Hanover’s Heirlooms

When it comes to tomatoes, ignore appearances; it’s what’s inside that counts.

Simple cherry tomato salad

Photography by Tyler Darden. Tomatoes provided by Manakintowne Specialty Growers (Manakintowne.com), ShireFolk Farm (ShireFolkFarm.com), and Village Garden RVA (YourVillageGarden.com).

Virginians are justifiably proud of the Hanover tomato, but not for the reason that many think. “Hanover” refers not to a particular variety, but to any tomato grown in the area. A bona fide Hanover tomato can be anything from a tiny yellow Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry to a bright red one-pound Mortgage Lifter. In fact, great Virginia tomatoes don’t even need to come from Hanover.   

Chef Trevor Knotts

“Tomatoes need nutrients and good drainage,” explains David Hunsaker, who grows more than 200 types of heirloom tomatoes at Village Garden RVA in Hanover County. “There are certain areas of Hanover that have sandy soil from basically being under the sea. Red clay is nutrient rich, and you have compost from eons of trees growing and dropping leaves and branches. That sandy soil mix is perfectly suited for a tomato.” 

Heirloom varieties, in particular, thrive in Hanover soil. Heirlooms grow from seeds that have been saved for generations. Unlike hybrid varieties, heirloom plants are tall and rangy, and they fruit all summer long. They’re delicate and susceptible to disease, producing fruit that bruises easily. Heirloom tomatoes are often lumpy, mottled, and downright ugly. But the flavor! 

“They all look and taste different,” says Trevor Knotts, corporate chef for Richmond Restaurant Group. “You can taste the sunshine on them. Some are sweeter, some have a little more acid, some are grassier. I’ve had one that tasted just like Lucky Charms cereal. It’s crazy.”

When Knotts creates tomato recipes, he always seeks out local heirlooms. “You’re not going to get totally perfect and uniform,” he says. “I just embrace the fact that it’s a unique, real product. They aren’t cookie-cutter tomatoes.” 

In a good tomato season, Virginians can find heirlooms at the market from mid-June through early October. Knotts advises treating them simply. “I wouldn’t puree them to make a sauce, just like I wouldn’t use a 20-year aged balsamic to make a vinaigrette,” Knotts says. “It’s your special ingredient that you let shine.”  

Here, Knotts shares some of his recipes for featuring Virginia’s heirloom tomatoes.

Simple Cherry Tomato Salad

When various fresh tomatoes are in season, the best way to enjoy them is to keep it simple. This is the type of relaxed, instinctive dish one would toss together at the end of a gorgeous summer day to enjoy al fresco.

1 cup balsamic vinegar

2 cups assorted cherry and pear tomatoes, whole or halved

vinaigrette dressing of choice

4 ounces shaved coppa or other hard cured meat, such as prosciutto or bresaola

4 2-ounce knobs of burrata cheese

fresh herbs for garnish

Bring the vinegar to a simmer over medium-high heat. Lower heat and simmer until reduced, about 15 minutes. Toss the tomatoes with the vinaigrette. Divide the tomatoes equally among four shallow bowls or salad plates. Center 1 ounce of meat and a knob of burrata on each salad. Dot with balsamic reduction and top with snipped herbs like basil, chives, marjoram, or oregano.

Serves 4

Tomato Jam

Tomato jam

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1 tablespoon shallot, minced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons pink peppercorns

1 tablespoon fennel pollen

salt

3 pounds tomatoes, roughly chopped

¼ cup red wine vinegar

½ cup sugar

Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, shallot, and ginger, and cook just until they begin to soften. Add the red pepper, pink peppercorns, fennel pollen, and a pinch of salt, and cook about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, vinegar, and sugar. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has reduced. 

