What Makes an Heirloom Vegetable, an “Heirloom”?


A friend recently had a local heirloom-bean whole-wheat quesadilla for lunch and raved about it. Then she asked me what made heirloom vegetables “heirloom”? What an excellent question! My first thought was that it had something to do with the lineage of the vegetable, and I was right!

In order for a vegetable to be considered an heirloom, the cultivar (a variety of plant developed from a natural species and maintained under cultivation) must be at least 50 years old. Some people say the cultivar must be at least 100 years old. But I prefer the idea that any vegetable seed that originates from 1945 or earlier should be an heirloom, because in 1945 World War II ended marking the beginning of the wide-spread introduction of hybrid varieties.


1945 was a long time ago. But there are heirloom varieties that are MUCH older than that. There are Native American heirlooms that are pre-Columbian; some come from old European crops that are over 400 years old; and there are Asian and African varieties that could be pre-historic. How’s that for OLD?

Another requirement for a variety to be considered an heirloom is that it be open-pollinated. That means that a cultivar can be grown from seed and will come back “true to type”. Or that the next generation will be just like its parent. So you should be able to grow an heirloom tomato from seed, harvest seeds from the fruit, plant them and get the exact same tomato that the seed came from. That does not happen reliably with hybrids.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are most prized for their flavor. An heirloom tomato tastes like a tomato should taste. Corn should be sweet and crisp. Musk melon should be juicy, not crisp and dry like the cantaloupe you get at the grocery store. So if you see heirloom varieties at your local farmers’ market, I encourage you to go give them a try and see for yourself what the difference is. For your tasting pleasure I’m including some recipes for heirlooms!

Bon appetit!


Panzanella Restaurant Heirloom Tomato Salad
Yields: 4 Servings

6 heirloom tomatoes (coarse cut)
7 cherry tomatoes (quartered)
1 red onion (cut in half and thinly sliced)
1 cucumber (peeled, sliced in half lengthwise, thinly sliced)
15 basil leaves (chiffonade)
1 cup ciabatta bread (cubed)
1.25 cups EVOO
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Drizzle bread with 2-3 tablespoons of EVOO and toast.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, unevenly cut tomatoes over the bowl, add cucumbers, red onion, basil, salt and pepper and toss.

Add remaining EVOO and red wine vinegar; toss.

Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly.


photo by: Pornchai Mittongtare

Crushed Heirloom Potatoes
Yield: 4 Servings

2 lbs heirloom potatoes (unpeeled whole)
3 oz gorgonzola (crumbled)
1/2 cup pecans (toasted, chopped)
1/4 cup EVOO
2 cups baby arugula

Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with cold, generously salted water.  Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are just tender, 20-40 mins. Drain. Return potatoes to pot.

Using a large wooden spoon, coarsely crush potatoes in the pot. Add cheese, nuts and oil.  Stir in arugula and toss to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer to a bowl and serve.


Picture by: Mitchell Feinberg

Orzo with Grilled Shrimp, Summer Vegetables and Pesto Vinaigrette
Yield: 6 Servings

I know, I already gave you an heirloom tomato recipe. But this is a favorite of mine that makes an awesome week-night dinner. It’s a quick and delicious meal in a bowl.

8 oz orzo (~3.3 cups)
6.5 Tbsp EVOO, divided
4 Tbsp red wine vinegar, divided
2 medium zucchini or summer squash, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1 red or yellow bell pepper, quartered
3 Tbsp pesto
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 lb uncooked large shrimp, peeled, deveined
2 heirloom tomatoes, cored, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (~2 cups)
1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves, plus sprigs for garnish
1 8-oz ball fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Cook orzo in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender but firm to bite, stirring occasionally.  Drain. Rinse with cold water; drain well.  Transfer to large bowl and toss with 1 Tbsp oil.

Prepare grill (medium-high heat). Whisk 2 Tbsp oil and 2 Tbsp vinegar in small bowl.  Brush zucchini and bell pepper with oil mixture, season with salt and pepper.  Whisk pesto, lime juice, remaining 3.5 Tbsp oil, and remaining 2 Tbsp vinegar in a small bowl for pesto vinaigrette.  Place shrimp in medium bowl.  Add 2 Tbsp of pesto vinaigrette; toss to coat.

Grill zucchini and bell pepper until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes per side for zucchini and 4 minutes per side for bell pepper.  Transfer to work surface.  Season shrimp with salt and pepper; grill until charred and cooked through.  Place shrimp in bowl with orzo.  Chop zucchini and bell pepper; add to bowl with orzo.  Add remaining vinaigrette, tomatoes, sliced basil, and mozzarella; toss to combine.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Can be served cold or at room temperature.

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