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Everything Old Is New Again: Why You Want to Eat Heirlooms

Some of my earliest (and happiest) memories of childhood are associated with the huge vegetable garden that sprawled at the back of our property.
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Some of my earliest (and happiest) memories of childhood are associated with the huge vegetable garden that sprawled at the back of our property. What would now be known as a trendy suburban "market garden" was just a fact of life for us. We each had our "specialty" - my sister was responsible for the corn, my brother's early task was lettuce, and I was the proud purveyor of the cucumbers. And with my Dad's oversight, we all lent a hand to the fascinating array of tomatoes in multiple sizes, shapes, and colors.

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And what we grew were "heirlooms", though we didn't know it then. Now, the word, and the crops, are on everyone's lips. They are featured everywhere from farmers markets to health food stores to supermarket chains. But what exactly constitutes an heirloom fruit or vegetable?

There is some debate about specifics; some maintain it must be at least 100 years old, some insist it must be an actual "heirloom" - seeds passed down from generation to generation. Two things are universally agreed upon: the variety must pre-date 1951, when hybrid plants & seeds became generally available; and it must be "open-pollinated" and breed true to type, unlike the ubiquitous hybrids that have overrun modern agriculture.

Why Heirlooms?

Flavor. Plain and simple: heirloom varieties taste better because they're picked ripe and offer a wider range of tastes and textures. And because they are allowed to reach maturity as nature intended, and in general can't be shipped long distances, their nutritional content is often superior. Modern hybrids are bred for uniformity in appearance and ease of transport; heirlooms are prized for their flavor and individuality.

The Environment. Keeping alive the vast array of plants that have all but disappeared from commercial agriculture preserves essential biodiversity. Thousands of varieties might go extinct if not for the efforts of those who promote and grow heirlooms. And these original cultivars are often uniquely suited to their environment by years of adaptation, needing far fewer pesticides and chemicals to succeed.

Culture. Heirlooms contribute to a sense of history, of continuity in the community. Connections between the generations are fostered by traditions that pass down through the years. And indeed, seeds are powerful symbols of regeneration and life in most mythologies and religions.

Just for fun. Heirlooms come in a dizzying array of hues and shapes and flavor profiles. There are hundreds of different tomatoes, chocolate-shouldered and zebra-striped and sunset-blushed; my personal favorite is the Mortgage Lifter, a huge, prolific, and juicy monster developed by a radiator salesman named Charlie during the Depression, which was so popular it enabled him to pay off his mortgage. Melons such as Tigger and Mother Mary's Pie and Eden's Gem offer ambrosial sweetness. And carrots come in every color of the rainbow - sure to entrance and delight the kids, and encourage them to get their daily dose of vegetable goodness.

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I encourage you to jump on the heirloom bandwagon without further ado; the past is the future, and everybody wins. And if you want to grow your own, or just support the movement, visit the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange and learn more.

Roasted Heirloom Tomato Soup

Roasting intensifies the sweet flavors of the tomatoes... Be sure to use an assortment of types & colors for maximum pleasure.

6 large heirloom tomatoes, cut into large chunks
2 large shallots, peeled & coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 heaping tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
4 cups organic chicken broth (or vegetable broth if preferred)
Shredded fresh basil for garnish

Preheat oven to 400. Line a large rimmed baking sheet w/ heavy duty aluminum foil.

In a large bowl, gently toss tomatoes & shallots w/ olive oil & oregano. Spread tomato mix on sheet pan in a single layer; roast until soft & slightly charred, about 20 minutes.

In a large stock pot, heat broth. Add tomato mix w/ juices, gently simmer for 5 minutes. Transfer in batches to a blender and puree, leaving mixture slightly coarse in texture. Return to pot, add salt & pepper to taste, and keep warm.

Serve in individual bowls sprinkled w/ a few shreds of basil, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil if you like.

Serves 6.

Oven-Roasted Romanesco

This bizarre-looking green conical relative of cauliflower & broccoli is a treat... Combine it with some orecchiette pasta & sautéed rapini w/ a little shaved parmesan, and you have a brilliant vegetarian supper in under half an hour...

1 large head Romanesco, cut into small florets
1 large leek, white parts only, sliced into thin rounds
3 tablespoons blood orange olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
Sea salt & black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400. Line a large rimmed baking sheet w/ heavy duty aluminum foil.

Scatter florets & leeks in a single layer on sheet pan. Drizzle w/ olive oil. Combine & mix cumin, coriander, & paprika, and sprinkle over the florets; ass salt & pepper to taste.

Roast until slightly charred and cooked through, but still firm, about 25 minutes. Toss lightly and serve.

Serves 6-8 as a side dish.

[Note: A version of this post appears in my "Kitchen Matters" column in Better Nutrition Magazine.]