Enterprising farmer transforms tomatoes
A bit of salt and a careful hand makes an amazing late-summer salad.
Fri, May 22 2009 at 2:39 PM
Photo: Jen Munkvold
Sun Golden Cherry, Green Zebra, Red Zebra, Arkansas Traveler, Speckled Roman, Orange Glow, Purple Cherokee— what’s better than a perfect tomato? Apparently, a perfect tomato irrigated with seawater, or so I was intrigued to learn last year from a group of Italian farmers. They spoke of tomatoes that were smaller—usually less than half the size of those fed freshwater—but packed with added nutrients and sugar.
With visions of impossibly sweet tomatoes riding the ocean’s tide, I ran out to the field to tell Jack Algiere, Stone Barns’ vegetable farmer. Seawater irrigation was not an immediate option, given our location in the Hudson Valley. But perhaps, I suggested, we could sprinkle some salt on the tomato beds just to see?
Jack responded with the half-amused, half-stumped expression of a man trying to explain algebra to a kindergartener: “If it was just the salt, you could sprinkle it on the tomato slices and not have to get smaller tomatoes. The difference isn’t just the salt in the seawater. It’s what’s in the salt in the seawater.”
Sea salt, he explained, contains mineral elements that feed the field. On the flip side, however, it can stress the plant, which explains both the lower yield and Jack’s reluctance to try seawater on his crops. Jack developed his own solution, another kind of magical osmosis. Instead of irrigating the fields with seawater, he applies dried sea kelp to the tomato beds before planting; kelp carries the same trace minerals as seawater, plus additional nutrients to enrich the soil and keep the plant strong.
It turns out I’ve been eating sea tomatoes all along.
3 large heirloom tomatoes (the more colors the better), cut into ¾-inch wedges or cubes
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup seedless watermelon, cubed
1 peach, cut into wedges
4 apricots, quartered
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese (sheep’s milk)
3 tablespoons high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped, mixed fresh herbs (basil, lemon thyme, mint, purslane) sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
1. Divide heirloom and cherry tomatoes and fruit among 4 bowls. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper and let rest for 10–20 minutes, until they begin to give off their juices.
2. Dot the tomatoes with spoonfuls of cheese, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with herbs. Serve immediately.
Dan Barber is the executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurant in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located within Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a pioneering farm and education facility in Pocantico Hills, New York (bluehillnyc.com).
Story by Dan Barber. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008.
Copyright Environ Press 2008.