Don't you love looking at all the crazy, beautiful "ugly" heirloom veggies at the farmers' market? The range of colors and imperfect shapes is fascinating. Generally, an heirloom vegetable is a variety that is at least 50 years old and grown from seeds passed down through several generations of farmers. Open-pollination (the seeds produce their own offspring plants) is the trademark of most heirlooms, unlike hybrid veggies and fruits, which are born out of a marriage of two different species like the tangelo which was created when a tangerine was mixed with a grapefruit.
In response to consumer demand, many types of heirloom veggies such as tomatoes, carrots, pumpkins, squash and beets have popped up at farmers’ markets, restaurants, and our Lithe Foods fridge. Here’s why you should embrace the imperfect shapes and colors of juicy, sun-kissed heirloom veggies, which are now in peak season and included in most of our Lithe Foods offerings.
As a farmer's daughter, I know all about the beauty and great flavor of what farmers call "seconds." Most of the "perfect" looking produce that you see in the supermarket is chosen based on its resistance to disease, easy transport, and appearance rather than taste. Commercially grown produce is usually picked in its under-ripe state, and then artificially ripened, leaving it with a bland taste (think of your typical supermarket tomato). Most locally grown heirloom veggies are harvested when ripe, and then sold shortly afterward. This gives them a true summer flavor that's worth the yearlong wait. And in the case of the heirloom tomato, the uglier it is, the tastier it tends to be!
While research comparing nutrient levels of heirlooms to garden-variety vegetables is unknown, many nutritionists believe in the power of vegetables that are allowed to ripen naturally, as opposed to being picked while still unripe and boxed for transport. Plus, selecting more ripe produce at the market increases the diversity of your diet, which exposes you to a greater number of disease-fighting compounds.
Support Local Farmers
Since heirlooms are more likely to be grown and sold by small-scale farmers, filling your salad with Sungold tomatoes and heirloom squash is a great way to support local growers and economy. Also, better-tasting food doesn’t require a ton of petroleum to get to your dining table from Argentina. However, keep in mind that heirloom and organic are not always synonymous. If you’re trying to remove all types of pesticides from your meal plan, you’ll need to ask farmers about their growing practices.
Think lean, local and seasonal. Unfortunately America is chock full of monocrop farms producing soy, genetically modified corn and wheat, which is mostly used to fatten up cows (and us!) in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. By making it a point to put aside a little more of your grocery budget for heirlooms and less expensive "seconds" from your local farmer that are not suited for your chain supermarkets, you’ll do your body good, help keep old veggie varieties around and experience the true taste of summer. And remember to think beyond the tomato! The heirloom world also includes carrots, hot peppers, eggplant, corn, beets, and leafy greens.
Image via Etsy