The greatest sins, to a tomato farmer, are to assume that "heirlooms" are just that prepackaged rainbow mix in the produce aisle; to overlook the incredible range of flavors in the individual varieties; to stop short of trying anything that doesn't look round and red.
In fact, those perfectly shaped, shiny, blemish-free globes in the supermarket have been genetically mutated for mass production, losing flavor in the process. The difference, when biting into a tiny, pineapple-scented Isis Candy or salty Black Krim, is astounding.
The best way to enjoy heirlooms, Mountz says, is to simply sink your teeth in.
"I like them just like this," he says, "standing in the wind, letting the seeds run down my arm."
When pressed, he says that he enjoys his tomatoes in salsas, mozzarella salads, and BLTs. Either way, they should be enjoyed as soon as possible, though thicker-skinned varieties can last up to a week.
Mountz, already working on farms while he was in college at Kutztown University, discovered his passion for heirloom seeds when he came across his late grandfather's collection of jarred beans. After working for a few years at the garden center Terrain, starting up the company's retail nursery business, he devoted himself to his farm full time and "embraced the tomato-centric lifestyle."
The farm's staff also includes Mountz's wife, Amy Bloom; graphic designer and farmer Meredith Langer; and what Mountz refers to as a rotating cast of Brooklyn hipsters, Lancaster punk rockers, and family members who come through the Brandywine to assist with picking and marketing.
There's something about this land that draws them here, Mountz says. Something, too, about the lime-rich soil that gives the tomatoes their complex, indelible notes.
"I tell people I grow the best Brandywines because I'm growing them in the Brandywine Valley, with water from the Brandywine River."
What makes them even more local that Mountz saves his seeds for future plantings through fermentation. The process is a laborious and sometimes malodorous one.
"Around this time of the summer is when the house starts to stink," he says.
Yellow, green, and purple tomatoes with a glug of aged vinegar or a chiffonade of opal basil are rewards on their own (and Mountz has supplied his wares to a number of Philadelphia restaurants over the years, including Talula's Garden and the Farm and Fisherman), but the real impetus to save the seeds is that these varieties are genetically unique and built to resist pests and disease. Honoring the natural diversity of plant life is critical for responsible stewardship of our land and ensuring that we can grow food in future generations, he says.
Happy Cat's seeds are available through the farm's website ( http://store.happycatorganics.com); the Fair Food Farmstand; Williams-Sonoma and Terrain stores; and garden-center retail stores. Sales have been brisk this year, totaling 20,000 packets that are hand-filled and adorned with Langer's screen-printed designs.
Fruits left over from market and seed-saving - "the beautiful mess" - are repurposed for Happy Cat's line of sauce and catsup (spelled the Southern way, for maximum pun effect).
In most cases, the use of precious heirlooms in any long-cooked recipe would be ill-advised, but the addition of these more flavorful varieties produces a dynamic, more nuanced product - and for a tomato grower, it's a great way to avoid waste.
While Mountz won't reveal his exact blend of herbs and spices - "if I told you I would most likely be killed in some bizarre Pennsylvania Dutch ritual" - he specifies that local, fresh produce will yield the best possible results. (The accompanying recipe is an approximation.)
It's now the height of what's turned out to be a strange, rainy season, and no one can say exactly how long the tomatoes will be around, which is why Mountz says it's best to eat them while we can.
"This is summer," he says. "This is what we live for the rest of the year."
Happy Cat Catsup
Yields about 2 cups
4-6 tomatoes (choose a variety for best results, or use paste tomatoes), cut into chunks
½ medium onion, cut into chunks
1 celery stalk, cut into chunks
2-4 shishito peppers or 1 green bell pepper, cut into chunks
3 tablespoons good quality distilled cider vinegar
2½ teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground mustard
1 teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon allspice
1. Combine the tomatoes, onion, celery stalk, and peppers in a food processor and process until pureed.
2. Transfer to a deep pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add vinegar, salt and spices. Turn heat to low and continue to cook until mixture thickens, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour.
3. Return mixture to food processor or blender and process until smooth, if desired. Strain mixture into a bowl, pushing it through the mesh with a spatula. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Store in the refrigerator.
- Adapted from Happy Cat farm Per one-tablespoon serving: 30 calories; 1 gram protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; no fat; no cholesterol; 180 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.
