By Anna Ferguson
Chopped or sauteed, stewed or puréed - no matter how you slice it, tomatoes are the tried-and-true darlings of summertime cuisine. Craig Richards loves tomatoes so much, he designed an entire menu around them.
For five years in a row, Richards, executive chef of La Tavola in Atlanta, has been at the helm of TomatoFest. The annual menu event, which wrapped up Saturday, offered all things tomato-based, from a simple assorted heirloom salad to a tomato dessert. That's right: a tomato dessert.
"I don't think people realize how many great things you can do with tomatoes, especially this time of year when they are thriving," Richards said.
But back to that tomato dessert. For TomatoFest 2007, Richards concocted a delectable dessert to finish the fixed-price tomato meal - an orange blossom honey-ricotta cake, topped with pine nuts and a sugary tomato conserva.
"I didn't want tomatoes to be the centerpiece of the dessert, because they are so acidic and that can take away from the sweet factor," he said. "By making it a side preserve, it was a nice touch. Tomatoes have a versatile taste, and it can be made perfect for almost any type of dish."
The tomato is a fruit (yes - a fruit, as was confirmed by Emillie Skinner, a horticulture research technician at the University of Georgia) that reaches beyond borders to transcend any one type of ethnic cuisine.
Italian chefs have long associated tomatoes with pasta, topping dishes with a tomato sauce, or tossing fresh or sun-dried tomatoes with noodles and herbs. Indian cuisine often calls for stewed tomatoes mixed with vegetables and meats. Latin menus are famous for featuring tomatoes diced into a spicy or mild salsa. And, of course, here in the South we commonly trade our red varieties for green, then slice, bread and deliciously fry them.
"Tomatoes can be used beyond just a salad ingredient, and I encourage people to experiment with all the ways to use them," said NuRayah Sewell, a raw food chef at Juices Wild in Buford, where tomatoes are blended with celery, avocado, spinach and sprouts to create an energy-boosting smoothie.
Despite the multitude of uses for tomatoes, the favorite recipe is often not a recipe at all.
"I just like to slice 'em and eat 'em," said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. "Now, that may be just a Southern thing, but it's good eatin'."
Kathy Hoy agrees. It's not uncommon for her to pack a lunch that consists of nothing but fresh tomatoes, topped with cottage cheese or tuna salad.
"Frankly, I like them just plain," said Hoy, a representative for the national Fruits and Vegetables - More Matters
campaign. "Sometimes, simplicity is best."
In Georgia, getting your hands on these freshly grown fruits shouldn't be too difficult this time of year, as tomatoes are Georgia's seventh largest crop. Some 6,100 acres are devoted to growing tomatoes in the state and $56 million worth of tomatoes were produced in 2006, according to statistics from the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
"Georgia has a good-sized tomato market," Hall said. "It's a big business here, with the larger farms in south Georgia exporting crops all across the country. They're sharing the love."
With tomatoes, there is plenty to love, too, Hoy said. Packed with lycopene, antioxidants, vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber, tomatoes are nutritional powerhouses.
"Tomatoes are low in calories, but still have a lot of healthy nutrients in them. Whether you are eating them fresh or cooked, tomatoes are always good," she said. "Nothing says summer quite the way a tomato does."
Tomato "Sandwich" Nicoise
2 large, ripe tomatoes
2 cans (6 ounces each) solid white tuna in water, drained
1⁄4 cup sliced, pitted black olives
2 teaspoons capers
1⁄4 cup prepared oil-and-vinegar dressing, divided
4 lettuce leaves
4 red onion slices
8 ounces green beans, cooked
2 hard-cooked eggs, quartered lengthwise
Cut 4 slices from the center of each tomato. In a medium-sized bowl, gently combine tuna, olives, capers and 2 tablespoons of the dressing. On each of four plates, layer a tomato slice, a lettuce leaf, onion slice and 1⁄4 of the tuna mixture; top with the remaining tomato slices. Arrange green beans and egg wedges on each plate, dividing evenly, and drizzle with the remaining dressing. Makes 4 servings.
Source: Florida Tomatoes
Heirloom Tomato Salad
4 heirloom tomatoes
Sea salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 bunch basil
Slice tomatoes right before serving, put them on a platter. Sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper, and pour balsamic over the tomatoes. Chiffonade the basil leaves and sprinkle on top.
Source: Food Network
Tomato Zucchini Bake
3 thinly sliced medium zucchini
4 medium ripe tomatoes peeled and thinly sliced
3⁄4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 400 F. In an 8-inch-square baking dish, arrange half the zucchini slices. Top with half the tomato slices. Sprinkle with 1⁄4 cup cheese. Top with remaining zucchini and tomatoes. Sprinkle garlic, thyme, salt and pepper over tomato mixture; drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle remaining 1⁄2 cup cheese over top. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Makes 6 servings.
Source: Georgia Growers Association
Tuscan Chicken Bruschetta
2 cups mixed pizza cheese
2 ounces diced green onions
6 ounces sun-dried tomatoes, such as Valley Sun, julienned
4 ounces sauteed shiitake mushrooms, sliced
5 ounces grilled chicken breast, julienne
3 ounces mayonnaise
4 ounces pesto
1 each baguette
4 ounces tomatoes, diced
2 ounces balsamic glaze
1 ounces basil, chiffonaded
Combine cheese, green onions, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, chicken and mayonnaise in a mixing bowl. Cut baguette in half lengthwise. Spread pesto on baguette. Spread cheese mixture over pesto and bake in 350 F oven for 8 to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cut, top with diced tomatoes, basil and balsamic glaze.
Source: Valley Sun Sun-Dried Tomatoes
SideBar: More info
When perusing the produce aisle, vivid red beefsteak tomatoes seem to call out to shoppers: "Pick me, pick me!" But tomatoes go beyond the plump, juicy red varieties we have come to know and love.
"When people think of a tomato, they think the red, round kind, but it goes beyond that," said Craig Richards, executive chef at La Tavola in Atlanta. He designed the menu for TomatoFest 2007. "There are dozens of different tomato varieties that I like to use."
Expand your tomato horizons by checking out the varieties that Richards used during TomatoFest:
Aunt Ruby Green