To some, summer is all about swimming and sunlight. To others, it’s about local tomatoes. Period.
“Texturally, there is nothing like a good vine-ripened local tomato,” says Chris Aquilino, personal chef, caterer and owner of Picasso’s Plate Cuisine. “They’re soft and supple.” The taste? It doesn't even compare it to that of a trucked-in tomato, he says. “They’re much sweeter and brighter.”
According to chef William Dissen of The Market Place in downtown Asheville, that sweetness can be measured in terms of “Brix,” a scientific unit that refers to sugar content, commonly used in winemaking. “When a fruit or vegetable fully ripens on the plant, it’s at its maximum Brix,” he notes. That intense sweetness is what makes a local tomato perfect for eating with just salt, pepper and fresh basil — what Dissen calls a “perfect summer treat.”
Both chefs’ favorite local tomatoes are heirloom varieties, which are almost as fun to grow as they are to eat. Billy Haynes, owner and operator of Blackbird Farms in Flat Rock, loves growing heirlooms. “To be honest, they’re the best tomatoes out there,” he says. “I have a great sense of pride when people tell me mine are the best they’ve had.”
In the past, Haynes has grown as many as 50 varieties of heirlooms, although he now focuses mostly on striped Germans, green zebras, yellow and pink Brandywines and Cherokee purples.
Haynes used to have trouble marketing his funky heirloom varieties to a public accustomed to the uniform look of a grocery-store tomato. That’s much less of a challenge now, he says. Consumers are increasingly interested in the traditional cultivars — even the ugly ripe.
Hilda Tipton is another area grower who’s helped heirloom varieties gain more attention. She and her husband Bruce own and operate Hilda Rico Tipton Farms and the Tomato Art Company in Rutherfordton. There, Hilda grows tomatoes of all stripes, including a one-of-a-kind pink tomato that bears her name: the Hilda Pink. A portion of the sale of the pinks goes to the National Breast Cancer Foundation to benefit breast cancer research.
Local Earth Fare grocery stores stock many of Hilda's tomatoes, including her namesake. Right now, tailgate markets, grocery stores and farm stands in our area are veritably bursting with local tomatoes. Haynes sells his tomatoes to nearby Ingles stores, as does Tipton. Greenlife Grocery currently carries organic tomatoes from Jake’s Farm in Asheville, Windy Ridge in Flat Rock and Fields of Gold in Hendersonville. Local tomatoes are available at the Hendersonville Community Co-op, the French Broad Food Co-op, Poppies — the list goes on and on.
Even area hospitals are serving up local tomatoes to patients, visitors and staff. Blackbird Farms’ tomatoes are on the menu at Park Ridge Hospital, and Mission Hospital purchases from the nonprofit distributor, Madison Farms.
Ready to whip up a local tomato dish yourself? The chefs mentioned here share some of their specialties, courtesy of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project's Get Local program. Get Local brings together restaurants and chefs around the region to highlight a single seasonal ingredient.
For more information and a list of participating restaurants, as well as information about what’s fresh at groceries and markets this month, visit www.asapconnections.org.
Risotto Stuffed Tomatoes
from chef Chris Aquilino (picassosplate.com)
4 large vine-ripened local tomatoes
1/3 cup raw Arborio rice
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
6 basil leaves, chiffonade (thinly sliced)
4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon oregano, finely chopped
5 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
10 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash tomatoes and make slits in their tops, big enough for a spoon.
Scoop out the insides, reserving the “pulp” for stuffing. Coat the outside of your tomatoes with olive oil, then season them with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Dice the reserved tomato pulp and combine it with the uncooked rice, garlic, oregano, basil, parsley, cheese and the remaining tablespoons of oil (about four). Mix thoroughly.
Divide the rice mixture evenly among the tomato shells. Grease an oven-proof dish, then place the tomatoes into the dish, leaving at least one inch between them.
Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, and then top with the remaining Parmesan. Bake until cheese becomes slightly browned and bubbly.
Mozzarella and Tomato Terrine
from Chef Dissen of The Market Place (marketplace-restaurant.com)
Makes 14-16 portions
3/4 lb mozzarella
3 lb ripe local tomatoes
1 cup basil leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the mozzarella into thin slices, fitted to layer into the terrine (cooking dish). Slice tomatoes 1/4-inch thick and lay out on a sheet tray over an oiled wire rack.
Season tomatoes with salt, pepper and olive oil.
Cook tomatoes in a 250-degree oven for until dried — 40 minutes to an hour. Allow to cool and reserve.
Line the terrine mold with plastic wrap, leaving an overhang. Assemble terrine by layering mozzarella, oven roasted tomatoes and basil, creating layers that cover the entire surface of the mold. Repeat the process until ingredients are used up and the mold is filled.
Fold the plastic wrap over and smooth over the top. Cover with the lid and place in a water bath in a 250-degree oven for 30 minutes.
Remove from water bath, cover with a two-pound weight and let rest under refrigeration overnight. To eat, cut terrine into 3/16-inch slices, with plastic still on. Remove plastic after slices have been plated.