Top Tomato 2013: So good we added more

Who knew that the Top Tomato recipe contest could serve as a metaphor for immersion in summer’s red ripe fruit? Plant the seeds and wait. Yields vary from year to year, and roots of disappointment may curl around each remembered bite of a lackluster specimen. Sweet 100s and Sun Golds placate us.

Then, a single dissection provides the payoff: so many cavities and channels rich with seeds and gel, so much evocative aroma. Immediate eating is required, with all the satisfaction of a squishy snacking scene in “True Blood.”

Yeah, testing tomato dishes by the dozens can get us in the mood.

The competition surged late this year to total 144 entries — the fewest since its inception in 2007. But we received some of our readers’ most intriguing recipes to date, including a nonedible first: deer repellent.

As a result, we upped the final cut to 16. A solid four more could have qualified for honorable- mention status. Perhaps increasing the amount of allowed ingredients from 10 to 13 did the trick. Some of the dishes are innovative; some are family gems; some, combined with a sweet back story, were too good to pass up.

The culinary challenge of wowing 20-something family members propelled Sara Leibman to create her Frozen Fattoush, the Top Tomato 2013 winner. The Chevy Chase lawyer-turned-artist was informed, nicely, that gazpacho ennui had set in.

“I added things like tahini and Greek yogurt to give the mixture more substance,” Leibman says. “I tried making a frozen gazpacho once, but it was a little icy and didn’t have enough flavor.”

This time, softened pita chips, mint and oregano went into the no-cook effort, chilled and then churned in an ice cream machine to form a creamy, coral-colored sorbet. Taking a cue from dishes made successful by layers of textures and complementary flavors, she adorned each serving with a crunchy blend of diced cucumber, feta and crushed pita chips, as well as a drizzle of pomegranate molasses.

Big thumbs up from her son, daughter, visiting nephew and niece.

Leibman, as well as her twin sister in San Francisco, inherited the recipe-inventing gene from their almost-84-year-old mother, Joan, who lives in Indianapolis. “We all tend to cook with what’s in the house,” Leibman says.

Not everything comes out right, though.

“My mother would sometimes ruin a dish — like sticking orange juice in a chocolate fondue. All of us remember it was a disaster,” Leibman says. “Mostly, she’s pretty good at it.”

So is our winner. Figuring she might enter Frozen Fattoush in Top Tomato, she wrote the recipe as she put the dish together.

First try, first place. Leibman gets a $100 gift certificate to La Cuisine in Alexandria.

Like Leibman, second-place winner Sandhya Babu is comfortable experimenting in the kitchen. Food by the Gaithersburg blogger (she writes Vegetarian Nirvana) has prompted friends to request cooking lessons. Several months ago, the loyal Food section reader became a Post volunteer recipe tester.

We couldn’t hold that against her, Top Tomato-wise.

“I have diligently entered every year since the contest began,” Babu says, often submitting five recipes at a clip. But this time, she set out to create a single dish: “It’s the opposite of how I usually cook.”

A soup she enjoyed in mid-July at Toki Underground on H Street NE inspired her Top Tomato Ramen.

“They used a mushroom-based broth, deeply flavored, with a nori garnish,” Babu says. “I came home and only made [my entry] twice. You know how they say it’s the umami that makes the difference? I wanted the strength of tomato flavor to come through, so I used white miso in a tomato-based broth.”

Something was missing, even with the fermented Korean chili paste called gochujang, shiitake mushrooms, noodles and nori in play.

Last-minute drops of “sesame oil, my 13th ingredient, gave it the powerful background taste it needed,” she says. Babu’s family liked the soup. They didn’t love it. She sent in the recipe, anyway.

Tasting once everything has been added is her preferred practice, rather than trying a spoonful or two along the way. The Chennai, India, native says she thinks it’s a cultural difference between her world of cooking and the Western way. “The balance will be there.”

Babu’s soup earns her a $50 gift certificate to La Cuisine.

There is balance but a mere three ingredients in Mama’s Tomato Preserves, the third-place winner, sent in by Frances O. Pyles. Lemons and sugar provide the yin-yang in a condiment that is especially luscious and sunny when all-yellow tomatoes are used.

The recipe is third-generation, says the 78-year-old Easton, Md., resident, who comes from a family of avowed tomato lovers.

“We never had to use Sure-Jell or anything” to make the preserves set, she says, remembering that she ate them mostly on bread. She figures they’d be lovely spooned over ice cream, too.

She has Early Girls and Big Boys going in pots, but it has been a while since Pyles has done any canning. “I don’t know why,” she says. “But I was so sure of [the recipe] that I didn’t even make it before I sent it in.”

Pyles will receive a collection of new cookbooks. Signed copies of “The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers’ Favorite Recipes” and a reusable Washington Post Food section grocery bag are making their way to all the winners and finalists.

Some Top Tomato 2013 winners and finalists will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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