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Big Red … and Green and Yellow

04 July 2006

Sweet and acidic, in-season tomatoes shine when their diversity is put to the test.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.

By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor

Try finding a chef who doesn't like vine-ripened, locally grown tomatoes and you're searching for the foodservice version of a needle in a haystack. Few items instill nostalgia for summer like a deep-red, sun-warmed tomato.

Chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli of New York City's Butter remembers gathering ripe tomatoes from her aunt's marigold and tomato garden and eating them with thick wedges of Cheddar cheese. Chef Paul Virant of Vie in Western Springs, Ill., recalls his grandmother's marinated tomatoes with vinegar and dill. Each chef incorporates their early affections for the fruit into summer menus.

Then there's the ease with which tomatoes fit nearly every ethnic category. "I've always been a fan, flavor-wise," says Joe McGarry, executive chef overseeing 24 corporate-dining cafes for Bon Appétit Management Company, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based unit of Compass Group, "but they're also great for versatility. They're applicable to a variety of cuisines."

When eye-catching varieties cascade into markets, consumers expect to eat tomatoes that are worlds ahead of those available year-round. Favorite heirloom varieties, such as Brandywines, green zebras and sungolds, fly onto menus as soon as they're picked, while lesser-known varieties, such as Caspian pink and old ivory egg, tempt with novelty. And while all tomatoes contain sugar, acid and distinct vegetal undertones, different varieties mean diverse flavors, textures and cooking applications.

Sweet Sour Bitter Bright

"Color matters," explains Victor Scargle, executive chef at Julia's Kitchen in Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, Calif. He analyzes the color of tomato varieties when pairing food with wine. "The lighter tomatoes have more acid and work better with wine," he says, a tip he picked up from Copia's gardeners, to whom he often turns for ideas and inspiration.

He balances color when preparing tomato dishes, using dark-red varieties for depth and sugar and yellow and green varieties for acid. For Basil Fettuccini With Heirloom Tomatoes and Zucchini, he cooks a concassé of black Russians or other dark heirloom variety to order with olive oil, shallots and garlic, and diced zucchini. The sauce is finished with fresh basil, sliced sungolds and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Scargle also reserves tomato trimmings for tomato water. He purées and seasons the seeds and pulp left from the concassé and places the mixture in a cheesecloth-lined chinois to drain overnight. The resulting pink-hued water is versatile enough to be used in soups, sauces, sorbets and vinaigrettes. At Copia, Scargle makes a granité of tomato water to serve with shucked oysters.

Virant has taken to playing with tomato's acidic side. Memories of his grandmother's simple marinade led him to nudge Sous-Chef David Banczoszek to develop a pickling recipe with dill for baby tomatoes from a local organic farm. Applications for the sweet-sour condiment, Virant says, are many.

He also embraces tart green tomatoes, breading thick slices in flour, eggs and house-made breadcrumbs, and frying in clarified butter for a classic appetizer. "Basically, it's an underripe tomato with a full acidic effect," he says.

On the richer side of tomatoes, dark varieties such as black Russians and Brandywines contain more sugar but still have a mildly acidic backbone. Smoking tomatoes further pushes their savory flavor. Tim McCarty, executive chef at Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Foundation House, makes vinaigrette with smoked-tomato purée. McCarty smokes beefsteak tomatoes on the stovetop with applewood chips. The tomatoes are then puréed, strained, and used as the base for coulis that accompanies roasted game or chicken.

Smoothing the Way

Texture also matters. Guarnaschelli admits she drives her cooks to the brink by requiring them to peel baby tomatoes. But the labor-intensive step showcases the tomatoes' delicate flesh. "You don't get the wonderful pop when you bite in, but you get something smoother," she says, explaining that the tomatoes absorb vinegar more readily. She marinates peeled baby tomatoes in vinegar and olive oil a few hours before service.

