There's something about peak-season tomatoes that makes you feel ashamed to eat them at any other time of the year. They're flavorful, indulgently juicy and need barely any enhancement beyond a healthy drizzle of good olive oil, fresh basil and flakes of Maldon salt.
The tomato season is fleeting, which adds to the allure — generally from mid-July to early fall. This time of year, farmers market stands are piled high with tomatoes of all colors, shapes and sizes, and they're appearing on many seasonal restaurant menus.
Read on to see how local chefs, a baker and tomato farmer are putting the summer fruit to use this season.
Charlie Parker, Flea St. Cafe, Menlo Park
When Charlie Parker was growing up in Menlo Park, lunchtime at his uncle's meant a grilled New York strip steak paired with two hefty heirloom tomatoes and a ramekin of crunchy sea salt on the side.
"That's all you really need," said the Flea St. Cafe chef. "It's pretty much the signature of summer."
Tomatoes are one of his favorite ingredients. Come late summer, he has to restrain himself from using them all over the menu.
"Right now I could get so carried away with tomatoes, so I'm trying to find a balance," he said.
The Menlo Park restaurant grows tomatoes in a small garden in its back parking lot, including smaller varieties such as Sun Gold, Sweet 100 and pear tomatoes. Parker is currently roasting the Sweet 100s for a California halibut dish. The fish is served over a stew of butter beans, yellow wax beans, haricot vert and the tomatoes. The dish is finished with tempura-fried squash blossom and Meyer lemon aioli.
He's also using dry-farmed tomatoes to make a smoked tomato and caper sauce for short ribs, pickling green tomatoes and combining the Sun Golds with peaches on top of a yellowfin crudo with cucumbers and sea salt. Fried green tomatoes are served with crisp pork belly, pepper relish and a smoked jalapeño yogurt.
Parker said he typically seasons tomatoes with kosher salt and finishes them with fleur de sel. The sooner you season tomatoes, the more moisture is drawn out — which isn't necessarily a bad thing, he said. Improvise a sauce from the juices with olive oil and vinegar, he suggested. Tomatoes' natural acidity makes them "the perfect sauce" ingredient, Parker said. He also said to avoid refrigerating farm-fresh tomatoes, as they're best at room temperature.
At home, he's looking forward to using end-of-season tomatoes to make tomato soup and grilled cheese with his young son. At the restaurant this fall, tomato soup will be poured table-side over squash blossoms stuffed with late harvest corn, burrata and zucchini.
"When you have them, flaunt them," he said.
Rocco Scordella, Vina Enoteca, Palo Alto
If there's a tomato on your plate at Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto, chances are that it traveled a short distance — 1.2 miles, to be exact — to get there.
The O'Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm supplies the nearby Vina Enoteca with produce of all kinds, but this time of year, owner Rocco Scordella is particularly excited about the farm's vine-ripe cherry tomatoes, heirlooms and red beefsteaks.
"I'm a big fan of tomatoes," he said on a recent afternoon, walking through rows of tomato plants at the campus farm. "It's a short season, and people love it."
For Scordella, an ingredient-driven chef who hails from Bologna, Italy, simplicity is the name of the game. Tomatoes currently star in the Italian-Californian restaurant's classic caprese salad and linguine with cherry tomatoes, clams and mussels.
"A good tomato with a little salt and olive oil, that's good enough. That's the main focus of Italian cuisine, too — if your ingredients are top notch, then you don't have to (add) that many ingredients to it."
He's also currently working to partner with a farm in Sicily to source its tomatoes for Vina Enoteca's pasta and pizza.
At home, Scordella prefers tomatoes raw rather than cooked. Soak them in good olive oil for a simple bruschetta on top of good bread, he said.
Avery Ruzicka, Manresa Bread, Los Altos
Tomatoes' high water content makes them a challenging ingredient for bakers.
"In bread, controlling the hydration of dough is key to a high quality product," said Avery Ruzicka, head baker at Manresa Bread, the Manresa restaurant bakery spinoff with locations in Los Altos and Los Gatos. "Concentrating the flavors of the tomato is the best way to approach baking with them."
She recommends oven- or sun-drying tomatoes if incorporating them into a dough, or using them as a simple, savory topping. Dry-farmed tomatoes and small cherry tomatoes have lower water content, she said.
Or, combine store-bought puff pastry with goat cheese and thinly sliced tomatoes. Bake and finish with lemon zest, she said.
At Manresa Bread right now, Ruzicka is incorporating roasted Early Girl tomatoes into a quiche with lemon thyme, capers and feta cheese. She also roasts tomatoes to create a savory bread from house-milled emmer and spelt flours, confit garlic, roasted tomatoes, toasted pistachios and sumac.
