Tomato shindig

How to host an heirloom-tomato party

August 30, 2011

A late-summer afternoon, a garden full of friends and family, and tables arrayed with the exquisite beauty and unmatchable taste of vibrant heirloom tomatoes. Sound intriguing?

Heirloom tomatoes are popular in gardens and at farmers’ markets alike. They’re distinguishable from the more familiar red supermarket orbs by their origins (heirloom tomatoes are not hybrids) as well as their dizzying range of colors, sizes, and shapes. But their diversity of flavor is what’s truly captured our stomachs.

An heirloom-tomato tasting party lets guests sample dozens of tomato varieties at once, in a grand and unique celebration of flavor. Here are eight party-planning tips for throwing your own tomato tastefest.

  1. Hold your horses. Not to belabor the obvious, but you can’t host an heirloom-tomato tasting party until your local tomatoes are ready — which means late summer or even early autumn in most parts of the U.S. I know, I know, the weather is so nice in midsummer, and you really want to eat a tomato — but patience, patience.
  2. Vivian Reiss at her heirloom-tomato tasting.
    Tot up your tomatoes. It’s probably impossible to have too many heirloom-tomato varieties on display, although your guests’ palates might tire after sampling several. Slice up a few dozen of your favorites and arrange any others for display.

    Artist and urban farmer Vivian Reiss hosts an annual heirloom-tomato tasting party in the garden on the rooftop of her office building in Toronto. “I grow over 40 varieties of tomatoes,” says Reiss, “and I serve as many as are ripe at the time of the party, usually about 25.”

    Joy Barlogio of Jack Creek Farms in California also hosts an heirloom-tomato tasting event at her farm each September. “We sample as many varieties as are ripe that day,” she says. “Last year we sampled about 30 different varieties.”
  3. Select your varieties. Your options may be dictated by what’s available in your garden or your local farmers’ market. But keep an eye out for the following.

    Barlogio’s favorites include Cherokee Purple (a medium-sized purple beefsteak variety prized for its flavor), Black Krim (a large dark tomato), and Amy's Sugar Gem (a prolific variety with clusters of small red tomatoes).

    Reiss’s favorites include Paul Robeson (a popular black tomato of Russian origin), Gold Medal (a large golden tomato), Anna Russian (a heart-shaped, medium-sized pink Russian tomato), and Giant Belgium (an extremely large, deep-pink tomato).

    Some of my favorites include Green Zebra (a tangy green striped tomato), Wapsipinicon Peach (a small yellow tomato with a peachlike fuzz on its skin and delightful taste), and Beam’s Yellow Pear (a prolific pear-shaped tomato with good flavor).

    Any heirloom-tomato tasting starts with a variety of tomatoes.
  4. Crunch your numbers. How many tomatoes should you serve per person? Much depends upon the size of the tomato, says Barlogio.

    “Many of our heirlooms weigh 1 pound-plus, so they can serve a lot of people!” she says. “We serve one mini tomato per person, and a small wedge or slice of the other varieties. Folks are welcome to come back for seconds of their favorite.”

    Reiss agrees: “One large tomato will do of each variety, or more if they are cherry tomatoes,” she says.
  5. Set your scene. Provide plates, forks, napkins, and possibly salt, although Reiss believes that heirloom tomatoes are best served unadorned.

    For displaying tomatoes, Barlogio has found that white plastic plates work well. “We write down the name of the tomato on the plate with a Sharpie,” she says, “and display a whole uncut tomato on the plate, with the sliced-up samples on a second plate next to it. This way, folks will recognize what their favorite variety looks like when shopping for more.”

    Ask guests to share their opinions of the various types and flavors on offer. “We have a small voting sheet and pens available,” says Barlogio, “and ask guests to write down their three favorite varieties, and their least favorite variety. This helps us to know what to plant each year.”
  6. Extend your spread. Sure, heirloom tomatoes are intensely tasty and flavorful, but a sampling of tiny bites of tomato isn’t exactly a meal. “I bring salt and oil, and after all the tomatoes are tasted, I pick basil and make a large mixed-tomato salad,” says Reiss. “I also provide some French bread and wine for after the tasting, and I make an iced tisane from various herbs, such as lemon verbena and chocolate mint.”

    Sisters Becky (left) and Mandy Barlogio grew their own tomatoes from seed.
    Consider providing other beverages — tea or lemonade, for instance — as well as artisanal crackers and cheeses for light munching as your guests sample the tomatoes. If you want to go all-out, put someone in charge of a large grill and have brats, buns, and toppings available for a main course. Put someone else in charge of providing dessert — maybe something light, such as freshly made sorbet with crisp cookies.
  7. Diversify your offerings. Shocking, yes, but some people just don’t dig tomatoes. For these guests, prepare a small tasting table focused on a different seasonal fruit, such as three or four varieties of heirloom cucumbers or heirloom sweet peppers.

    Try, for example, a selection of Jimmy Nardello, King of the North, and Purple Beauty sweet peppers. If you’re doing the barbecue option, try grilling up more of those peppers for sausage sandwiches.
  8. Plan your next shindig. Not satisfied with what you got from your garden or local markets this summer? Plan ahead for next year by shopping for heirloom seeds at Baker Creek or seeds and seedlings at Seed Savers Exchange. Aim for the widest range of colors, shapes, and sizes you can find.

Samantha Johnson is a freelance writer and the author of several books, including a forthcoming book on gardening for children. She raises horses, rabbits, and heirloom tomatoes in northern Wisconsin.

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