On the sweeter side, Guarnaschelli likes to mix tomatoes with other fruits, particularly strawberries, for salads. She's also not opposed to sprinkling sugar on tomatoes to enhance taste. "What sugar can do in its subtle form is illuminate flavor the way salt does," she explains. "A guest never says, ‘I can taste the salt and sugar.' They say how great the tomato tastes."

Wolfgang von Wieser, executive chef of the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, doesn't hesitate when considering tomatoes for desserts. He likes mixing diced strawberries and peeled, diced tomatoes with light simple syrup, a hint of basil and a pinch of black pepper and serves the mixture with ice cream. He uses tomato sorbets made with tomato water as intermezzos.

Lasting Flavor

For McGarry, tomatoes are a necessity. "There's no way we could get around not having salsa," he says. When harvest wanes, he takes note. "Leaving a tomato on its own in the off season is not the best thing to do," he acknowledges.

With lesser produce, more effort is needed to coax flavor from the fruit. McGarry purées caramelized onions, and tosses them with sliced tomatoes. He then dries the mixture in a low oven. In addition, he roasts tomatoes for salsas to give blander specimens more depth. McGarry also is working with farmers through Bon Appétit's Farm to Fork program, (a companywide initiative to buy locally) to develop greenhouse programs in order to prolong local tomato growing seasons.

Getting ahead on tomato inventory can improve year-round tomato offerings. McGarry purées and freezes bumper crops for pizzas. Similarly, Virant preserves San Marzano tomatoes from a local farm. Last winter the tomatoes he canned found their way into fish soups and vinaigrettes.

To accompany house-made chicken sausage, Virant makes vinaigrette from a base of reduced San Marzano tomato purée to which he adds shallots, vinegar, olive oil and, on occasion, garlic. This year he's exploring the possibilities of making green-tomato marmalades to serve with cheese, sausages and pÁ¢tés as a way to lengthen the tomato season.

Yet in all applications for tomatoes-savory and sweet, pickled and fresh-there is a repetitive word of warning: Let a good tomato be. While Guarnaschelli admits to never yet having tasted a perfect tomato, she does adhere to caution.

"You have to be careful," she says. "You don't want to eclipse the natural flavor of the tomato."

Tomato Taster

A sampling of lively tomato preparations:

  • Warm tomato-and-spinach salad with balsamic dressing, goat cheese and spiced pecans. Buca di Beppo, multiple locations
  • Abraham Lincoln tomato stuffed with speck and Mission figs. Il Grano, Los Angeles
  • Tomato, cornmeal and rosemary upside- down cake. Oliveto, Oakland, Calif.
  • Mozzarella alla Caprese salad. Romano's Macaroni Grill, multiple locations
  • Crispy skinned snapper, heirloom tomato-mushroom ragoÁ»t, white-beauty tomato broth. Tru, Chicago

Farm Hands

While advocating seasonal produce has become commonplace, offering great tomatoes does require farmer cooperation. And these relationships not only help flavor, but also can benefit operations and bottom lines.

  • Executive Chef of the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Wolfgang von Wieser oversees 22 food and beverage outlets and doesn't have time to fuss with sub-par fruit and vegetables. He tells purveyors to send him produce at its peak. "We are not a ripening house here," he says. "It saves us a lot of headaches."
  • Joe McGarry, executive chef of corporate cafes for Bon Appétit Management Company, relies on his relationship with Oregon farmer Charlie Harris of Flamingo Ridge Organic Farms for a steady supply of seedless organic Oregon stars. Harris alerts McGarry to tomatoes that taste great but lack aesthetics for grocery-store sales.
    "He'll give us a break on the price and we use them for oven drying and purées," McGarry says.
  • At Western Springs, Ill.-based Vie, Chef-owner Paul Virant pays close attention to local farmers' crops. In return, they approach him with appealing items. "It's symbiotic," he says. A farmer who remembered Virant's use of green tomatoes early in the season called him when summer was nearing an end and green tomatoes lingered on the vine. Rather than composting them, the farmer offered the tomatoes to Virant at a low price. "They know what we're looking for," he says. "And it gives them income for produce that would otherwise been thrown in the compost bin."
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