Tomatoes continue to reign as America’s favorite food to grow, so sharing new ways to enjoy them is a no-brainer. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for a certain subcategory of entries submitted to our ninth annual Top Tomato contest.
Readers sent in more than 200 recipes, some with photos and testimonies of red-fruit devotion. We tested a record number of them (60). We also logged a record number of near-misses, mostly in cases where we were looking for shouts of tomato flavor but found whispers. And we were stumped by the handful of recipes that contained no tomato at all. A reader mistakenly omitted the ingredient in one instance; Perhaps we have ourselves to blame: Technically, we did not specify that tomatoes had to be included. (We never have.) So you’ll read it here for the first time: Send in any recipe you like, but for Top Tomato, we’ll be keenest about the ones that feature summer’s beloved red fruit.
The trend report on this year’s haul: No frozen desserts. Plenty of savory pies. Some heavy leaning on pimento cheese. Bacon was big — even the mushroom kind — in gravies, brunch casseroles, tarts and riffs on that all-American classic, the BLT. In meatless dishes, its smokiness was invoked with smoked Spanish paprika and actual wood smoke. Maybe our love of smoke was behind all that.
Pair that taste with the savory umami of tomato, and good things happen. The Top Tomato’s 1-2-3 finishers agree.
First-place winner Shannon Li lives in Brooklyn. She loves to cook, and, at age 14, makes dinner on most nights for her parents and two brothers. Her mom grows tomatoes in the back yard, her siblings don’t eat them raw and her grandfather makes a sauce with tomatoes and eggs — all reasons that led her to create her velvety version of tomato egg drop soup. The preparation is quick, simple and starts with bacon and garlic. Both add richness and substance.
The chance to meet star Ina Garten, our contest’s top prize, was what prompted Shannon to enter. “I find cooking’s a stress reliever,” says the busy Baruch College Campus High School student. She’s been cooking since she was 10 and likes to watch Garten on television. The soup is something she’s made for three years, especially when fixings are slim. Shannon serves it as main course or as a starter, sometimes with fresh herbs instead of a scallion garnish.
If you’re a Food section reader and follower of previous Top Tomato contests, this year’s second-place winner will be familiar. Tim Artz’s DIY pursuits are admirable, and ever-growing. The Oakton, Va., resident placed third last year with a crawfish and smoked tomato gratin. His latest project is tamales. Of course he makes his own masa nixtamal, using dried corn and slaked lime he buys from a Peruvian grocer in Fairfax. Of course, he’s begun to grow his own green Oaxacan corn, which he compares to hominy. The recipe has several steps, but the results are worth the effort.
“Corn and tomatoes and shrimp are such a summer theme,” he says. “I wanted to infuse the masa with my smoked tomatoes and shrimp stock.” Early experiments led him to ramp up the tomato flavor by creating a tamal filling with those tomatoes, shrimp, roasted poblano peppers, onions and garlic, sauteed in lard. He bakes the party-size, layered tamal in banana leaves and serves it in thick slabs with his own salsas; because of the contest’s 13-ingredient limit, extra filling acts as a sauce.
Third-place winner and first-time contestant Austin Williams, an MBA/MPP candidate at Georgetown University, approached Top Tomato in a calculating fashion. He brainstormed with his wife, Courtney Williams, and a friend at work about popular flavor combinations. The couple researched previous winning recipes and figured a galette was different enough, and “due.”
They developed their recipe over two days, inspired by a Martha Stewart crust recipe that contained Parmesan cheese. Adding mayonnaise to the dough and the filling proved a master stroke — the tangy component is a perfect foil for balsamic-roasted tomatoes and the cheese itself. Chopped rosemary and crisped bits of bacon go over the tomatoes. The crust is more yielding than flaky, and that was intentional. Lightly dressed arugula atop the resulting pair of warm free-form tarts completes the dish.
“We try to cook healthier than how this recipe turned out,” Austin says. “But we couldn’t stop eating it.” Turns out, he’s “not a huge fan of tomatoes.” But he does appreciate a bargain: The tomatoes the couple used for their galettes were from a farmers market seconds bin, and cost a buck per pound.
Top Tomato second-place winner will receive a $75 gift certificate to La Cuisine in Alexandria. The third-place winner will receive a selection of the fall’s newest and best cookbooks. Finalists will receive a copy of “The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers’ Favorite Recipes” (Time Capsule Press, 2013). Tim Artz will join the Free Range chat Wednesday at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
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