Summer days can be counted by their numerous pleasures: soft grass, warm breezes, and of course, homegrown tomatoes. At this wonderful time of year, cherry tomatoes dangle like tiny suns from their vines. Pretty heirlooms fill harvest baskets, and heavy beefsteaks ripen from green to deep red, signaling that it's time to stop and enjoy the greatest reward of vegetable gardening: cooking with food you've grown yourself. To celebrate this delicious season, we called upon three gardeners—who also happen to be brilliant chefs—to dish on why they love to grow and cook with tomatoes.
Deborah Madison: Cooking With The Seasons
"I am never tempted to buy a tomato at the store," says cookbook writer and Organic Gardening contributing food editor Deborah Madison. "I don't even see them." Madison, who began her career at the famed Chez Panisse and was the founding chef of the iconic Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, lives at around 7,000 feet in Galisteo, New Mexico, where she admits that growing heat-loving tomatoes, and just about anything else, can be difficult.
To meet the challenges of gardening in dry, clay soils and at a high altitude, Madison commissioned a local carpenter to build raised beds of sustainably harvested cedar, each equipped with hoops and a cover that helps protect crops from weather and pests. Come spring, she plants a variety of heirloom tomato seedlings, procured from local nurseries and farmers. "I have better luck with the smaller-sized tomatoes, because my garden is on the shady side and they seem to mature more quickly and more reliably," explains Madison.
She also likes growing varieties she sees at the farmers' market and always includes a few larger tomatoes, even though they often produce few fruits. "There are so many amazing varieties of tomatoes. I am really fond of the big old beefsteak tomatoes, like 'German Striped'. I also like the peach-type tomatoes for salads. Peach tomatoes have a matte skin and seem to do quite well for me here in New Mexico. I love the pleated tomatoes like Italian 'Costoluto Genovese' that look like little silk evening purses."
Other favorites include 'Oxheart', 'Nebraska Wedding Tomato' (once ceremoniously hung in Midwest churches as a harbinger of a prosperous and fruitful marriage), and 'Golden Jubilee'. "I don't care for most yellow tomatoes because they are so low in acid," Madison says. "But 'Golden Jubilee' is more acidic than most, and its tartness makes it good to pair with cheeses." For dressing, she prefers sweet marjoram, red-wine vinegar, and olive oil to the old standard of basil, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil for bringing out the flavors of different tomatoes. "Marjoram's high aromatic notes can be a nice change," Madison explains.
While flavor and color are certainly important considerations when choosing varieties, Madison finds that picking ones that do well where you live is the secret to successfully growing tomatoes. And the best way to discover those varieties, she says, is to visit local farmers' markets and see what the farmers are growing. After all, says Madison, "There is no substitute for a locally grown tomato, picked right at its peak."
Hot Pasta With Fresh Tomatoes
- 3 cups cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
- 1 shallot, finely diced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 3 tablespoons best olive oil, or more to taste
- 2 tablespoons salted capers, soaked in water and drained, or brined capers, rinsed
- 1/3 cup pitted Nicoise olives
- 6 basil leaves, torn or slivered
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 pound small shell-shaped pasta
- A few drops of balsamic vinegar (optional)
1. Bring a pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, mix the tomatoes in a large bowl with the shallot, garlic, olive oil, capers, olives, and basil. Season with a little salt and pepper.
2. When the water is boiling, add salt and cook the pasta. Drain the pasta, shake off the excess water, add the hot pasta to the tomatoes, and toss. Taste for salt, add pepper and a few drops of vinegar if you like, and serve.
Makes 4 servings
From Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen
Jerry Traunfeld: An Herbal Kitchen
James Beard Award-winning chef and cookbook author Jerry Traunfeld's fascination with both gardening and cooking developed at an early age. "Ever since I was a little kid, I've been fascinated with gardens and growing things—houseplants and outdoor plants," Traunfeld recalls. "I started cooking when I was a teenager, and that's how the connection started."
