- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MULTITUDE OF USES: Chefs from various SLO County restaurants showed off their tomato dishes to the media in advance of the Ode To Tomato event. Shown here are heirloom tomatoes from the Sycamore Springs private garden.
Late summer has to be my favorite season of the year because of the bounty of fresh vegetables and fruit available at the Farmers Markets. But I could also say that’s mostly because my favorite of them all, the fabulous heirloom tomatoes, are in peak season. The fact is I won’t buy those tasteless tomatoes found on supermarkets shelves after the small window of the season has passed by. Fortunately, tomato season has begun and those beautiful red orbs can be found everywhere from roadside stands to Trader Joe’s. Still, it is in restaurants with top chefs where you’ll find tomatoes in the most delicious and interesting dishes.
Looking through my extensive collection of cookbooks, I dug out some of my favorite chefs/authors to see what they had to say about the tomato. Wine and food writer John Mariani in The Italian American Cookbook advises that cooks use tomatoes only during the peak of season. Since that season is only about two months, that’s a long time to go without but you don’t have to avoid tomatoes. Mariani recommends the canned, imported Italian plum tomatoes from San Marzano but warns the region where it’s grown at the foot of Mount Vesuvius is misused on some labels.
I found the same advice in Mario Batali’s cookbook, Molto Italiano. He suggested going to sanmarzanoimports.com to order the legitimate Italian tomatoes online. “I recommend buying canned whole tomatoes and crushing them by hand for sauces,” he noted.
In Tapas—A Taste of Spain by chef Jose Andres, I found a recipe that was impressive for its simplicity: tomato toast. He explains the traditional way it’s prepared in Spain is by toasting the bread, and then cutting a ripe tomato in half and rubbing the inside edge onto the toast until you’re left with only the skin which you toss away. Next, drizzle it liberally with Spanish extra-virgin olive oil and salt to taste. He also recommends topping it with Spanish ham, anchovies, or cheese. His addendum: “If you’re having a barbecue over the summer, try roasting your bread over the charcoal. You’ll have the best tomato bread ever.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- Locally caught yellow tail served with a tomato ice and tea.
If you love tomatoes, too, you’ll want to experience the Ode to Tomato Festival that’s now in its third year. The very talented chefs at the Boutique Hotel Collection—Apple Farm, the Cliff’s, Seaventure, and Sycamore resorts—present special menus from Sept. 4-29, with dishes from appetizers to desserts showcasing tomatoes. You’ve got to taste the amazing candied-green tomato chevre cheesecake made by Apple Farm’s pastry chef Willie Vey to believe how tasty tomatoes can be in dessert.
I recently tried that delicious cheese e while at a media reception among my peers in the garden at Sycamore Mineral Springs. While everything was fresh and delicious, my favorite savory dishes were: Gardens of Avila chef Robert Trester’s grilled yellowtail with green tomato granita and cucumber; SeaVenture chef Casey Walcott’s spicy tomato pork sliders; and Cliffs chef Gregg Wangard’s fresh pasta with purple Cherokee fennel, tomato sauce, stravecchio, and globe basil. You’ll find these dishes and so much more on the unique tomato-focused menu prepared by each of the chefs for his or her restaurant.
Besides the special menus, three special culinary affairs will take place during the weekend of Sep. 20-22. At Apple Farm on Friday evening there will be a backyard winemaker dinner featuring Le Vigne Winery. A Paso Robles estate, Le Vigne produces Bordeaux, Rhone, and Italian wine varieties and blends. Dinner begins at 6 p.m. in a creekside setting with acoustic music. Dinner reservations are $85 per person (including tax and gratuity). You must make reservations by calling Apple Farm at 544-2040, ext. 637.
Saturday evening at Gardens of Avila in Sycamore Mineral Springs, the tomato-focused menu will be served in chef Robert Trester’s beautiful garden across from the restaurant. The one-acre flourishing farm, expertly managed by the renowned Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farms in Paso Robles, supplies Trester with most of the produce he uses in his innovative menus for the Gardens of Avila. The garden dining experience begins at 5:30 p.m. with a five-course dinner paired with fine Roses. The special Rose wine list, which includes Tablas Creek from Paso Robles, Liquid Farm from Santa Ynez Valley, Chateau de Pibarnon from Bandol, France, among others, specially selected by the Cliff’s sommelier Jeff Chaney will be available at all four restaurants during the festival. To make reservations for the Gardens of Avila dinner, $85 per person (including tax and gratuity), call Jason Kamas at Sycamore Mineral Springs at 540-3640.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- A real smoke infused Michelada (beer and tomato based juice cocktail).
On Sunday, from noon until 3 p.m., the SeaVenture restaurant will host the second annual bloody Mary contest. Bartenders from area restaurants will compete to win the judge’s choice and the people’s choice award. You’ll find me there among the judges this year. For only $20 per person, guests can sample each competitor’s bloody mary while enjoying appetizers and live music. To get tickets in advance, call SeaVenture at 773-4994. Tickets will be available at the door.
Lastly, a tomato art exhibition will take place at the Cliff’s Resort during the nearly month long Ode to Tomato Festival. The participating artists stand a chance to earn a judge’s choice and a people’s choice award. And leave it to the clever chef Gregg Wangard at the Cliffs to come up with some really interesting tomato-based cocktails you can order to enjoy with the tomato menu, like a tomato basil mojito or an heirloom tomato bloody mary. There’s something for every taste at the Ode to Tomato Festival.
Contact Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at email@example.com.