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Essay

The Prodigal Tomato's Triumphant Return

(By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Tim Stark
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Here in the Mid-Atlantic, the cynic might point out, it's too late in the game to grandfather in a truly regional cuisine so many centuries after Italian peasants took our corn and made polenta from it. At a Tuscan dinner table, you won't hear any preaching about the provenance of ingredients. But try to slip the old man a glass of red wine that omits the dark berry-flavored sangiovese grape, and he will spit it out. Guaranteed.

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We have a way to go before our sense of terroir relies on the same instincts. But we are trying like mad to make up for lost time, a bit overearnest, perhaps, batting our eyes with rapturous approval as we sniff a turnip and gush, "It's local."

Really, though, who could blame us for passing on the fruits of our brutally un-Mediterranean winters, our mealy and spotted cold-storage apples, our mountain of potatoes sprouting in the basement? In an effort to clear my conscience, I hereby submit that on a dreary February afternoon or two, I have been guilty of falling for one of those easy-to-peel clementines, or for those large-carbon-footprint carrots that slip effortlessly from the unfrozen soil of California.

But it is summer now, as harshly hot as it gets in Siena, and all of the temptations are right in the backyard garden. So many years after those same peasants made marinara from it, the tomato, native to this new world of ours, has returned from a centuries-long Old World tour. The black one from Russia, the pink one from Poland, the colossal oxheart from Venice. In all its technicolor and quirky manifestations, lumpy and odd as Great-Great-Granddad in that grainy photo of him in his lopsided just-off-the-boat sweater, the tomato has come back to help us reclaim some turf.

We'll call it Mid-Atlantic melting pot cuisine. "I wanted to make a tomato salad in the style of my Hungarian grandmother," says Bill Telepan, chef of the New York City restaurant that bears his name and author of the memory-rich cookbook "Inspired by Ingredients" (Simon & Schuster, 2004). In New Jersey, his immigrant grandparents took over the lot next door for a garden, which supplied the makings of the jelly and pickles they put up every year.

"The tomatoes were classic Jersey beefsteaks," he says. "The radishes were often the black ones, which I didn't see again until a few years back, when farmers started bringing them from Upstate New York. I like the intensity of the black radish, radishy without being too spicy. In Hungary, the spice comes from paprika. What I add to my grandmother's recipe is the colorful heirloom varieties . . . and paprika oil instead of paprika."

When I started growing heirloom tomatoes in the mid-'90s, Bill would show up at my Union Square Greenmarket stand along with Jacinto Guadarrama, with whom he had once worked at Alfred Portale's three-star Gotham Bar and Grill. Gotham was one of a handful of New York City restaurants that, like the celebrated restaurants of France, served as a kind of training ground for many of the talented young chefs who are today coming to prominence in the city and all across the country. Guadarrama's story is the classic American one. Arriving in New York City in 1985 from the Mexican state of Guerrero, he started out washing dishes at Gotham. Today he is chef de cuisine, just below Portale in the kitchen hierarchy.

Time may one day prove that the kitchen of Guadarrama's mother in Apetlanca, Mexico, was nearly as influential as the one where he works today. Of the 11 Guadarrama brothers, all but one are adept at cooking. The youngest brother, Raymundo, is the lead line cook at Gotham. He recently took time out from a busy, overheated kitchen to demonstrate the salsa cruda he'd adapted from his mother. He deftly knifed grilled peaches into tiny dice along with a variety of heirloom tomatoes, red onion, avocado and jalapeƱos.

In his mother's kitchen, everything except the avocado would have been grilled first. The ingredients would then have been chopped roughly and mashed together with a molcajete, the Mexican mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock. Raymundo Guadarrama added the peach because it was in season here and because his mother loves peaches, although mango, pineapple or corn might also be used to sweeten the pot back home.

The tomato of choice for mashing up into salsa in Guerrero is a big red one they call manzano: an heirloom, for sure, although that would not be its selling point so much as the small seed cavities that make more pulp available to the salsa, especially after grilling. Here in the States, the pulpiest heirlooms are in the oxheart family: Amish Paste, German Red Strawberry, Anna Russian and Verna Orange, most of them emigres, to be sure. With the exception of those lightly caramelized peaches, Raymundo prepared his salsa raw (cruda) so it would have a more sophisticated visual appeal, all of those multicolored cubes discernible in a flavorful bath of sweet and acidic tomato and peach juices.

And anyhow, unless you have a very good reason for doing so, the tenets of Mid-Atlantic melting pot cuisine dictate that cooking a garden-fresh heirloom tomato is almost as sinful as tossing it into the refrigerator.

Tim Stark, proprietor of Eckerton Hill Farm in Lenhartsville, Pa., is the author of "Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer" (Broadway Books, 2008).


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