At his Seattle restaurant, Poppy, Traunfeld tends a small but intensively planted garden. The waist-high raised beds house herbs, salad greens, edible flowers, and a few of Traunfeld's mostloved tomato varieties. To keep his tomatoes happy in Seattle's notoriously damp, chilly climate, he plants them in the sunniest, warmest spot in the garden and meticulously removes any foliage that looks diseased. "One cherry tomato variety that always stands out and never disappoints is 'Sungold'," says Traunfeld. "It consistently produces and it is so delicious." Other favorite varieties include 'Persimmon' (a yellow heirloom grown by Thomas Jefferson), 'Brandywine', and 'Champion'.
For a simple summertime meal, Traunfeld heats halved cherry tomatoes mixed with a clove of minced garlic and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until just warm, and then adds basil, sweet marjoram, tarragon, or thyme to taste. "It's in between a sauce and a salad," says Traunfeld, who recommends serving the tomatoes over grilled fish or tossing with pasta.
Cherry Tomato, Melon, And Mint Salad
- 4 cups melon balls, scooped from a ripe, sweet watermelon at room temperature
- 3 cups ripe 'Sungold' cherry tomato halves, at room temperature
- 4 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh spearmint
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Toss all ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
Makes 8 servings
Adapted from The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor, by Jerry Traunfeld
Alex Lee: Global Flavors, Local Food
"I've grown a garden since I was 12," says Alex Lee, a chef who has worked alongside the likes of Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse. "I love to see seeds germinating under grow lights. In my profession, I get to travel all around the world. The first place I visit in whatever country I go to is the local farmers' market."
Creativity in the kitchen is tied to the availability of fresh ingredients, says Lee, and summer allows creativity to truly shine. "Through my cooking, I really enjoy the rhythms of the seasons, and one of my favorite times is tomato season," says Lee, who is the executive chef at Glen Oaks Country Club in Old Westbury, New York. Lee's passion is to bring rich peasant tastes and traditions, what he calls the "soul" of food, to fine dining.
This globe-trotting chef has a world of favorite tomato varieties, and it includes 'Cherokee Purple' (United States), 'Momotaro'( Japan), 'Zapotec' (Mexico), 'Coeur de Boeuf' (France), and 'Canestrino' (Italy). "'Canestrino' tomatoes have a very high sugar content," explains Lee. "They are meaty, with few seeds and an almost fruity flavor."
Lee says successfully growing tomatoes begins with a "classic compost pile" made with the right mix of dry "brown" matter—such as dead leaves and straw—and wet "green" matter, including vegetable scraps from the kitchen. "I put everything in: eggshells, mushroom stems, coffee grounds." Pest problems such as tomato hornworms are dealt with by hand-picking the insects and tossing them in the waste bin. Lee also recommends soaking the soil at the base of the plants with diluted fish emulsion just as they begin to flower. "And I always work in lots of organic matter before the plants go into the ground," he says.
Alex Lee's Green Tomato Gazpacho
This chilled soup is made with tomatoes such as 'Green Zebra', 'Evergreen', 'Green Grape', and 'German Green', all of which remain green when ripe.
- 1 1/2 cups pulp from ripe green tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons celery, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons cucumber, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons avocado, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons Vidalia onion, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
- 1/8 teaspoon minced serrano chile pepper
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Small cherry tomatoes or tiny currant tomatoes, halved, and tiny purple basil leaves (optional garnish)
Prepare an ice-water bath in a large bowl and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the green tomato pulp, celery, cucumber, avocado, onion, olive oil, vinegar, cilantro, and chile pepper. Season with salt and pepper. Place the bowl filled with gazpacho into the ice-water bath, making sure not to submerge it. Chill until cold. Garnish with purple basil leaves and red and orange cherry tomato halves for a vibrant and colorful contrast.
Makes 2 servings