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Top Tomato 2010 contest winners

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 4:01 PM

Rosemary Lawler and her husband, Thomas, are equal-opportunity tomato lovers. Early Girls, Big Boys or cherry, "I'll use any ones I have," the Leesburg resident says.

Thing is, they have so many at this time of year - growing a load of them on their 20-acre farm - that several of Lawler's recipes start with an old-fashioned basic: stewed tomatoes. "They are country food," she says.

Yet when she infuses a batch of them with corncobs, then adds a roux and local seafood, the dish becomes a sophisticated crowd pleaser. It impressed the Food section staff and testers as well, so we've crowned it king in this year's Top Tomato reader recipe contest.

We thought we had seen enough soups in years past, but two of them were good enough to land in the field of 10 finalists. An interesting mix of classic egg-and-tomato dishes, sides and new salad combinations made this year's total of 158 entries a pleasure to sample. Attempts at ice cream have come close; keep trying, and we'll keep testing them.

In the end, though, two of the three top recipes were standards done especially well, and the top three contestants all share a passion for eating what is local and in season.

Lawler's winning soup has family ties. Her Baltimore mom, she says, was always "big" into stewed tomatoes, simmered with clove and celery seed. Three or four times during the summer, Lawler, 54, will cook their home-grown tomatoes and freeze them, to be used year-round as a side dish and as a base for gumbo (with shrimp, Worcestershire sauce, fil powder, green bell pepper and okra), sauces and soup.

The stewed tomatoes travel well. Lawler packs frozen containers for family beach vacations in Rehoboth. One summer, her family tried just about every crab soup they came across.

"In the back of my mind, I wanted to make it with my own tomatoes," Lawler says. She came up with a creamy soup everybody loved. Then her older son suggested adding crabmeat and stirred up a new favorite.

The soup recipe wins a $75 gift certificate to LaTienda.com, a 2010 Top Tomato T-shirt and bragging rights for Lawler - not that she strikes us as the kind who would lord it over her neighbors.

Tomato pie is hardly a new concept, but Brian Lichorowic has put a lot of thought and local mojo into the one he submitted. That's why it earned second-place Top Tomato honors.

The 49-year-old Middleburg businessman describes himself as a locavore and "survivor" son in a long line of restaurateurs. He and his brothers spent hours prepping in his parents' Upstate New York restaurant kitchen. He paid attention to what was in season and found even greater bounty living in the more temperate mid-Atlantic region.

To build a better tomato pie, Lichorowic experimented with increasing amounts of vegetables, colors that appealed to him and cheese that would not go gooey.

Aged manchego filled the bill. Dusted with a little flour beforehand, it helps create a nicely textured filling. Tossing the diced yellow and purple tomatoes with salt and letting them drain reduces much of the moisture they release during baking. A spare amount of egg is used, along with a lot of almost-caramelized onions. When the pie is done, it looks like a quiche until it's cut, and then the difference is apparent.

"I think the manchego cheese is the key," he says. "It doesn't break down and actually tastes better with the mild acidity of these kinds of tomatoes."

Lichorowic's pie earns him an autographed copy of "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato," by Arthur Allen, and a contest T-shirt.

Margo McKay's daily production of salad dressings was the driving force behind her third-place dish. "They are my thing," she says. "I've been doing them forever." The 64-year-old Arlington resident uses oil, vinegar and any of a number of jams or marmalades she has on hand.

In the heat, McKay and husband John, a retired Marine colonel, make cold salads with bulgur or lentils for dinner. Tomatoes are a mainstay ingredient, and the couple will go to the early-morning farmers market in Alexandria to choose the best.

The salad recipe she submitted stood out from many worthy contenders because it pairs tomatoes with lemon in several ways. It's an unusual combo that works: lemon marmalade in the dressing, a favorite Stilton with lemon peel in it and fresh lemon zest.

Lemon marmalade can be hard to come by. She had picked up a jar at Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown but has had to order it online since then; local gourmet-type stores don't seem to keep it in stock, she says. Dundee Key Lime Marmalade by James Keiller & Son, which she found at Harris Teeter, is an acceptable substitute, she says. (We found some at Rodman's in the District.)

Instead of tomato's usual herb complement of basil or parsley, she prefers a mild mint, such as the one she grows in pots on her front step or apple mint from the farmers market. The combination of flavors is clean and bright on the palate. "It's a pretty salad that shows beautifully," McKay says. "And easy to do."

We couldn't agree more. A T-shirt's on its way, Margo.

Recipes

Bacon (Let Us Add Tomato) Pancakes

Basil and Balsamic-Glazed Tomatoes

Cream of Tomato Soup With Seafood

Garlic Tomato Soup With Tarragon

Grits With Tomatoes Over Easy

Susan's Favorite Tomato Hors d'Oeuvres

Tomato Lemon Mint Salad

Tomato Watermelon Salad

Tomato-Peach-Plum Crisp

Yellow and Purple Tomato and Piedmont Onion Pie

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