Amagansett Corn Salad
Makes 8 servings
8 ears of white corn
2 quarts cherry tomatoes
3-4 tablespoons high-quality
1 medium red onion
1 quart sugar snap peas
1 handful roughly chopped
basil or flat-leaf parsley
Salt, preferably a coarse sea salt such as Maldon
1. Strip raw corn from ears. You can use a fancy corn stripper or just run your chef's knife down the side of each ear about 8 times.
2. Slice all cherry tomatoes in half or quarters, depending on your preference.
3. Chop the red onion into a large dice.
4. If using the sugar snap peas (they can be hard to find when the corn and tomatoes are available - their seasons barely overlap, and even then you're likely getting corn and tomatoes from the South and sugar snaps from the North.) Anyway, if using them, cut in half or thirds to make more bite-sized. If you're not using them, and you want a little green for visual appeal, some roughly chopped basil or flat-leaf parsley will do the trick.
5. Toss all vegetables in a bowl, along with the vinegar, salt, and pepper.
- From The Food 52 Cookbook, by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs (William Morrow, 2011) Per serving: 92 calories; 3 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams sugar; 1 gram fat; no cholesterol; 74 milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.
Golden Pepper and Yellow Tomato Soup
Makes 4 servings
1 pound yellow or orange tomatoes
½ cup white rice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 garlic cloves
3 yellow or orange bell peppers
2 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch saffron threads
1 bay leaf
2 thyme sprigs,
leaves plucked from stems
1 teaspoon sweet paprika or ½ teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon tomato
1 quart vegetable stock
Slivered opal basil or chopped marjoram and parsley for garnish
1. Bring 2 quarts water to a boil. Slice an X at the base of each tomato. Plunge them, 2 at a time, into the water for about 10 seconds, then remove and set aside. Add the rice and ½ teaspoon salt to the water, lower the heat to simmer, and cook until the rice is tender, about 12 minutes. Drain.
2. Chop the onion. Mince the garlic with a pinch of salt until mushy. Dice the peppers into small squares, removing the seeds and membranes first. You should have about 2 cups. Peel and seed the tomatoes, reserving the juice, then dice the walls and mince the cores.
3. Warm the oil in a soup pot and add the onions, peppers, saffron, bay leaf, thyme, and paprika. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion has begun to soften and color, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, then stir in the tomato paste and 1 teaspoon salt. Give it a stir and add ¼ cup water.
4. Stew for 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes with their juice and the stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 25 minutes.
5. When ready to serve, reheat the soup with the rice, then ladle it into bowls. Or make a mound of rice in each bowl and spoon the soup around it. Season with pepper and garnish with the fine slivers of basil leaves or marjoram chopped with a few parsley leaves.
- From Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets by Deborah Madison Per serving: 250 calories; 9 grams protein; 33 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams sugar; 9 grams fat; no cholesterol; 852 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.
Large Polenta Pizza with Ratatouille
Makes 4 to 6 servings
For the pizza:
Olive oil for the pan
1 tablespoon of salt
11/4 cups polenta
3 tablespoons butter
11/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Fresh ground pepper
For the ratatouille:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, sliced into rounds
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 each: red and green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 zucchini, diced
1 eggplant, diced
4 nice big tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon harissa, or to taste
Salt, fresh ground pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1. Oil a 12-inch round cake pan or baking dish. Add the salt to 4 cups water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Pour in the polenta in a thin stream, stirring constantly until smooth. Reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring frequently, until polenta is thick. If you see a lump, stir vigorously until it dissolves. Add the butter and 3/4 cup of the parmesan, and stir until all is absorbed. Taste for salt and pepper.
2. Pour the polenta into the oiled cake pan. Use the back of a spoon dipped in water to smooth out the polenta. Let cool completely and solidify.
3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and saute for a few minutes, until soft and light brown, then add the garlic and saute for 1 minute, until fragrant. Add the remaining ingredients except the parsley, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are nicely tender. Sprinkle with the parsley and drizzle with a little more oil just prior to serving. Let cool.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Top the polenta with the cooled ratatouille, leaving a little space around the perimeter. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan, and bake for 25 minutes, until the edges start to brown.
- From Homemade Summer by Yvette van Boven