(May 15) When you visit an old estate like the Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., or the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif., you almost can’t help but project yourself into the past. The thick wood, carvings, tapestries, marble and ornate designs play with your imagination. There’s something regal about old-world quality. You walk away awed with a new sense of excellence — the depth of which was lost somewhere along the way.

That’s the way many chefs feel when they discover heirloom fruits and vegetables. Today’s common commercial varieties available in abundance are good, functional and sufficient, but they’re not what fruits and vegetables used to be, they say.

Many chefs find the missing flavor in heirlooms, which are fruits and vegetables grown from old or rare seeds handed down from previous generations or brought over from other countries.

Often these heirloom varieties lack the thriving characteristics that result in high yields and disease resistance. Yet it’s in the midst of these weaknesses that flavor and color bloom.

Heirlooms allow you to bring the culinary version of the Biltmore and Hearst Castle to the dinner plate.

SCOPE THEM OUT

Until recently, tomatoes made up most of the heirlooms available, mainly because that’s where the demand has been, says Gwen Kvavli Gulliksen, division vice president for Pro*Act Specialties-Harvest Sensations, Los Angeles.

Tim Anderson, executive chef for Napa Valley Grille, Bloomington, Minn., believes heirloom tomatoes are the most popular heirloom commodity because tomatoes are the most affected by commercialization. “(Growers) have taken what’s good and made it to last. … Heirlooms (tomatoes) are low acid. That means they won’t last as long. That’s the reason tomatoes in grocery stores are acidic. They last forever, but there’s no flavor,” he says.

Last year specialty grower The Chef’s Garden Inc., Huron, Ohio, planted 372 heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties in its test plots, sent them to chefs for feedback and determined that 56 were keepers, says partner Lee Jones.

The company planted 17 heirloom varieties of okra, 30 lettuce varieties, 20 melon varieties and various beans, turnips, cabbages, carrots and cauliflower.

This year the company will test 450 heirloom varieties.

If you’re serious about acquiring heirlooms, many experts suggest you start with the nonprofit organization Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa, that is dedicated to saving heirloom garden seeds from extinction. (See www.seedsavers.org.)

The organization offers a catalog of 300 heirloom seeds it has available. “These would be good for the backyard gardener, for farmers’ markets and ideal for chefs,” says co-founder Diane Whealy.

If you find an heirloom variety seed you are interested in, contract with a grower to grow them for you. Whealy also suggests that farmers’ markets are a good place to find heirlooms.

Anderson with Napa Valley Grille found some tomato seeds from Seed Savers he wanted to grow and contracted with a Minnesota grower to produce the multicolored tomatoes that are green on top, fade into reddish black and have a yellow bottom. The grower is able to supply all the heirloom tomatoes the restaurant can use, he says.

Though most heirloom tomatoes only are available in the summer, you can get some varieties year-round.

Southern Specialties Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla., offers three popular heirloom tomato varieties year-round. The company’s agronomist has found a way to grow them hydroponically with the same rich, full flavor of ones grown in the ground, says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development in the company’s Atlanta office.

The varieties are Cherokee purple (deep purple with sweet, full flavor); pink brandywine (pink, smooth skin with vine-ripe flavor); and gold medal (yellow with red marbling, sweet, low acid and looks like stained glass when cut).

The tomatoes come packed in 10-pound, foam-lined boxes to prevent bruising, he says.

ENJOY THE NOVELTY

Heirlooms offer more than flavor. Who could yawn at purple cauliflower, striped beans or miniature white eggplant? The names given to some of these varieties also can make the menu interesting.

Monica Pope, owner/chef of Boulevard Bistrot, Houston, has fun with an heirloom turnip variety called vitamin green. The name not only intrigues customers who read it as a special on the blackboard, it also inspires Pope’s creativity.

Vitamin green made her think of healthful green soup. So she created one using the green turnips to make the stock and added scallions, pistachio oil and a little cilantro at the end. The turnips make a wonderful broth with great flavor, she says.

She also has worked with purple cauliflower, which she says is beautiful and maintains a little of the color when it is cooked.

Imagine offering customers a side of multicolored grilled baby eggplant halves. Chris Perkey, owner/chef of EGR Firehouse Grill, East Grand Rapids, Mich., enjoys working with the golfball-size eggplants from The Chef’s Garden. He received a box of white, black, light purple and red heirloom eggplants, which he discovered didn’t have the bitterness of conventional eggplant. All he did was cut and grill them in a little olive oil, add salt and pepper and serve them with lamb and saffron sauce.

