What is an heirloom fruit or vegetable?

Although there are varying definitions, heirlooms are ancient varieties of seeds (at least 50 years old) that pre-date WWII. The seeds have been handed down from one generation to the next and usually come from a particular region. All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, which means they are pollinated with no human intervention. The pollination occurs naturally by insects, wind or rain. The fruits and vegetables maintain their characteristics from one year to the next, which preserves agricultural heritage. However, heirloom plants are less predictable in terms of fruit size, uniformity and harvest time compared to commercially hybridized varieties.

Is heirloom seed better than hybrid seed?

Most farmers and consumers agree that heirloom seed produces better tasting produce compared to commercially produced, hybridized seed. This is because commercially produced hybrid seed (called F1) is cross-bred to produce fruits and veggies that resist disease, withstand long hauls or change color or size. Besides taste, another issue with commercial hybrid seed is that it is sterile, requiring farmers to buy new seed every year. This puts big profits into the pockets of the large seed companies, with little leftover, especially for small family farmers.

Hybridization has its pros and cons. It was developed to improve food and crops. Commercially produced hybrid seed (F1) are the result of two plants with specific characteristics being deliberately crossed to produce a new third variety. Hybrid plants are more productive and have more predictable characteristics than heirlooms. Some varieties of hybrid seed are open pollinated and can be replanted year after year. Contrary to popular belief, hybrid seed and plants are not genetically modified.

Why the lure of heirloom fruits and vegetables?

It’s a taste experience that links us to the past, creating a feeling of nostalgia. Eating delicious, ancient produce may trigger memories of family meals that were made from scratch with produce from the garden or from a neighborhood specialty store. It takes us back to the days before industrial agriculture. While the industrialization of farming in the U.S. allowed cheaper, more uniform produce, it weakened the excitement about food. There is a greater connection to food when choosing a misshaped tomato from the local farmers market, brimming with sweetness and freshness because it was just picked only a day or so ago.  Heirloom seed and other open pollinated seed create biodiversity by producing new genetic profiles in nature.

For your own garden, try hybrids, heirlooms, or a combination of both types.

Heirloom Italian “Costata Romanesco” Summer Squash

Meet the heirloom Italian Costata Romanesco summer squash:

  • This delicious Italian heirloom zucchini, originating from Rome has pale green flecks and deeply grooved ribs running from stem to blossom with dark and light stripes. It produces bright orange blossoms that are traditionally stuffed and baked (or fried). The flavor of the zucchini is both sweet and nutty.
  • Grows during the spring and summer months.
  • Thrives in warm climates with a lot of sun and moderate water.
  • Also known as “Ribbed Roman” squash.
  • Eat the skin, especially if grown organically!
  • Store in the crisper drawer of the fridge—unwashed. Pre-washing promotes decay. The skin bruises easily, so handle with care. Use within a week.
  • Good source of fiber and high in vitamin C and potassium.

Cooking Italian Costata Romanesco summer squash:

  • For a unique scalloped shape around its edges, slice into 1/4-inch slices (thick coins). Then sauté, steam, roast or grill.
  • Larger more mature squashes are ideal for halving, hollowing, stuffing and baking.
  • RECIPE for roasting summer squash: Cut into 3-inch wide pieces and then quarter lengthwise. Toss with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Roast in a preheated oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 Celsius) for about 30 minutes. Serve.

For more healthy Mediterranean recipes and diet secrets of the super-healthy, read my book: Beyond The Mediterranean diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy, available on Amazon.com