Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Open season on Tomatoes

What can you do with the prized produce? Almost anything
Herald Staff Writer
Monterey County Herald
Article Last Updated:

No homegrown tomatoes in your yard? Too bad. But there's always second best: Prime tomato season is finally here, and good specimens are showing up at farmers markets and some grocery stores.
After savoring a few in their plain old natural state, what can you do with them? Just about everything, according to the experts.

Gary Ibsen, aka the Tomato Man, has tasted them every which way at his annual Carmel TomatoFest. The gathering at Quail Lodge, scheduled for Sept. 16, brings together chefs from the Monterey Bay and beyond, who come up with new and different ways to serve the prized produce, from salads to sorbets.

After all the testing and tasting, Ibsen always finds himself returning to an old favorite.

"Fried green tomatoes have always been a staple of our summer's tomato harvest," he said. "I love these as snacks, or alongside any meal, especially barbecues. Most any of the larger beefsteak heirloom tomato varieties are perfect for making fried green tomatoes. I like to pick them green with a change of color starting, which would indicate some sweetness forming in the fruit."

Ibsen's recipe, which follows this article, "features just enough of a peppery spark to complement the sweet tang of the green tomato."

Among his other top tomato-recipe picks is a twist on old-fashioned fare: Heirloom Tomato B.L.T. Soup.

Bacon, lettuce and tomato soup? Ibsen said it's an all-time favorite and won the $5,000 grand prize in 2005 in the national TomatoFest Tomato Recipe Contest.

It was created by Jerry Regester, now executive chef at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards and a former chef at Monterey-area hot spots including Pacific's Edge, The Lodge at Pebble Beach and Cielo in Big Sur.

The TomatoFest is one sure way to know tomato season has arrived. Another? The appearance of the "Deconstructed Tomato Tower" on the menu at Stokes Restaurant & Bar in Monterey.

"People start calling in February asking me when it's going to come," said Brandon Miller, chef-partner at Stokes. "I don't do it until the tomatoes are perfect. That's about mid-July until October."

The dish is Miller's version of insalata caprese, the classic combination of heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Many people serve it in a layered variation, alternating tomatoes with cheese, slightly overlapping like a spread-out deck of playing cards. Miller's is more free-form.

The "deconstructed tower" name is his poke of fun at a trend that has, thankfully, mostly gone by the wayside: building sky-scraping architectural — but nearly impossible to serve or eat — wonders on a plate.

"What this used to be was three slices of cheese and three tomatoes stacked in a big tower," Miller said. "One year I said, 'You know, let's take it down and make it more real.'"

The deconstructed, horizontal version starts with a chunk — about six ounces — of fresh mozzarella cheese, surrounded by a colorful mix of heirloom tomatoes, big and small, weighing in at about eight ounces. It's finished with some fresh basil leaves, a drizzle of basil oil, sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

The tomatoes, obviously, are the key to this dish. The makeup can vary depending on what's fresh. A recent version included Brandywines, Purple Cherokees, Lemon Boys and Sun Golds.

Fresh cheese also is critical. Stokes makes its mozzarella daily from curd that it buys.

"I've been making mozzarella since I worked up in Napa in the late '80s at Tra Vigne restaurant," Miller said. If you're making the dish at home, Miller said, "go find the best cheese you can, hopefully in liquid."

Stokes goes through about 60 pounds of mozzarella a week for the deconstructed towers when tomatoes are in season.

"It might be the most popular thing I've ever had on my menu," Miller said.

For Julia Wiley, the warm summer tomato-ripening season is the perfect time for cool soup, as in gazpacho. She has a favorite version she likes "because it's simple and I can often wing it with whatever I have in my kitchen."

She can also wing it with what she has in her "yard." She and her husband operate Mariquita Farm near Hollister, growing organic specialty vegetables, greens and herbs for sale through a subscription system and to Bay Area restaurants.

For her gazpacho she uses "whatever ripe tomatoes we have around," she said. "We have San Marzanos, Green Zebras and Cherokee Purples, and several other heirloom varieties as well."

"I'm not a fan of green bell peppers — I find them bitter — so my recipe doesn't include them," she said. "But it's fun to put in red or gold bell peppers."

