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What's In Season at the Farmers Markets: Heirloom Tomatoes Peaking

Heirloom varieties on display at the Good Food Festival kick off celebration for the 30th anniversary of the Santa Monica Farmers Market.

Felicia FriesemaHeirloom varieties on display at the Good Food Festival kick off celebration for the 30th anniversary of the Santa Monica Farmers Market.

We're currently smack dab in the middle of what has been a pretty enjoyable tomato season. Last year, it seemed like everyone was experiencing a similar stagnation of homegrowns -- the fruits just took forever to mature -- and were looking to the local markets to help them sustain a seasonal jonesing for sun-warmed tomatoes. No such issue this year on either coast.

Tomatoes are right up there with corn, fireworks, and Weber grills loaded with pig flesh this time of year. Rainbow hued heirlooms have been around since January, truth be told. But the hothouse just does something to them. Sunshine and open air give us what we want. And in August, the piles get a bit outlandish, colorful, and yes, more scrumptious.

A few years ago, market growers would carefully separate varieties by type, trying tp appeal to the 'ooo' and 'aaah' appeal of ancient heirlooms handed down from someone's great-great-great grandmother. No longer. Ask for a name and you're more likely get a very good guess, unless the grower only harvests a few select varieties, like those at Beylik or Underwood Family Farms. Getting to know your tomato varieties helps as does getting to know how to preserve them.

A good way to start is by enrolling in the Farmer's Kitchen's Tomato Preservation 101 class. Tomatoes are slightly trickier in that the fruit acidity varies wildly from type to type. And food acidity is one of the determining factors for how to safely can your food. You may be able to safely preserve that pint set of peach jam in a 10 minute boiling water bath (depending on your elevation), but a set of quart sized jars of standard tomato sauce is going to require a 40 minute bath. Why? The big B. Botulism. Among other things. You can minimize the risk with heat and acid. And while we love opening a jar of home canned tomatoes, we're certainly not willing to risk our health to do so. Tomato acidity is indeterminate. But we can control heat. Hence the longer canning time. You can shorten that time by processing in a pressure canner, which chef Ernest Miller will be happy to demystify.

Whether canning or eating fresh, always select for unblemished, unbruised, true-to-color, firm-fleshed tomatoes. Softer, more ripe tomatoes have a tendency to split in the bag on the way home, especially if you've sat them under that big bag of summer corn (the bicolor ears from Underwood this year are glorious). Some varieties, like the Green and Red Zebra heirlooms, have a slightly thicker skin that can hide potential damage, so inspect with care. Otherwise, please do not squeeze or poke at tomatoes at the stands. The customer code of ethics says you split, you buy.

The general rule of thumb is to not adulterate a good summer tomato. Keep it super simple. Maybe sprinkle with a little good salt and a chiffonade of basil. But we're with Mark Bittman on this one. We're probably going to take his suggestions to heart. The season may be peaking now, but it is far from over, which should give us enough time to try each recipe.