We live in volatile, uncertain times. Economic fits and starts, looting in London, talk of Bert and Ernie nuptials. And then there’s the modern tomato. . .

Joining the familiar alarms about how agribusinesses abuse farm workers and the environment are findings that the tasteless fruit they produce contains fewer nutrients and more sodium. Yet in judging our readers’ best tomato recipes for the fifth consecutive year, we’re relieved to report that the state of the union — 10 ingredients plus imagination — is sound.

The field of 119 entries has yielded the competition’s most ethnically diverse, innovative dishes to date. A funny thing happened on the way to choosing a winner. We received a motherlode of good ideas from a single source: Shari Saslaw of Cary, N.C. Of the five recipes she sent in, three made the cut, and one of them impressed us as the hands-down winner of this year’s reader contest. Saslaw, a 48-year-old contractor who represents telecommunications companies, had not previously submitted recipes to Top Tomato. Although she travels a lot for work, she remains a committed vegetable gardener who’s responsible for egging on her neighbors to grow the tomatoes she’s partial to: Green Zebras, yellow teardrop, white beauties and Mr. Stripeys. Saslaw and her partner love to throw huge, multi-course dinner parties, which is why she was compelled to turn a walk-in closet into a pantry that houses multiple sets of dishes.

Food has always played a large role in Saslaw’s life, starting with the regular pilgrimages her family would make from Richmond to the Washington area just to eat at a “decent” Japanese restaurant. As the stepdaughter of a NATO diplomat in Europe, she honed an appetite for razor clams, boquerones and gooseneck barnacles during her high school years.

After earning a law degree at Washington University in St. Louis, she followed her food mojo and opened a pan-Asian bistro in Ocean City, spending six years experimenting with fusion cookery. Even now, in order to bring prized ingredients to her home kitchen, she maintains relationships with some of the purveyors and suppliers she used.

She channeled that passion for blending cultural flavors into a fresh vegetable mixture she calls Tomato Kimchi-Chi: It’s Latin, Asian and smoky. Depending on how you chop it, the jumble of summer tomatoes, daikon radish, jicama, scallions, rice vinegar, chipotle hot sauce, fish sauce, cilantro, jalapeños and toasted sesame seeds can be a side dish or relish-like accompaniment for the summer table. It’s the kind of recipe that calls for tomatoes that aren’t necessarily big and beautiful — the “gnarlies,” as she calls them.

Saslaw has made versions of it for years at gatherings of family and friends. “It’s great with rice, chicken or fish,” she says. “But mostly, we tend to eat it straight out of plastic cups.”

Once we tried it, that made sense to us.

The mixture will last a few days in the fridge, where its spiciness will intensify; any crispness that’s lost can be refreshed with the addition of cucumber or extra radish. Saslaw’s other two finalist recipes, Shore-Roasted Tomatoes and Blueberries and Cardamom-Stewed Tomatoes With Bread Bits and Cheese, stem from years of beach vacations and a deep ethnic pantry. Both build on the inherent sweetness of the cooked tomato. So among Saslaw’s three dishes, we figure there’s a well-rounded assortment of ways to celebrate the season’s best round, red fruit.

For her efforts, Saslaw will receive a gift certificate to her favorite gourmet store in Chapel Hill, N.C., as well as the prize awarded to the other Top Tomato 2011 finalists: an oven mitt emblazoned with a bragging-rights logo.

Thanks and congratulations go out to all of this year’s Top Tomato finalists and participants. As for the rest of us: Dig in, get out there and find what will inspire us all in 2012.


Tomato Kimchi-Chi (Winner)

Chicken and Tomato Meatballs

Shore-Roasted Tomatoes and Blueberries

Red Pepian

Spicy Cantonese Tomato Beef

Cardamom-Stewed Tomatoes with Bread Bits and Cheese

Green Tomato Mint Sorbet

Summer Spaghetti

Vermillion Red Beer

Pablo’s One-Pot Screamer Tomato Relish

Warm Grilled Tomato Salad

Tomato Tugs