She also adds cucumbers.

"I love cucumbers in any form, and they give the gazpacho a bit of crunch," Wiley said.

In the mood for something even cooler? How about tomato sorbet?

At first blush, it sounds weird. But Colin Moody, executive chef at Asilomar Conference Grounds, is sweet on it.

"This recipe was developed specifically for the TomatoFest, and came out of another dish I had done for a high-end VIP function a few weeks prior," Moody said. "The original dish was a chilled heirloom tomato soup with avocado sorbet. I was looking at tomatoes as a fruit, then thinking, what would I do with a fruit, for an outside, sunny event in Carmel Valley? Well, I would do a refreshing sorbet.

"My other thoughts about it were that it would be a nice palate cleanser, in between the multitude of dishes that all the guests would be enjoying that day. And then it ended up winning the Tomato Lover's Choice Award in the national recipe contest the next year."

|Deconstructed Tomato Tower|

6 oz. fresh mozzarella

8 oz. heirloom tomatoes, mix of varieties, sizes and colors

Basil oil (olive oil flavored with basil)

Fresh basil leaves

Sea salt


Steps: Place brick of cheese on plate and arrange tomatoes around it. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with basil leaves, salt and pepper to taste.

|— Brandon Miller, chef-partner,

|Stokes Restaurant & Bar, Monterey

|Fried Green Tomatoes|

4 green, unripe, hard-as-rock tomatoes, sliced approximately ½-inch thick

6 eggs

½ cup milk

½ cup polenta

½ cup yellow corn meal

1 cup all purpose flour

1 cup semolina flour

1 T. paprika

1 T. dark chili powder

2 tsp. cayenne pepper

1 T. salt

2 tsp. celery salt

2 tsp. white pepper

1 tsp. ground bay leaf

½ tsp. ground fennel that has been roasted

½ cup butter

½ cup olive oil

Steps: Grind polenta for 12 minutes in food processor until granules become fine and small. Mix all the dry ingredients together (flours, corn meal, polenta and spices) and place in a shallow dish.

Scramble the eggs and the half-cup of milk. Place tomato slices into egg mixture and then dredge in the flour mixture.

Heat skillet with butter and olive oil, medium heat. When butter is melted, add coated tomato slices. Cook on one side 2-3 minutes, and turn once, cooking another 2-3 minutes, until tomato is tender but coating is crunchy.

|— Gary Ibsen, founder of

|Carmel TomatoFest

|Heirloom Tomato B.L.T. Soup|

3 lbs. heirloom tomatoes

1 red onion, diced

3 oz. olive oil

1 T. chopped garlic

5 pieces smoked bacon

1 T. chopped thyme leaves, fresh or dried

1 pint red wine

2 T. sherry vinegar

3 slices rye bread

1/3 lb. mixed greens

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

Steps for the soup base: In a medium saucepot cook the onions, garlic, thyme and four slices of the bacon in 1 oz. of the olive oil. Cook slowly over low heat and season with a little sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, trying not to brown the onions. When the onions are translucent, add the sherry vinegar and let cook for approximately 2 minutes.

Add three-quarters of the tomatoes to the pot and let them stew for about 15 minutes, then add a little pinch of salt. Add the wine to the tomatoes and reduce by one-third.

Pass the soup base through a food mill and strain to remove any skins and seeds.

For the garnish: Dice the bread and toss in 1 oz. of the olive oil and toast in a 325-degree oven until golden brown; set aside.

Julienne the remaining slice of bacon and sauté over medium heat until crispy; set aside.

Ladle the hot soup into your soup bowls.

Dice the remaining tomatoes and cook with the greens in the remaining olive oil until the greens are wilted (about 2 minutes). Season with salt and pepper and spoon into the center of each bowl.

