By now we know that a tomato isn't a tomato isn't a tomato: the difference between the industrially produced pale pink softballs from the grocery chain and your backyard beauties is astonishing. Here in California, people are rejoicing that we're finally seeing dry-farmed tomatoes in the farmers markets and smaller grocery stores. So what are dry-farmed tomatoes and what's so special about them?
The best tomatoes outside of those grown in your backyard are not necessarily called heirloom. While varietals are important, the growing and harvesting has equal, if not more, influence over the final product.
In California where torrential rains saturate the soil in the winter and the summers are bone-dry, our climate naturally allows for dry-farming, a method where all irrigation is cut off after the plants have become established. This lack of water stresses the plant, forcing its roots deep into the soil in search of water and focuses its efforts on producing fruit. The resulting tomatoes are usually smaller and lower in yield but pack tremendous flavor and texture.
Dry-farming is also an environmentally sound practice as it uses much less water than conventional methods, a big issue in California. The method is centuries old, orriginating in the Mediterranean where it is still being used for growing grapes and olives. Here in California, other fruits and vegetables such as melons, squash, and potatoes can be dry-farmed, as well as wheat and corn and other grains.
While dry-farming isn't impossible in other parts of the US, it is more challenging in areas where summer rains can cause the fruit to crack and split. Some farmers cover their tomatoes to minimize the rain's impact.
Dry-farmed tomatoes are best used in recipes that allow their intense flavor to shine. Any raw tomato salad or salsa would be great, or try roasting them in the oven and making them into a jam as in this recipe. But the best thing to do is slice them up and serve them on a white platter, drizzled with olive oil and a flick of sea salt. Simple, pure perfection!
(Image: Dana Velden)