Makes about 3 cups

Fried green tomatoes with shrimp and corn salad

Fried Green Tomatoes with Shrimp and Corn Salad

1 ½ cups flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs 

6 medium-sized green tomatoes, sliced ½-inch thick

vegetable oil

salt and pepper 

fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

pickled red onions for garnish

Set out three shallow dishes or pie plates. Fill the first with the flour, the second with the beaten eggs, and the third with the panko. Working in batches, dip each tomato slice in flour, then egg, then panko, coating evenly. Meanwhile, heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Pour oil into the skillet so it comes up the sides about 1 inch. Heat the oil to about 350 degrees—it should be shimmering but not smoking. Fry each batch of tomato slices until golden brown, turning once. Remove and drain on a wire rack lined with paper bags or paper towels. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the shrimp and corn salad:

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined 

2 cups corn

2 cups red bell pepper, diced

2 cups red onion, diced

2 jalapeños, seeded and sliced  

½ cup scallion, thinly sliced

salt and pepper

Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the shrimp and cook briefly, until just tender. (The time will depend on the size of the shrimp you are using.) Drain the shrimp and place in ice water to stop cooking. In a large bowl, mix corn, bell pepper, onion, jalapeño, and scallion. Add salt and pepper to taste. Drain the shrimp, pat dry, and add to the corn mixture. 

For the coriander lime vinaigrette: 

½ cup lime juice

¼ cup rice vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons minced shallot 

½ teaspoon coriander

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

pinch salt

1 cup olive oil

In a blender, combine all ingredients except oil. With a blender running on high speed, slowly pour in olive oil in a thin stream until incorporated. Will keep refrigerated for a week.

Makes about 2 cups

To assemble, mix enough vinaigrette into the shrimp salad to moisten it. Serve at room temperature, alternating spoonfuls of shrimp and corn salad with fried tomatoes on plates. Garnish with pickled onions and cilantro leaves.

Serves 6

Tomato Shrub Mocktail

Tomato shrub mocktail

2 ounces tomato-strawberry shrub

1 ounce lemon juice

soda

lemon balm or basil leaves for garnish

In a small bowl, cover the basil seeds with water and allow to hydrate for about 5 minutes. Drain carefully, protecting the gelatinous coating. Fill a Collins glass with ice cubes. Add the shrub and lemon juice. Top off with soda, and stir. Garnish with basil seeds and herbs.  

For the tomato-strawberry shrub: 

½ pint cherry tomatoes, halved

½ pint strawberries, destemmed and quartered 

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon coriander

2 cups rice wine vinegar

In a large storage container with lid, mix the tomatoes, strawberries, sugar, and coriander. Using a potato masher or large spoon, mash the fruits to release their juices. Store refrigerated overnight, then strain the fruit to remove the solids and stir in vinegar. Strain again through cheesecloth, and store in refrigerator. 

Makes about 1 quart

Crab-stuffed heirloom tomatoes with fennel salad

Crab-Stuffed Heirloom Tomatoes with Fennel Salad

4 medium-to-large heirloom tomatoes 

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon garlic, minced

2 teaspoons shallot, minced

1 pound lump crabmeat

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons water 

salt and pepper

2 tablespoons cold butter

Set the oven to broil. Prepare tomatoes by cutting off the tops evenly. Scoop out and discard the pulpy middle. Place tomatoes in an oiled casserole dish and set aside. Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add oil, garlic, and shallot, and cook until just softened. Add the crabmeat, lemon zest, lemon juice, water, and salt and pepper to taste. Heat while mixing very gently, being careful not to break up the crabmeat or allow the mixture to burn. Once heated through, remove the pan from the heat. Add butter and swirl the pan to melt and incorporate. Fill each tomato with crab mixture, dividing evenly. Place the pan in a broiler for 1-2 minutes to lightly brown the crabmeat and soften the tomatoes. 

For the fennel and herb salad:

2 fennel bulbs, shaved into thin slices

1 lemon, juiced 

2 cups soft herbs, such as parsley, dill, chervil, sorrel, tarragon, mint, rinsed and roughly chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil 

salt

pepper

edible flowers, such as marigold, chive, nasturtium, bachelor’s buttons

Immediately after shaving the fennel, sprinkle it with lemon juice. Add herbs, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste, and then toss gently. 

To assemble, layer fennel salad on plates in equal portions. Place tomatoes atop fennel salad immediately upon removing from oven. Garnish with edible flower petals.

Serves 4


This article originally appeared in our August 2019 issue.

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