Some heirlooms your family passes down—say, that hideous lime green vase—just make you scratch your head in wonder if they’re actually worth anything. Heirloom vegetables, however, may look just as odd, but definitely deserve a place in your kitchen.
Generally, an heirloom vegetable is a variety that is at least 50 years old and grown from seeds passed down through several generations of growers. Open-pollination (the seeds produce their own offspring plants) is the hallmark of most heirlooms, unlike hybrid veggies and fruits, which are born out of a merger of two different species such as the pluot that came to be when a plum hooked up with an apricot.
In response to burgeoning demand, a greater variety of heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables have been cropping up at farmers’ markets, in suburban backyards, on the menus of restaurants and trendy cafes, and even in the produce section of some forward-thinking supermarkets. Here’s why you should embrace the oddball shapes and colors of sun-kissed heirlooms, which are now starting to come into peak season.
RELATED: 12 Surprising Foods to Grill
A Taste Adventure
While much of the cookie-cutter produce at the supermarket is selected based on its resistance to disease, ease of transport, and uniformity in appearance as opposed to good taste (we’re looking at you Mr. Mealy Tomato), heirlooms are the true taste of summer. Commercially grown vegetables and fruits are often picked while still in their under-ripe state and then artificially ripened, leaving them with a bland taste. On the flipside, locally grown heirlooms are almost universally harvested when ripe and then sold shortly afterward, giving them the distinct and intoxicating flavors that are always worth the yearlong wait.
While research comparing nutrient levels of heirlooms to garden-variety vegetables is sorely lacking, many nutritionists trumpet the nutritional prowess of vegetables that are allowed to ripen fully as Mother Nature intended, as opposed to being picked will still unripe and boxed up for the boat, airplane, or truck. Plus, selecting more old-timers at the market will increase the diversity of your diet, which will expose you to a greater number of disease-fighting compounds. Case in point: A watershed study from Colorado State University found that subjects who ate several different phytonutrients from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables experienced lower levels of DNA oxidation—an indication of the free-radical damage that promotes aging—than those who ate larger amounts of only a handful of plant foods and, therefore, fewer total antioxidants.
Heirloom tomatoes are a good a place to start as anywhere since they are loaded with lycopene, a supercharged antioxidant that’s been associated with a lower risk of developing a number of different cancers including colorectal, prostate, skin, and breast.
RELATED: 12 Best Power Foods for Women
Support the Little Guy
Since heirlooms are more likely to be grown and sold by small-scale farmers instead of big agriculture, filling out your salad bowl and backyard parties this summer with Cherokee purple tomatoes and blue corn is a great way to support local growers and your local economy. And that better-tasting food doesn’t require a sizable shot of petroleum to get to your dining table from who knows where. However, keep in mind that heirloom and organic are not always synonymous. If you’re trying to ixnay any pesticides from your meal plan, you’ll need to query heirloom farmers about their growing practices.
America’s agricultural landscape is increasingly being taken over by huge monocrop farms producing just a handful of items, namely soy, wheat, and genetically modified corn, the latter of which is mostly used to fatten up cattle and us as well in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. By making it a point to put aside more of your grocery budget for time-honored heirlooms that are not suited to large-scale production, you’ll do your part to help encourage botanical diversity and help keep old varieties prized for their flavor, fragrance, texture, and unique aesthetics from going the way of the Dodo. Not just tomatoes, the heirloom world also includes carrots, hot peppers, eggplant, corn, beets, and leafy greens.
Heirloom Grab Bag
Heirlooms come in all sizes and in a rainbow of hues, and their names are often just as colorful. Look for these beauties at your local farmers’ markets.
Cherokee purple tomato: A large “beefsteak” type of tomato with dusty rose color. Flesh is remarkably sweet-tart tasting and hazardously juicy.
Chioggia beets: Also known as a candy cane beet, the flesh has fetching alternating red and white rings that are only upstaged by its earthy sweetness.
Green zebra tomato: A yellowish-green tomato with dark green striations and about the size of a baseball. The flavor is slightly tart with lemon-lime undertones.
Rainbow carrots: Who says carrots have to be orange? Deliciously sweet rainbow carrots are born from heirloom yellow, purple, and red seeds.
Blue jade corn: A feast for the eyes, blue corn boasts palate-pleasing sweet blue kernels and is not genetically modified.
Watermelon radish: This white radish with a striking pink interior is praised for its crisp and refreshing flesh.