Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Heirloom Flavor: From a Dragon's Tongue to a Nebraska Wedding

"Fresh ingredients--especially heirlooms--packed with flavors are the hallmark of great cuisine."
(Howard, p.7)

The quality of your ingredients is a vital factor in the quality of your final dish. Hybrid fruits and vegetables, the usual produce you find at large supermarkets, were bred for uniform size, resistance to disease, and a longer shelf life. However, they generally were not bred for taste, and don't taste as good or as complex as an heirloom variety. This is a similar situation to heirloom breeds of animals, such as Mangalitsa pigs to Blue Andalusian chickens. Heirloom varieties are starting to become more available at grocery stores, or you could even grow your own, with a little advice for Doreen Howard.

Howard has written Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs for Today's Cook (Cool Springs Press, September 2003, $24.99), a trade paperback of 256 pages. The fascinating book is a blend of recipes, heirloom descriptions & history, and gardening tips. Doreen Howard is a former garden editor at Woman's Day and the gardening columnist at the Christian Science Monitor. It is also said that "she's grown, enjoyed and photographed nearly 300 heirloom edibles."

"Heirlooms also offer colors, shapes, textures, and perfumes not found in hybrids, which have lost those traits by growers who bred them out in exchange for uniformity of size and a long, shelf life."
(Howard, p.11)

The book is broken down into five sections: Vegetables, Fruits, Herbs & Edible Flowers, In The Market & In The Garden, Seed & Farmers' Market Resources. In the introductory pages, Howard describes how heirlooms taste better, are safer from food-borne diseases, maintain diversity and can be less expensive than planting hybrids. The first three sections of the book discuss a variety of heirlooms, though it is not intended to be a comprehensive list. With each basic vegetable or fruit, there is some history and background, cooking advice, two to three recipes, and then colorful photos of numerous heirloom varieties.

The Vegetable section occupies about 70% of the book while the Fruit section only discusses apples, pears and Asian pears, although melons are covered in the Vegetable section. Heirlooms can possess intriguing and fun names such as Dragon's Tongue beans, Purple Dragon carrots, Bloody Butcher corn, Tennis Ball lettuce, Georgia Rattlesnake melons, Dwarf Telephone peas, Fish peppers, Long Island Cheese pumpkins, Nebraska Wedding tomatoes, and Sheep's Nose apples. They even sound better than hybrids. Besides basic cooking advice for the heirlooms, the book also contains over 40 recipes, most which are fairly simple to prepare.

"Heirlooms are not only luscious in taste and appearance, but many have histories richer than some countries."
(Howard, p.12)

The In The Market & In The Garden section begins with a description of what to look for when buying produce at your local market. For example, when selecting a pear, press at the neck near the stem. If the skin gives a little, then it should be mature and sweet. Then, the section produces , suggestions and advice on growing your own heirloom vegetables and fruit, even if you only have a small area available for growing. As many heirlooms are not readily available at your local market, growing your own might be one of the only ways you get to taste their heirlooms. And buying heirloom seeds is much easier than finding the actual fruit and vegetables at the store. There is even advice on saving your own seeds, which you can trade with others.

The final section, Seed & Farmers' Market Resources, provides two pages of links of Sources for Seeds, Sources of Fruit Trees & Plants, Seed Saving Exchanges and more.

"Each heirloom, from an Alpine strawberry to Blue Lake pole bean, possesses a distilled intense essence layered with nuances you won't get from a hybrid."
(Howard, p.13)

Visually, the book is compelling with numerous photos of a wide range of heirlooms, allowing you to identify them if you see them at a local market. The book is filled with plenty of practical information too, from cooking to gardening. My only complaint is that I would have liked to see more fruit represented in this book. The book will open your eyes to the vast diversity which often eludes people because large corporations chose to champion uniform hybrids, sacrificing flavor, rather than heirloom varieties. If you have any interest in heirlooms, which you should, then I recommend you check out this book.

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