By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 4:02 PM
Can the state of a late-summer tomato, heavy for its size and in no hurry to release its juices, be improved upon?
In Gerard Pangaud's hands, that is possible.
The veteran French chef will teach a battery of tomato dishes to a lucky few on Saturday at the Blue Rock Inn in Washington, Va., where he has served as a consultant since October 2009. Most of the recipes are on the sweet side, an observation he meets with a shrug. "It's a fruit, which is what I like for dessert," says Pangaud, who is now executive chef at Marriott headquarters in Bethesda.
"Besides ice cream, that is," he adds, admitting to an indulgence he enjoyed daily before a heart attack in 2008 put the 58-year-old on a committed path of healthful living and exercise.
Tomatoes figure in Pangaud's idea of a perfect lunch. It is one he has regularly at this time of year: an egg and slices of a locally grown tomato with gray flakes of Brittany salt on top. Last year, his stomach didn't appreciate the onslaught of acidity. He had to stop eating tomatoes for a while. But he got over it.
When Pangaud was a kid growing up in the Paris suburbs, his mother taught him the characteristics of a good tomato at the market: smooth-skinned, firm, weighty. These days he has the luxury of picking up beautifully misshapen heirlooms at Sunnyside Farm, near the inn, and that is what he brought back from Rappahannock County, by the boxful, to his house in Glover Park for a preview of what he will teach. The decor there is unmistakably French, down to his kitchen's ceramic rooster lamp, black-wire baskets and worn copper pots hanging over the window.
Working tomatoes into a cold dessert soup is not so French, but "the essence of my country's cooking is to use ingredients you have around," the chef says. So a strawberry-rhubarb tart he made at the end of spring led him to look for the berries' summer partner: Brandywine tomatoes.
The chef peeled two large ones, hulled a pound of big strawberries and tossed them into a decidedly non-professional blender, along with soft basil leaves plucked from his back yard, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a touch of tomato paste (for color), sugar and black pepper.
Two minutes later, a refreshing dessert, just thick enough to suspend a garnish of tomato pieces and strawberry slices on the surface, was poured into glass bowls. The taste of each main component is apparent, yet the two are delightful as a blend.
Pangaud's gazpacho stays true to a classic Spanish preparation, with sherry vinegar and chunks of bread, but the inclusion of fresh pineapple and a skewer of seared watermelon cubes nudges the dish into final-course territory.
The recipe sure to inspire his students is his confit of tomatoes with spices. For the filling, the chef cuts apple, pear, dried apricot and fresh ginger into pieces just large enough to withstand the heat of caramelized brown sugar. Citrus zest, three kinds of nuts, raisins, clove, anise seed, cinnamon and vanilla bean scrapings complete the mixture so that "when I close my eyes, I'm in Morocco," the chef says.
By inverting the tomatoes before scooping them out with a melon baller, Pangaud retains their rounded shapes, a cheffy aspect of presentation that comes into play once the orbs are stuffed to overflowing and seated in a pan coated with more caramelized brown sugar and butter. It goes into a 300-degree oven purely for the purpose of basting those lovely shoulders, and a home cook might view that last step as one that can be skipped.
Avoid that line of thinking. The glaze unites tomato and filling, adding the kind of overall sheen that can rally the appetite at the end of a satisfying meal. Pangaud plans to serve the confit at the Blue Rock Inn, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Now that might be gilding the lily.
Chef Pangaud's Saturday tomato class at the Blue Rock Inn is full, but the inn has added a second tomato class to be held Sept. 4 at 10 a.m. The cost is $65 per person, including lunch and paired wines. For reservations, call 540-987-3388.Recipes