The variations of heirloom pole beans you can get allow for unique-tasting and visually appealing dishes.

Perkey with EGR Firehouse Grill sometimes gets speckled purple and yellow heirloom beans. “You can make amazing salads with light red wine vinegar dressing and fresh microherbs. It’s a great chunky summer salad,” he says.

Anthony Bonett, executive chef with Opus 251, Philadelphia, uses yellow speckled heirloom beans to make ragu. He cuts the beans into 1-inch pieces and sets them aside. Then he sautés garlic and onions and adds cut and blanched yukon gold potatoes and tosses in the beans at the last minute with peeled and cut tomatoes. “It’s a refreshing starch and vegetable together,” he says.

Heirloom apples offer colors, sizes and flavors that lend them to unique presentations.

Mitch Prensky, owner/chef of catering company The Global Dish, Philadelphia, makes a French classic layered dessert called mille-feuille using heirloom Arkansas black apples, which really are deep red, he says. He slices the apples thinly, oven dries them and stacks them with apple custard between the layers.

Rick Gresh, executive chef for Caliterra restaurant in Chicago, believes heirloom apples are crisper, cleaner and more flavorful than conventional apples. For a special sauce, he simmers the apples in homemade caramel until they are slightly brown, adds brandy and lets the apples stew in the liquid until they are soft. “From there we let that become its own sauce and serve it on the side of seared foie gras,” he says.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Many chefs who work with heirlooms say the less you do to them the better. Let the colors, shapes and flavors make the presentation.

Anderson with Napa Valley Grille visited a San Francisco restaurant that had a tomato push cart featuring various heirloom tomato varieties and several olive oils and types of cheese. Customers chose the tomatoes, cheese and olive oil they wanted, and the cart attendant sliced the tomatoes and mixed them with the oil and cheese and handed them the plate, he says.

Anderson likes to make a chunky salsa out of heirloom tomatoes by cutting them and combining them with a good olive oil, and salt. “If you go to all the trouble to get them (heirloom tomatoes) , don’t stew them into a tomato sauce,” he says.

Bonett with Opus 251 likes to make tomato pineapple salad with heirloom tomatoes. The only preparation for the tomatoes is to cut them into wedges. He cuts and rings the pineapple, makes simple syrup of sugar, water, basil stems and mint, then tosses the pineapple in the syrup. He roasts the pineapple on a rack, which caramelizes the pineapple a little. He lets that chill, then cuts the pineapple into slices and combines with the tomato wedges. He serves the salad over seared tuna and tops it with microgreens and pours a simple citrus vinaigrette on top, he says.

To make an heirloom tomato gazpacho, Bonett mixes cut tomatoes, salt, pepper, olive oil, sherry vinegar, jalapeno, a peeled and seeded cucumber and a clove of garlic. He marinates the tomatoes in the mixture for a few hours in the refrigerator and then purees it all together in the blender. He serves it cold with a little shrimp salad or diced avocado and crab salad in the center.

Gresh with Caliterra likes to serve heirloom tomato chutney with shrimp. He combines orange zest, champagne vinegar, sugar and red and yellow heirloom tomatoes. He finishes the chutney off with a touch of chili flakes and a little fresh mint just before he serves it. “If I have a great green tomato, I might at the end dice it up and put it in for a little crunch in the chutney,” he says.

He also makes a simple fried green tomato salad by frying slices of green tomatoes and topping them with arugula and white truffle vinaigrette.

TAKE THE CHALLENGE

As beautiful, tasty and colorful as heirlooms can be, they aren’t your ordinary garden variety to work with.

It’s difficult to find consistency in supplies. What you want might be available today, but not tomorrow. That’s the reason the varieties didn’t go into commercial production, says Prensky with The Global Dish. “You have to give up control of knowing they will always come in and be this size,” he says.

Don’t promise you’ll have them on the menu, he says.

Because of their tender constitution, “(heirlooms) aren’t designed to sit on the shelf any length of time. Get them and use them. Have a plan and handle them gently,” says Perkey with EGR Firehouse Grill.

His other word of wisdom: Don’t overcook heirlooms. “Just quickly blanch them if you cook them at all. They overcook quickly and become flavorless.” You also can grill them quickly before the color and flavor die.