Slice into a tomato, the juicy icon of summer

Farmers and chefs share their tips and recipes for bushels of tomatoes bursting off the vine.

08/26/2014 7:00 AM

08/26/2014 7:29 PM

I’ve never met farmers who aren’t passionate about their tomatoes. Ask about favorite varieties and they’ll spout the names with pride, almost like they were grandkids.

Tomato growers can be stubbornly protective — first of young plants, then of delicate vines and eventually of tender ripening fruit. And they measure success as only true tomato lovers do — by taste.

“It’s all about the taste,” insists George Dragush, the 75-year-old family farmer behind Dragush Produce in Kansas City, Kan. “I have three main varieties: the Jet Star, Supersonic and Celebrity. They produce tall dark tomatoes. There are so many tomatoes today that are crossbred to hold up for shipping, but these are old-fashioned garden varieties that are good and meaty, with no core.

“In my opinion, good home-grown tomatoes are the number one item customers live for in the summer.”

Dragush’s love affair with tomatoes started early. “I’ve grown tomatoes all my life,” he says.

The family farm was in Kansas City, Kan. More recently he’s been farming in the Turner area. And he’s been selling his hybrid, pesticide-free tomatoes at the Overland Park Farmers Market since 1989.

Any relationship needs nurturing, and Dragush is always there for his tomatoes. “There’s a lot of work to get that perfect tomato to the market,” he says. “If you don’t stake or tie them, half your tomatoes will be blemished. They’re not presentable at market.”

He ties up every tomato at least three times — every 14 days. But despite constant care, the weather is often the determining factor in a farmer’s success. “Usually you want to get them in (the ground) around May 1, but in the last few years I have come within a degree or two of losing my whole crop.”

Getting past the frost date doesn’t mean the danger’s over. “It’s a continuous battle with the weather,” adds Dragush. “It’s either too dry or too wet.”

When you shop Dragush Produce from stalls 43 and 44 at the farmers market, the smiles and neatly organized produce belie the strife and sweat leading up to each market day. “I’ll get to the market at 3:30 or 4 a.m. It doesn’t open until 7:30, but I have two booths to set up,” he says.

Cody Hogan can often be found shopping the Overland Park market stalls for locally grown tomatoes. Hogan, chef de cuisine of Lidia’s Kansas City, often supplements his own garden produce to compensate for what neighborhood squirrels steal.

“For the restaurant, we have several local purveyors,” Hogan says. “Local tomatoes often come from within 100 miles. The farmers really respect their tomatoes and take really good care of them. The tomatoes have lots of flavor because they have been allowed to ripen naturally.”

This has been a really good year for tomatoes. You have to have some heat but not too much. When it gets too hot, the plant goes into survival mode and stops producing fruit.

Americans love their tomatoes, and their many varieties. “In Italy you don’t see all the crazy colors that we have here,” Hogan says. Some of the chef’s personal favorites are the Cherokee and Black Crimson heirloom varieties. “They call them black or purple tomatoes. I like the flavor,” he says. “We don’t normally make sauces from them — we want to alter them as little as possible.”

“We do a raw tomato sauce called a cruda,” says Hogan. “Chop them up and let them marinate in olive oil with garlic and red pepper. Top the sauce with fresh basil and cheese and you’re done.”

The rustic cruda can take on a variety of flavors. “If you want to get fancy, you can use different kinds of cheese,” suggests Hogan. “I always like to use Grana Padano. Grated hard cheese helps gives the sauce some body.”

Like many chefs, Hogan attests to the magic of the basil-tomato marriage. “There are just combinations that, when they happen, they taste bigger than the sum of their parts.” Hogan calls out a few other common herbs, “Oregano is another that goes well with tomatoes. Mint is really nice. You can substitute it like you would basil, maybe use a little less.”

Of course, in the end, the best tasting tomato comes naked or wears just a shake of salt.

Julienne Gehrer is a freelance writer and author of “In Season: Cooking Fresh from the Kansas City Farmers’ Market” available at ashgrovepress.com.

Words from the tomato-wise

Tomato varieties that get a green thumbs-up from small, local family farmers include those with names ranging from clinical to poetic, hybrid to heirloom: BHN589, Black Crimson, Big Beef, Celebrity, Cherokee, Jet Star, Rebelski, Scarlet Red and Supersonic

Accept imperfections: “At market, look at the individual grower and make sure he’s authentic and sells a homegrown tomato. It might not be picture perfect like those from California or Florida,” says George Dragush of Dragush Produce in Kansas City, Kan.

