and place in pie pan. Flute edges of crust. Cover crust with parchment paper to keep edges from getting burned. Place metal pie weights over paper in bottom of shell to prevent puffing.

Bake in 375 degree F. oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until slightly golden.

Makes two single pie shells. Unused portion of dough can be frozen for later use.

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