It’s no mistake that throngs of tomato lovers are pulling over at roadside stands and clamoring over new produce shipments in the grocery aisles. They know just what they’re after – those plump juicy orbs recently harvested from Michigan-grown plants.
I’ve got one word for them: yum!
Your Michigan tomato celebration need not last just a few weeks. Many area chefs and home cooks create tomato sauces and whatnot that they will again treasure in, say January, on a cold winter’s night.
Tomatoes can star in gourmet recipes or can be enjoyed simply sliced with salt.
Richard Hobson, market master at the Birmingham Farmers Market, once told me that he likes to savor his ripe slices with a spoonful of Hellmann’s mayo and lots of pepper.
One of my favorite things to do with Michigan tomatoes is create bruschetta. I like to pick up fresh produce on my way north to our cottage at the expansive Weiss Fruit Market in Kawkawlin, right on US-23. It’s guaranteed that this time of year, bushels and bushels of ripe tomatoes are brimming at Weiss’s. The last time I was there, I was lucky to spy bright-red beauties grown by local Amish farmers.
Those tomatoes are just a memory now, as friends stopped by for dinner and the straight-off-the-vine fruits took center stage in my appetizer repertoire. For my bruschetta — and there are several ways to make it — I simply chop tomatoes and then add lime juice, chopped garlic, chopped basil, olive oil, sea salt and pepper. I spoon that mixture atop just-broiled baguette slices that have been brushed with a little olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese.
A side note here for those who are gluten-intolerant: I was ecstatic to recently find not only my favorite types of baguette, but also gluten-free baguette-style bread at Meijer (in the aisle where they stock gluten-free items, not in the baked goods area).
Another favorite way to enjoy tomatoes is on pizza, said Chef Robert Young of Vinotecca in Royal Oak. Home cooks can get away with using the frozen pizza dough available at the grocery store, he said.
“The reason I like my Pizza Margherita (recipe follows) is because the tomatoes absorb a lot of other flavors that combine with the natural sweetness from the tomato,” Young said. “It makes a fantastic flavor.”
Chef Jim Bologna at The Townsend Hotel in Birmingham makes a special “jam” (recipe follows) with his tomatoes. He considers it a “ketchup replacement at any barbecue.”
“One of the best things a Michigan summer has to offer is tomatoes,” Bologna said. “You can always find a great selection at your local farmers markets. For almost any tomato recipe you can use a variety of heirloom tomatoes and get terrific results.”
Chef Brian Henson of Big Rock Chophouse in Birmingham also is a fan of tomatoes, but they must be heirlooms.
“Heirlooms are the only tomato varieties I will eat,” Henson said. “Other tomatoes have too much acid and really don’t taste like a tomato should.”
Henson makes a mean Grilled Tomato and Saga Bleu Cheese Sandwich as well as a wonderful tomato soup (recipes follow).
“The soup does not need any other liquid to make it because of the moisture content of a fresh heirloom, so you keep the integrity of the tomato,” he said. As for the sandwich, Henson explained that the creamy and very light bleu cheese flavor of saga cheese will not change the natural flavor of an heirloom.
Enjoy it year round
Meanwhile, Bloomfield Hills-based Chef Lynn Miller, who runs a cooking school called Curious Cooks and is the author of Flavor Secrets: Back to the Basics, is in the midst of taping one of her Flavor Secrets televisions shows that focuses on heirloom tomatoes. It will air within the next two weeks on community cable channel 15 (once it airs, the show is also available online).
“This time of year, there is a glut of wonderful, vine-ripened tomatoes,” Miller said. “I always get as many as possible and can a tomato-based sauce (recipe follows) to use all winter.” A basic tomato sauce can be used for many things, Miller said, including as a topping, a base for gazpacho soup or a layer in a lasagna casserole.
Miller belongs to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. “That’s where you have a contract with a farmer for a season and you get fresh, organic produce from him. So needless to say, I get a lot of tomatoes.” Miller explained that vine-ripened tomatoes increase the flavor, “so growing them yourself or having the ability to pick them on a farm yourself is a huge advantage.”
Chef Colin Brown at Royal Park Hotel in Rochester agrees with Miller. He, too, likes to pick his own tomatoes and often will pluck tomatoes from his own garden at his home in Auburn Hills to mix with fresh herbs, cucumbers and peppers (also from his garden). “Tomatoes are simple, fresh and tasty,” he said.
One of his favorite recipes is for gazpacho, from renowned celebrity Chef Sabra Ricci's repertoire (recipe follows).
“What makes gazpacho soup so good is the fresh taste of all the vegetables,” Brown said. “It's best in the summer when vegetables are the most flavorful. People who have never tried a cold soup are sometimes hesitant to try gazpacho but soon become fans of the fresh, intense flavors. Gazpacho is one of summer's pleasures.”
Across town in Ferndale, Canape Cart co-owners Kathleen O’Neill and Mary Rembelski are busy putting the finishing touches on their weekly dinner offerings. The catering company not only oversees fare for a variety of events, but also offers a weekly Friends & Family dinner for pickup or delivery on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
“The main thing for Kathleen is looking for different tomato flavor combinations besides the traditional basil,” said Melissa Bunker, the company’s publicist. “Other flavor combinations are cumin, cloves, coriander … all popular in Indian cuisine.”
Recently, Canape Cart whipped up an Indian Shrimp and Tomato Pilaf dish for its weekly Friends & Family offering. A blend of chopped fresh tomatoes, yogurt and traditional Indian spices with sweet shrimp and basmati rice, the combination was quite a hit. O’Neill said great tomato marriages include tomato and saffron, and tomato and orange.
Like Chef Bologna at The Townsend, the Canape Cart chefs also like to make a tomato “jam.” Their rendition features roma tomatoes, sugar, minced ginger and cumin, among other things (recipe follows). “It’s great for grilled meats and veggies,” Bunker said.
Chef Jeremy Grandon of Jeremy Restaurant & Bar in Keego Harbor near West Bloomfield likes to truly experiment with tomatoes. His grilled watermelon-feta-and-tomato recipe features cooked watermelon (yes, cooked!).
“The tomato gives the watermelon an interesting caramel charred flavor,” he noted (recipe follows). He also makes a gazpacho that features cooked and roasted vegetables. “Roasting the tomatoes gives the gazpacho a fuller, richer flavor than when just raw vegetables are pureed,” Grandon said. Veal Milanese (recipe follows) is one of his favorites because, he said, “It’s so simple and it highlights tomatoes in their raw state, dressed up with just a little basil and olive oil. The tomatoes must be perfectly sweet in order for it to succeed.”
Beyond restaurants, country club chefs also are enjoying fresh tomatoes these days. Chef Mark Dixon at Orchard Lake County Club in Orchard Lake near West Bloomfield is wowing diners with his Summer Tomato Basil Relish (recipe follows). It features red, yellow and orange tomatoes and is great on grilled chicken, he said.