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Tomato season in Arkansas is one of the state’s most important annual culinary events. From late May to September, chefs in all corners of the state dust off their favorite tomato recipes, many of which are as simple as raw fruits and vegetables and some strategic seasoning. And it’s not just Arkansas restaurants that look forward to this special time of the year. Anybody who enjoys fresh, delicious food can find something to love about Arkansas tomatoes, whether it’s a traditional tomato sauce for pasta or just a thick slice eaten with a kiss of salt.
AN ALL-AMERICAN FRUIT
Despite how globally widespread it is, the tomato is a fruit believed to have origins in the Americas (yes, the tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable). By the time European settlers came to the New World, the land that would become Arkansas already had several varieties of tomato cultivated by American Indians. Early Europeans actually avoided tomatoes, believing they were poisonous or worse (to some), an aphrodisiac. And in truth, many wealthy Europeans did die after eating tomatoes. The true culprit was the pewter plates from which the nobility ate — the acidity in tomatoes leached out some of the lead in the plates, leading to lead poisoning.
Tomatoes are now produced around the world, but whether you’re in China or in Italy, there is a universal truth you must follow: Tomatoes taste best when they’re at peak freshness. That nearly always means eating tomatoes as close as possible to the source. Here in Arkansas, it means the best tomatoes are only available during the summer.
NATURAL STATE TOMATOES
Tomato season in Arkansas benefits greatly from the earth and the weather. The cycle of four distinct seasons, which many parts of the world don’t experience like
Arkansas, is ideal for heirloom tomatoes (heirlooms are nonhybrid tomatoes, usually from seeds that have been passed down for years).
“Especially with tomatoes, it’s all about the soil and the sun,” says Bo Bennett, farm manager with Sue’s Garden in Scott. “Heirloom tomatoes that are grown in hothouse settings and greenhouses outside the season are never going to live up to what is grown in peak season, in the dirt, in summertime. It’s just impossible.”
So the best tomatoes come straight from the dirt, but that doesn’t mean they start there. Bennett actually starts growing his tomato plants in hothouses as early as February. Those tomato plants grow for about a month indoors while the soil is prepared with mulch and fertilizer. Farmers then transfer the plants to the ground outside. It’s crucial that this happens before the plant begins to flower.
“The whole fruiting cycle has to happen [in] the sun, outside,” Bennett says. “I’ve experimented and tasted every tomato on the market, and I’ve completely lost faith in ever having a decent tasting heirloom tomato in the wintertime. Winter tomatoes, it’s like the soul has been removed. They have all the traits of an heirloom tomato, except for the soul, or ‘tomatoness.’”
Heirlooms are the most unique (and, I would argue, most delicious) tomatoes in Arkansas. These are the tomatoes that have grown here for generations, and just a bite can reconnect you with a part of Arkansas history you might have forgotten.
“People are like, ‘Oh, my grandfather used to grow that,’” Bennett says. “When people have a historical and cultural narrative attached to a certain variety, that’s something I want to attempt to not only preserve and grow more, but also to provide that food experience to someone who hasn’t tasted this tomato in a long time.”
There are many heirloom tomatoes you can expect to see in the coming weeks at your local farmers market:
AMANA ORANGE: These massive beefsteak heirlooms can reach a pound or more in weight. Their size makes them ideal for slicing, and their mild flavor is a great introduction to heirloom tomatoes. Amana orange tomatoes are ideal on BLT sandwiches.
ARKANSAS TRAVELER: These medium tomatoes can be pink or red. They are popular with farmers in Arkansas and around the country because they are disease-resistant, not prone to cracking, and able to withstand high heat and humidity. Their size makes them great for chopping into quarters for salads.
BRADLEY COUNTY PINK: Technically, this is no longer an heirloom tomato due to some hybridization. However, all the most desirable traits of the heirloom are found here, including the obvious pink color and sweetness that has made them popular. Its success led to the annual Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, which takes place Saturday.
CARBON: Bennett calls these his personal favorite, and it isn’t hard to see why. Beautiful purple hues draw you in, and complex flavors make for an unforgettable tomato. The carbon tomato has won several national awards for best heirloom tomato flavor in recent years.
CHEROKEE PURPLE: This heirloom is one of the oldest you can find at farmers markets in Arkansas. The deep purple color belies some of the most authentic tomato flavor available, and its size makes it ideal for slicing. Eat this one raw with a little salt to get an idea of its rich flavor.
Once you buy your heirlooms, the next step is preparing them. Below are a couple of recipes using Arkansas tomatoes from two Little Rock chefs.
Arkansas Tomato and Bread Salad
By Scott McGehee, chef-owner of Yellow Rocket Concepts
Chef’s note: This recipe is best between June and August, when tomatoes are at their peak. It’s great when served immediately while the croutons are still crisp, or you can let it sit until the croutons are soft, much like the Italian panzanella.
1 medium shallot
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Sourdough bread (or any crusty European-style bread)
3 pounds of ripe tomatoes, heirlooms if possible
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (for croutons)
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (for dressing)
12 fresh basil leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat oven to 350 F. Halve and slice the shallots as thinly as possible. Pour the red wine vinegar over the shallots. Set aside for 15 minutes. Tear or cut the bread into bite-size pieces. Drizzle olive oil over the bread, and toast until golden brown in oven for about 15 minutes. Carefully slice tomatoes into bite-size segments, making sure not to lose the juice and seeds. Set the tomatoes aside. Make a dressing with the shallots and vinegar, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Thinly slice the basil leaves. Gently toss the tomatoes, 2 cups of croutons, dressing, basil, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, or refrigerate overnight for softer croutons.
Tomato Corn Salad
By Matthew Bell, chef at South on Main
Chef’s note: This salad is based on the simplicity of spring. Using several varieties of tomatoes will give you an incredible presentation.
1 large heirloom tomato
1 small heirloom tomato
4 cherry heirloom tomatoes
2 ears of corn, kernels removed
Pesto (recipe below)
Sea salt to taste
For the pesto:
2 cups firmly packed basil
2 cloves garlic
1/8 cup toasted pecans
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
To make the pesto, blend all pesto ingredients except the oil in a food processor. Lightly blend. Slowly drizzle in oil while the food processor is running. Set aside.
Slice the large tomatoes as a base for the salad. Quarter the small heirlooms, and halve the cherry tomatoes. Lay a base of large slices of tomato on a platter. Season with sea salt. Place the quartered tomatoes randomly around the plate. In a bowl, mix the cherry tomatoes with enough pesto to coat the tomatoes. Spoon the pesto tomatoes on the platter in three batches. Next, dress the corn with the rest of the pesto. Drizzle the corn all around the plate. Finish the dish with cracked pepper and some whole basil leaves as a garnish. Serve immediately.
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