Most people think of tomatoes when they think of heirloom vegetables, but any kind of vegetable you’ve eaten has an heirloom variety. So what is an heirloom vegetable anyway? Though the exact definition can vary depending on whom you ask, generally, an heirloom vegetable is a variety that is at least 50 years old and grown from seeds passed down through several generations of growers.
Heirloom plants are open-pollinators, which means that they will produce seedlings and fruit resembling the parents, unlike most readily available vegetables, which come from hybrid varieties.
Before World War II, the majority of produce grown in the United States was heirloom. Since then farming has become highly industrialized. Crops are selected for their productivity, their ability to withstand mechanical picking and cross-country shipping, and their tolerance to drought, frost, and pesticides. Heirlooms, on the other hand, were bred for flavor; not for uniformity of size, color, or the ability to sit in a vegetable bin for days without going bad. They tasted good, so the seeds were saved.
In response to burgeoning demand, increasing varieties of heirloom vegetables have been finding their way into farmers’ markets, in suburban backyards, and on the menus of restaurants and trendy cafes. This increased interest stems from a few things. For one, nostalgia and the romance of history, growing something that perhaps grew in your grandmother’s garden or came from your native country. For another, taste.
Commercially grown vegetables are often picked before they are ripe and then are artificially ripened, leaving them with less flavor. Customers are also becoming increasingly concerned about the environment, bio-diversity, and GMO crops. Heirloom vegetables come in a variety of colors that are never found in their hybrid cousins.
The beautiful shades in rainbow carrots, purple broccoli, black asparagus and the alternating red and white flesh of Chioggia beets will dress up any recipe or menu item. Some heirloom vegetables have no hybrid equivalent, such as fiddlehead ferns. Also known as fiddlehead greens, they are the furled fronds of a young fern that are harvested for use as a vegetable. They lend themselves to many of the same preparations as asparagus.
Because heirloom vegetables have thinner skins and are picked when ripe, be sure to use them right away. These vegetables are bursting with flavor. Many varieties taste sweeter and zestier than industrialized varieties. Incorporating heirloom vegetables is a great way to add new flavors and unique colors to any dish or menu item.