See beyond red: “Always buy a green, white or yellow heirloom tomato because the flavors are amazing and they’re so unique. They add interest to the plate,” says Liz Kurlbaum, owner of Kurlbaum Heirloom Tomatoes (kurlbaumtomatoes.com) sold at Hen House stores and more than 30 local restaurants.

Choose a firm tomato: “We look for tomatoes that are a day or two from ripe — that gives us some flexibility in planning. The bottom gets soft before the shoulders do. We like them a little firm on the shoulders,” says Cody Hogan, chef de cuisine at Lidia’s Kansas City.

Never refrigerate a tomato: “Seventy-two degrees is an ideal temperature to hold a tomato once they’re picked,” says Debbie Nitchals, Nitchals Produce in Leavenworth, Kan.

Tomato Cruda With Linguine

Makes 4 servings

4-6 tomatoes, cut coarsely into large chunks

1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup olive oil

16 ounces linguine

Grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Combine tomatoes, olives, garlic, salt and red pepper in a medium bowl; drizzle with olive oil and allow to marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.

Cook linguini in a large pot of boiling salted water according to package directions, until al dente. Drain in a colander and divide onto four plates. Top pasta with cruda sauce and serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

Per serving: 588 calories (27 percent from fat), 17 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 92 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams protein, 433 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

Grilled Eggplant and Tomatoes

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 large eggplant

2 teaspoons kosher salt

3 cups cherry tomatoes

8 to 10 fresh basil leaves, minced

8 ounces mozzarella pearls

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon cracked pepper

Peel eggplant and slice lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices. Place slices in a single layer on paper towels, then sprinkle with salt. Let sit for half an hour while the salt pulls both moisture and bitterness out of the eggplant. Pat dry with fresh paper towels.

Meanwhile, slice cherry tomatoes in half and place on a sheet of aluminum foil, crimping the edges slightly.

Brush both sides of eggplant slices with olive oil and grill over medium heat (all-over gray coals) for 5 to 7 minutes on each side. Place packet of tomatoes next to the eggplant. Cover the grill during cooking to give vegetables a smoky flavor. Remove from grill when eggplant is tender and tomatoes are just starting to shrivel.

Slice eggplant into large chunks and arrange with tomatoes on a platter. Place basil and mozzarella pearls in a small bowl. Add oil, vinegar and spices then toss lightly. Add basil and mozzarella to the platter. Drizzle remaining dressing over the eggplant and tomatoes.

Per serving, based on 4: 354 calories (69 percent from fat), 28 grams total fat (11 grams saturated), 51 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams protein, 924 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

Cherry and Grape Tomato Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 pint red or yellow cherry tomatoes

1 pint red grape tomatoes

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup buttermilk

4 ounces Gorgonzola crumbles

4 tablespoons chives, minced

6 strips crisp bacon, crumbled

Cut tomatoes in half and place in a bowl; marinate in olive oil and kosher salt for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix buttermilk and Gorgonzola crumbles in a small bowl. Add chives and bacon to the bowl. Stir well and pour over tomatoes. Toss lightly. Serve immediately.

Cherry and Grape Tomato Salad - makes 4 to 6 servings

Per serving, based on 4: 320 calories (75 percent from fat), 28 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 34 milligrams cholesterol, 10 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 1,062 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Tomato and Basil Strata

Makes 4 to 6 servings

8 eggs

8-10 fresh basil leaves, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon cracked pepper

1/2 cup milk

4 green onions, chopped

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

2 tablespoons sundried tomato pesto

8 slices firm sandwich bread

2 tomatoes, thinly sliced

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a large bowl, whisk eggs until thick and lemon colored. Stir in basil, salt and pepper, milk, onions, cheese and tomato pesto.

Grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Place four slices of bread in the bottom of the dish then top with half of the tomato slices and half of the egg mixture. Repeat with remaining bread, tomato and egg mixture. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bake at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.

Per serving, based on 4: 490 calories (50 percent from fat), 27 grams total fat (12 grams saturated), 463 milligrams cholesterol, 32 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams protein, 1,458 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Source: All recipes reprinted from In Season: Cooking Fresh from the Kansas City Farmers’ Market available at ashgrovepress.com.

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