By Carie Birkmeier EBS STAFF
When you think of an heirloom vegetable, you probably picture odd shapes, vibrant colors and deep flavors. There was a point in time when this was the norm for all vegetables, before perfectly symmetrical vegetables with a curiously long shelf life began dominating the produce aisle at supermarkets.
An heirloom vegetable is just that, an heirloom. These vegetables are grown from seeds that were produced prior to 1951. This specific year marks the date when scientists discovered they could create new varieties of plants through cross-pollination, and thus the hybridization of vegetables began.
Heirloom vegetables are open pollinated, which means that they are pollinated without the help of human hands. Natural processes such as wind and transfer via insects are responsible for the pollination of heirloom vegetables. If you save seeds from heirloom vegetables and plant them the following season, they will produce plants that are the same as the previous year. Try to do the same with a hybrid vegetable and you won’t like the results.
Many hybrid varieties are bred to be picked when they’re unripe so they can be shipped long distances and gas-ripened later. Mass production wasn’t a concern prior to hybridization, so flavor could take priority for producers—something that remains true today for those who grow and harvest heirloom vegetables.
The uniformity of hybrid crops is ideal for mass producers, allowing them to harvest their crop all at once. For the home grower, heirlooms provide a less uniform option that allow the vegetables to be harvested at different times because they don’t ripen all at once. If you don’t have a green thumb, keep an eye out for vegetables of the heirloom variety at your next farmers’ market.
Among heirloom vegetables, tomatoes boast some of the best and most unique flavors. I have fond memories of picking a tomato off the vine and enjoying it like an apple, tomato in one hand, salt shaker in the other. The following recipe is a play on that idea, allowing the robust flavor of the heirloom tomato to shine without being overpowered by other ingredients. Use a variety of colors for a pretty presentation and a unique taste with each bite.
Sliced Heirloom Tomatoes with Basil
4 heirloom tomatoes, any variety
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup basil leaves
Salt and pepper
Cut the tomatoes into ½-inch slices and arrange on a tray. Drizzle with olive oil and add a good amount of salt and cracked pepper. Top with basil chiffonade. (Chiffonade means to cut into ribbons.) Serve at room temperature. Sometimes the best things are easy!
A version of this article previously appeared in a July 2017 edition of Explore Big Sky.