Sprinkle with the croutons and the crispy bacon.

|— Jerry Regester, executive chef,

|The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards

|Fresh Tomato Gazpacho|

5 pounds ripe tomatoes, any color

1-2 cloves garlic

2 T. lime juice

2 T. olive oil

1 T. white wine vinegar

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. dried or 1 T. fresh oregano, chopped

6 green onions, thinly sliced

1 sweet bell pepper, red or yellow, finely chopped

¼ cup finely chopped celery

1 cup finely chopped, seeded cucumber

1-2 jalape o chiles, seeded and minced

Accompaniments: seeded and chopped red bell pepper, diced avocado, fresh chopped cilantro leaves, garlic croutons, thinly sliced radishes, thinly slivered cabbage, lime wedges, creme fraiche.

Steps: Seed and finely chop 1 tomato; reserve. Coarsely chop remaining tomatoes and combine these with garlic in a blender (you may need to do this in two batches) and process until smooth. Press through a sieve into large bowl; discard seeds. Whisk lime juice, oil, vinegar, salt and oregano into tomato mixture. Stir in reserved chopped tomato, green onions, red pepper, celery, cucumber and chiles. Refrigerate, covered, at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours to blend flavors.

At serving time, stir soup well and ladle into chilled bowls. Pass accompaniments to be added according to individual taste.

Note: I love cucumbers and red bell peppers in my gazpacho, but if you prefer the bitter tang of a green bell pepper you can add that as a garnish or in the blender stage.

|— Julia Wiley, Mariquita Farm of Hollister, which sells its produce through a subscription system. Information:

|Swirled Zebra and|

|Marvel Striped Tomato Sorbet|

(Served on a mini ginger cone with a Parmesan crisp)|

For the Zebra Tomato Sorbet

1 pound Zebra or other heirloom tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1½ T. champagne vinegar, or other dry vinegar

½ tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tsp. chives, finely sliced

1 tsp. tarragon, finely sliced

½ cup simple syrup (1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup white sugar brought to simmer until sugar is dissolved, and let cool)

Kosher salt to taste

White pepper to taste

For the Marvel Stripe Tomato Sorbet:

1 lb. Marvel Stripe Tomatoes (or other heirloom tomato) peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1½ T. champagne vinegar, or other dry vinegar

½ tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tsp. chives, finely sliced

1 tsp. tarragon, finely sliced

½ cup simple syrup

Kosher salt to taste

White pepper to taste

For the Parmesan crisp:

¼ lb. shaved, or grated Parmesan cheese


12 sugar cones for mini-style cone. Carefully cut cone in half with a serrated bread knife, using the bottom half as a petite cone.

Steps: Since this is a duplicate recipe, you may prepare/combine all the ingredients from the sorbet recipes, except the tomatoes, in one big batch, then divide in half and use with each kind of tomato.

For the sorbets, put the Zebra tomatoes in medium saucepan, and simmer over medium heat for 45 minutes, or until reduced by half. Place tomatoes in blender with remaining ingredients and purée until smooth. Press mixture through chinoise, or fine sieve. Chill quickly in freezer or ice water bath until cold. Freeze mixture in ice cream machine (follow manufacturer's instructions). Place in the freezer.

Turn the Marvel Stripe Sorbet. Repeat above steps. While the Marvel sorbet is still soft from the machine, gently swirl into the Zebra Stripe tomato sorbet. Do not over-mix, or the colors will combine; mix just enough to get a marbled effect. Place in the freezer overnight.

For the Parmesan crisp, preheat oven to 375 degrees. On a cookie sheet, place parchment paper and spray with aerosol oil or use silpat. Sprinkle Parmesan evenly over the pan, about -inch thick, trying not to leave any holes or gaps in the cheese. Bake until cheese melts and just begins to brown, about 5 minutes; keep a close eye on it, as it happens fast. Take out of the oven and let cool. Cut or break into smaller pieces and use to garnish the sorbet.

To serve, put a small scoop of sorbet on a ginger (sugar) or other cone, and serve between courses or as a light starter before the meal. Place cut Parmesan crisp in the sorbet and serve.

|— Colin Moody, executive chef,

|Asilomar Conference Grounds

If you go ·What: Carmel TomatoFest ·When: 12:30-4:30 p.m. Sept. 16 ·Where: Quail Lodge, 8205 Valley Greens Drive, Carmel ·Cost: $95 general, children under 12 free with parent ·Information:, 1-800-965-4827

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