Top of The Crop

Linda Reck says the surprise factor makes her Caprese Granita a big hit.
Linda Reck says the surprise factor makes her Caprese Granita a big hit. (Photos By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Compliments to the cooks are in order: Food section readers sent in more than 345 entries for our Easy Tomato Recipe Contest, and we were more than impressed. We asked for original creations containing no more than 10 ingredients, because let's face it: You don't have to do much to a ripe tomato in August.

But judging by the range of titles and treatments, it's clear there is a whole lotta tomato love out there -- and many, many ways to express it in the kitchen.

A rundown of those that didn't make the cut might seem like a recitation by the shrimp-lovin' Army private in "Forrest Gump": tomato tarts with cheese, tomato sandwiches with peanut butter, tomato pudding, tomato bruschette, tomato salsas and chutneys and sauces (cooked and no-cook), tomato salads with jicama or avocado or mango, tomato soups with dill or dried apricots or tomato dumplings, tomatoes with eggs or pasta or mushrooms or lentils or beef or rice or tuna or onions or green chili peppers or peas or corn or imitation crabmeat or soft-shell crabs or mussels or tilapia or turkey bacon or hamburger or tabbouleh or pine nuts or pretzels or watermelon juice, tomatoes in milk or vinaigrette or polenta or in a crockpot, practically alone, for 12 hours.

They were baked, blanched, BLT'd, broiled, canned, fried, frozen, gingered, gratineed, microwaved, pureed, relished, sauteed, sliced, spiced, stacked, stewed, strained, stuffed and even threaded onto dental floss to create a Hawaiian-style grape tomato lei (a photo illustration was included).

We tested and tested. Then it came down to a favored few, judged by Food section staffers, In Season columnist Stephanie Witt Sedgwick and Post copy editor Geneva Collins, who is a stalwart recipe tester with a culinary education. At the top of the heap was the simple yet sophisticated Caprese Granita, submitted by Linda Reck of Arlington.

Her recipe caught our attention right from the start. The savory, small appetizer is a play on two of Reck's Italian favorites: caprese salad and coffee granita. She strains a macerated mixture of tomatoes, garlic, salt and vinegar to make a frozen base that forms light, icy crystals. Just before serving, she folds in shreds of fresh basil. A small dollop of mascarpone cheese is a surprise that awaits between two layers of the tomato granita; a sprinkling of chopped black olives tops each portion.

The granita "evolved out of something I've been making for guests and friends for three years," she told us last week. "Everybody who's had it loves it, because it's such a surprise."

In the summer, she's in line at the Arlington Farmers Market every Saturday morning to find the best tomatoes, while her husband gets in a different line for berries.

Reck, 57, a retired National Institutes of Health administrator in international AIDS coordination, was surprised about her first-place win because she's a self-taught cook. "I actually had to sit down and figure out how to notate this for the contest," she said. "I've never taken a class."

She'll get one now: a private session with L'Academie de Cuisine founder Francois Dionot.

Alexandria resident Pat Clopper's Fresh Tomato Sauce was a close second. The National Gallery information desk volunteer has been making her recipe since 1961, when she had to prep six pounds of green beans in order to learn sauce secrets from a chef in Positano, Italy. (At 72, she recalls that incident as clearly as if it had just occurred.) Sometimes she makes the smooth, strained sauce with shallots instead of garlic and says that gives it "a French taste."

"This recipe is in my head, like it's in steel," she says.

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