An Italian vacation. A gardening grandmother. A special spice. This year’s field of Top Tomato competitors drew from memory and experience to come up with a wealth of dishes glorifying summer’s favorite fruit.
In our sixth annual contest to find readers’ best tomato recipes, they sliced, diced, juiced, seeded, peeled and pureed. We tested; we tasted. Finally, Barbara Brynelson of Rockville stood alone at the top with her Chipotle Shrimp With Tomato Corn Salsa, a versatile main course that’s as good by itself as it is stuffed into a warm tortilla.
In second place was Vince Amoroso — a former McLean resident who now lives in Mineral, Va., and Sarasota, Fla. — with his entry of Stuffed Corsican Peppers. The third-place finisher was Mehan Dossani of Alexandria, who submitted her Tomato and Smoked Salmon Pasta.
We asked entrants to regale us with backstories, and they obliged. We got to read about a recipe stolen from a Spanish restaurant; a mom who cooked with Gerber’s baby food; neighborhood “Iron Chef” parties; a former tomato hater who saw the light; growing up Italian in Newark, N.J.; countless international vacations; and a couple who looked at 200 houses for sale before they found one with the optimum conditions for growing tomatoes.
But in the end, what mattered was flavor. Brynelson’s recipe had it, which you’d expect from someone who says she learned to cook by tasting, not reading. She created her shrimp, tomato and corn dish after coming home from her local farmers market with a big supply of fresh produce. Among her spices was a new favorite: chipotle powder.
“I was trying to think of different ways to use it,” she says, so it became part of the dish. Visits to Mexico — “I’m just a sucker for fresh Mexican food” — also came into play. And a winner was born.
“Now it’s one of our go-to recipes,” she says.
Brynelson, 57, a pediatrician, says her family keeps a shared cookbook online for favorite recipes. When her kids call and ask, “Mom, how do you make your . . . .” she enters the recipe in the cookbook. Because this one was already in the book, she says, she decided it would be easy to send it along to the contest. Good decision. She wins a $100 gift certificate to Sur La Table.
Here’s how much Vince Amoroso likes tomatoes: This week he’ll strap on protective goggles at the annual tomato festival in Pittston, Pa., where 150 participants will be heaving the fruit at each other across a parking lot. Why? “It looks like great fun,” he says. And in Pittston, with a large population of Italian immigrants, he’s hoping to find lots of good food.
Amoroso, 64, was born in Italy and came to the United States by ship at age 5. He describes his late mother as the quintessential Italian cook, shopping with an eagle eye — “she would pick out one green bean at a time” — and making all the traditional dishes. When he was about 30, he said, “I decided I wanted to eat the food I grew up with,” so every time he visited his mother back home in Schenectady, N.Y., she would teach him to make a different dish. Today the retired pension actuary does most of the cooking at home.
His contest entry has its roots in a trip he took to Sardinia six or seven years ago with three friends. On a side trip to Corsica, they ate stuffed eggplant at a restaurant, and Amoroso coaxed the recipe from the cook. “I’ve kind of jazzed it up to my taste,” he says, adding meat and bell peppers and using the eggplant for the stuffing instead of the casing. Amoroso will receive a $25 gift certificate to Cooks.com.
This is Mehan Dossani’s second trip to the Top Tomato finalists’ podium; she scored in 2009 with a recipe for Tomato Curry.
Her Tomato and Smoked Salmon Pasta is an adaptation of one of her mother's recipes. In colder months, she says, the dish can be made using canned tomatoes, “but it just doesn’t compare to some fresh, juicy tomatoes picked from the garden in August."
Dossani, 33, works as a science librarian at George Washington University and blogs at www.MehansKitchen.com. She will receive a set of cookbooks.
All of the winners and finalists receive the coveted bright-red Top Tomato oven mitt. And everyone will get bragging rights.