Some seasons are better than others for growing tomatoes, but that doesn’t apply to our Top Tomato reader recipe contest. It gets better every year.
Patterns tend to emerge among the entries each time. Since the first contest in 2007, there have been frozen years (granitas, ice cream), soup years, tart years and caprese years. Trending in the new batch: using parts of the tomato, and creating steps that prep the tomatoes to enhance their charms. Flesh was blended and cooked down to use as the base for liquid in savory baked goods and as a meat marinade. Stuffings went beyond the typical crab or pesto-mozzarella. Even the watery byproduct of oven-baked tomatoes was a starting point for an “essence” to be added to anything that needs a shot of tomato intensity.
The 13-ingredient limit just might have been a boon for the top dish, rather than a hindrance. Karin Schultz of Arlington, Va., had been tweaking a ragu recipe, whose meat is an uncomfortable choice for some: rabbit. “We all love it — my husband and my kids,” ages 3 and 5, she says. (In truth, they prefer it only on the plate and not wreaking havoc in their garden. Mom reports a lot of sympathy for Mr. McGregor when reading Beatrix Potter at bedtime.)
Braising then shredding it seemed like a good way to avoid dealing with lots of little bones on the plate, and the hearty sauce becomes lighter by using a comparatively healthful meat.
The 38-year-old investment manager is a daily, committed cook as well as a patron of the Arlington Farmers Market at the courthouse, which is where she found the rabbit and really good plum tomatoes for the dish. (Her husband also grows them in the back yard, in addition to bell peppers, herbs and a rotating crop of vegetables.) Canned diced tomatoes, red wine, onion, garlic and sage are simmered with pieces of rabbit in the slow cooker. Schultz does that step overnight. Then she roasts a baking sheet full of tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with fennel seed — the latter a suggestion from friend Michael Bober, D.C. Meat Week founder. “I had eliminated rosemary in the rabbit, and basil and oregano in the sauce,” she says. “It needed something back. [The fennel] worked out pretty well.”
The roasted tomatoes are blended into a reduction of the braising liquid, a master stroke that delivers a terrific, rich tomato boost. Her Rabbit Ragu With Roasted Tomatoes calls for no added salt or pepper, yet it comes out well-seasoned and clean-tasting. It’s just as good by itself as it is served over pasta or polenta.
This is the first year Schultz has submitted recipes for Top Tomato. We’re hoping she makes it habit — with or without rabbit.
Second-place winner Tracey Steiner of Fairfax, Va., has submitted recipes in three previous years. Her Mock Chirashi Rice Salad — minus the fish — was inspired by the 2009 Top Tomato winner. “I love spice and Asian flavors,” says the 45-year-old senior vice president for education training at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “We grow tomatoes and eat them every which way but sauce, so that’s why I went looking for a different way to use them.”
Steiner knew she wanted to use nori, and the “purply red heirlooms” in her garden. She looked up rice salad recipes to get a feel for proportions, then put together a marinade for the tomatoes (soy sauce, fish sauce, mirin and Sriracha) and a dressing for the rice (sugar, rice vinegar, sesame and olive oils). Her salad is a breeze to make. It tastes balanced and umami-rich, with scallions and toasted nori for crunch. It’s the kind of thing you could eat for days.
In testing, she found a definite cutoff point for the marinating the tomatoes: Longer than two hours and they get mushy.
Schultz was looking forward to bragging rights around the house, where her spouse teased her about sending in Top Tomato entries once again. “My husband will owe me bigtime,” she says.
A freezer mishap’s at the heart of the third-place dish, a gratin of crawfish and smoked tomatoes. Food section readers might recognize the recipe’s creator, Tim Artz, profiled in a 2010 Washington Cooks column for DIY chops too numerous to mention here.
The Artzes discovered the door of an upright freezer in their Oakton garage was left ajar. Inside, among other casualties, were defrosted crawfish tails and pint bags of the Roma tomatoes he smokes once a year — after he has canned 50-plus quarts for pizza sauce.
“It made us eat a lot of food. Fast,” he says.
He hit upon the idea of a gratin rather than his typical gumbo or macaroni and cheese. The tomatoes impart a distinct yet subtle flavor and aroma that makes the mouth water. He looked up a few recipes for reference and began throwing the dish together. Wife Dot often asks him “how’d you know how much of everything to use?” and this was no exception. Tim made the dish once, and knew he had a good recipe to send in. We might dislike people like that, if we didn’t admire them as much as we do.
Artz began putting tomatoes in his big smoker after a trip to Naples, Italy, where he saw them sold, smoked, in vine-connected groups. “They looked fresh, but as soon as you got near them you could smell them. They do it to preserve [the tomatoes’] life and storage,” he says.
The smoked tomatoes will last a year in the freezer, Artz says, as long as you keep the door shut.
A previous version of this article misstated the farmers market where Karin Schultz bought ingredients for her Rabbit Ragu With Roasted Tomatoes.
All Top Tomato winners and finalists will receive a copy of “The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers’ Favorite Recipes” (Time Capsule Press). First place winner gets a $100 gift certificate to La Cuisine in Alexandria. Second- and third-place winners get a selection of current, popular cookbooks. Schultz will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
1st PLACE: Rabbit Ragu With Slow-Roasted Tomatoes
2nd PLACE: Mock Chirashi Rice Salad
3rd PLACE: Crawfish and Smoked Tomato Gratin