Heirloom tomatoes are just about to start showing up at farmers markets this year. But before the spotlight turns on heirlooms, let’s take a moment to appreciate the humble, greenhouse-grown hybrid tomatoes.
“I’m sure a lot of people are saying, you know, ‘I hate greenhouse tomatoes; they’re terrible,’ but I think what most people are used to is getting the greenhouse tomatoes in the wintertime, like at Christmas and New Year’s,” explained Ron Binaghi III, a sixth generation farmer for Stokes Farm in Old Tappan, N.J. “They’re getting these greenhouse tomatoes that are shipped green and who knows what they’re doing to them.”
Local greenhouse tomatoes, on the other hand, don’t have nearly as far to travel. Instead, they head to the market after ripening on the vine. “We pick them [and the] next day they go to market,” Binaghi said. “If you need them to sit a day, they can sit a day on your counter.”
When picking out a tomato, look and touch is enough to determine ripeness. If you’re not going to use it right away, the shoulder (or top, near the stem) of the tomato can be a little orange or even slightly greenSmell will get you nowhere. Binaghi said, “I think it’s a myth with tomatoes because [what] most people don’t know is that the tomato plant itself has a scent to it.“ So it’s not the fruit itself that smells, but the stem.
He added that all the manhandling of the tomatoes — especially if tomatoes are pressed to noses — often makes for spoiled vegetables. Farmers market etiquette suggests handling sparingly, gently, and with some degree of reverence.
That even goes for workhorse hybrid tomatoes, which also play an important role in providing variety at the farmers market.
(Photo: Ron Binaghi III/Stokes Farm)
“[A greenhouse tomato] allows us to extend our season, especially in the springtime,” said Binaghi. “So we are able to have a crop earlier than when the heirloom tomatoes come out.”
Stokes Farm only grows heirlooms in the field, though they can be raised in greenhouses, because of space issues. “We have a big greenhouse, but not big enough to be doing high-production heirloom tomatoes, because heirloom tomatoes don’t produce... as much as a hybrid tomato would,” Binaghi explained.
This year’s tomato crop is faring well with little signs of blight, he reported. Of course the other advantage of greenhouse-grown tomatoes is that they exist in a relatively climate-controlled environment. But that doesn’t make the large, ventilated space immune to bugs, unfortunately. Binaghi admits that the indoor tomatoes also become inundated with that dreaded gardener’s nightmare: the tomato hornworm.
“You get the gloves on and you start picking them off and you think you got them all,” he said. “And then the next day you go in and pick off a hundred more. They’re nasty.”
Perhaps the knowledge that farmers are also laboriously picking worms off of the plants will add a little more sheen of glamour to the humble hybrid tomato.
As for enjoying the fruit of that labor, Binaghi says his family like to keep things simple: “My dad just likes a big slice, big slice, one slice on a good piece of bread with a slab of mayo. And if it’s juicing on your hands, you did it the right way.”
He also offered a recipe for Baked Parmesan Tomatoes. That’s below.
Baked Parmesan Tomatoes
Makes 4 servings
- 4 tomatoes, halved horizontally
- ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 450° F.
2. Place tomatoes cut-side up on a baking sheet. Top with Parmesan, oregano, salt and pepper. Drizzle with oil. Bake until the tomatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
Above: Could Ron Binaghi IV be a seventh-generation farmer in the making?