Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Aug 14, 2011
10:03 AMSmall Dishes
Loving the Love Apple
La Pomme D'Amour—the love apple)—is the name the French adoringly gave the tomato back in the 16th Century. As things go, tomatoes, a native to South America, came to the European table relatively recently. It’s unclear as to who brought back the first tomato from the New World: maybe the Spanish explorer Cortez after he conquered the Aztecs in Mexico, but possibly even Columbus as early as 1493.
Surprisingly, considering their national fondness for tomatoes, they were only used as ornamental table decorations in Italy until the late 17th or early 18th centuries. This was because at worse they wore thought to be poisonous (the plant belongs to the deadly nightshade family) and at best unsuitable for eating.
Even though the tomato had become universally popular by the mid-18th century, I was shocked when I moved to Wisconsin (and for the record, it was in the mid-20th century) and discovered so many people here who just despise the things. Growing up in the South, they were a summertime staple—available ripe from the garden about five months of the year. Alas, the growing season here is much shorter, and not that long ago, shorter yet.
The alternative to red, ripe, homegrown tomatoes is store-bought. Until recently, what was available there was nothing that would win many fans. Thanks to the likes of on-the-vine, hydroponic and heirloom varieties, tomatoes have become much more appealing all year long. However, there is still no substitute for a local tomato right from the garden and now is the time to enjoy it.
Here are a few suggestions—even for tomatophobes—of where to go to fall in love with tomatoes.
Harvest. Annually this restaurant pays homage to heirloom tomatoes at its Heirloom Tomato Dinner (August 21 at 6 p.m.). The set six-course menu is $65 with specially paired wines and must be reserved ahead of time.
The Continental Fitchburg. It doesn’t get any fresher than this: Jim and Jenny Schiavo grow their own tomatoes and basil on the premises. Their harvest ends up in salad, bruschetta and pasta dish specials.
L’Etoile. This restaurant that made locally grown trendy and has many seasonal dishes featuring tomatoes from area farmers. One of the best is a lively salad of mixed greens with radishes, kohlrabi, hazelnuts and Black Earth Valley grape tomatoes dressed with a Dijon-mustard vinaigrette.
The Old Fashioned. Not on the regular menu—only when tomatoes are in season—is a daily special requiring a trip to The Old Fashioned: an exemplary BLT that’s simply delicious.
Lombardino’s. One of my favorite summer delights is panzanella—Italian bread salad. When tomatoes are at their peak, it’s sure to make its way on to the menu at Lombardino’s and it’s as good as any that you’ll ever have.
Liliana’s. A specialty of the house is tomato bisque made with roasted tomatoes, celery, carrots and onion; finished off with crème fraiche and herb-infused oil. This is adult comfort food that you’ll never buy in a can.
Osteria Papavero. A salad of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella on a restaurant menu today is about as common as Caesar salad. But at this small, authentic Italian restaurant, the insalata caprese is uncommonly good, made with tomatoes fresh from the farmers’ market, buffalo mozzarella, baby arugula, oil-cured anchovies and balsamic vinaigrette.
Don’s Produce. Located in Arena, Wisconsin Don and Marie Uselman raise many kinds of vegetables on their family farm. They’re all grown hydroponically using no herbicides or pesticides. I especially like the vine-ripened, hand-picked tomatoes that are available at many markets around town as well as the Dane County Farmers' Market. Best of all, they’re available almost year round! You won’t find a better tomato in the supermarket.
Tomato Jam. So, I know it sounds kind of weird, but I grew up with it. My mother loved it—and though I hate to admit it—I do, too! It makes the world’s best peanut butter and jelly—tomato jam—sandwich and is also good on crackers with brie, goat or cream cheese. Tomato jam (or preserves) can be kind of hard to find (Smucker’s stopped making it recently), but is available if you look for it at specialty markets and on line. Of course, if you’re a serious aficionado, you’ll make it yourself (a recipe is here).
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 tbsp. butter
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Half a baguette or other good bread, cut into ½-cubes
3 to 4 pounds any and all kinds and colors of the best vine-ripened tomatoes available
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 handful fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat ¼ cup of the oil and butter together in a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat. When butter has melted, remove skillet from heat and add garlic and bread cubes and mix well. Place skillet in oven and bake until bread cubes are golden and crisp, 10 to15 minutes. Remove skillet from oven and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, prepare the tomatoes: If using cherry tomatoes, remove stems and slice in half. For larger tomatoes, core and slice into medium cubes. Put tomatoes in a large bowl, add vinegar and remaining ¼ cup oil, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix well.
Shortly before serving, toss bread and basil with the tomatoes. Adjust seasonings. Spoon panzanella into each of four shallow soup bowls and garnish with sprigs of basil, if you like.