At home, Ruzicka likes to use tomatoes to make "the simplest of salads: white onion, white vinegar, tomatoes, Maldon salt, black pepper and California olive oil." Other favorite combinations include scrambled eggs with tomatoes and torn basil, or sliced tomatoes with roasted padron peppers and sheep's milk feta.
Cynthia Sandberg, Love Apple Farms, Scott's Valley
"Right now on my countertop, I'm looking at 10 different colors of tomatoes and the same number of different sizes and shapes," tomato farmer Cynthia Sandberg said during a recent phone interview.
It's this diversity that made Sandberg fall "hard" for tomatoes years ago and open her own farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She now runs the largest tomato plant sale in California and offers gardening classes on her farm, both of which she said are regularly attended by Midpeninsula residents. (Sandberg, whose vegetable farm exclusively supplied Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos for 10 years, said she often informally drops off tomatoes at other local restaurants.) She also recently co-founded the World Tomato Society, a Los Gatos-based organization that aims to celebrate, educate and promote the fruit.
Sandberg lives and breathes tomatoes, which she calls "love apples" (hence the farm name). This season, Sandberg grew about 100 different varieties, from the Ananas Noire (which means "black pineapple," and was made by crossing a bicolored tomato with black tomato) to the Delano Green, a chartreuse tomato she uses to contrast with red beefsteaks in her homemade caprese salad with fresh mozzarella and basil.
The shape of a tomato connotes its culinary use, she noted. Roma tomatoes are best for sauces, salsas or canning, while the round beefsteaks are best for uncooked dishes like salads.
After caprese, Sandberg's go-to tomato snack is a toasted sourdough English muffin with mayonnaise and an inch-thick slice — and "it has to be inch-thick," she warns — of homegrown tomato, topped with French gray sea salt and cracked pepper.
For those growing tomatoes at home, now is a good time to start pruning and fertilizing, Sandberg said. Use your fingers to pinch off any "suckers," or small growths that emerge between stem and branch and would eventually flower, so the plant can "concentrate on what it already has going," she said.
For fertilizer, she recommends a homemade concoction. Buy worm castings (a.k.a. organic worm waste), put a double handful into a five-gallon bucket of water and let it steep for two days. Strain it, put it into a garden sprayer and give everything in your garden, not just the tomatoes, a healthy spray every week. The castings decrease pests and disease, she said.
If you're grossed out by this recipe, buy a quality liquid organic fertilizer and spray or apply to the roots of the tomato plant, Sandberg said.
Sandberg contends the tomato is "the world's most popular fruit."
"That's why we have tomato festivals all over the world, but we don't have spinach festivals all over the world. It's their myriad colors and shapes and flavors," she said.
"It's not just your red, tasteless orb that you might buy from your local supermarket. They really are fantastically diverse."
Anthony Ruth, Village Bakery & Cafe, Woodside
Marinated, blistered, fried — tomatoes are being treated in every way in the kitchen of the newly opened Village Bakery & Cafe in Woodside.
There's the salad made with tomatoes marinated for at least four hours in a mixture of lemon juice and Italian olive oil, then mixed with cucumbers and shallots and topped with feta cheese. Green tomatoes from SMIP Ranch, the private farm that supplies the Woodside restaurant, are fried and topped with herbs and a buttermilk dressing. And earlier this week, Chef de Cuisine Anthony Ross made a steak tartare with blistered cherry tomatoes and tarragon oil (the tarragon also comes from SMIP Ranch).
Because SMIP Ranch is high in the hills above Woodside, it has a slightly cooler climate, which means a longer-than-usual tomato season — into October or even November. The farm supplies all restaurants operated by Bacchus Management Group, including the Village Bakery and The Village Pub in Woodside, and Mayfield Bakery & Cafe in Palo Alto, so don't be surprised to see tomatoes on their menus throughout the fall.
Another tomato-driven dish in the works at the Village Bakery is a tomato consommé. Ross blends the trimmings from the tomato salad mentioned above, strains it overnight and serves the resulting tomato water with a hard cheese and basil.
Never let a tomato go to to waste. Overripe tomatoes can be used to make a sauce or tomato jam, Ross said. Overly hard tomatoes can also go into sauces — or even better, pickle them, he said.
When at home, Ross is keeping it simple: He likes to grill Early Girl tomatoes whole and serve them with a rib eye steak. Lightly coat the tomatoes with salt, pepper and olive oil before grilling. He said he looks for a "hard char" on the tomatoes, when their skin starts to blister and a popping sound indicates they're done.
Gamble Gardens, Palo Alto
For home-gardeners, Gamble Gardens in Palo Alto is hosting its fifth annual "Tomato Extravaganza" on Saturday, Sept. 9, from 9:30-11:30 a.m.
"What to do with all those tomatoes you have proudly grown and now have in super-abundance? Bring them to Gamble and share them with the neighborhood, explore different varieties both new and heirloom, taste favorite tomato dishes and bring along one of your own to share, if you would like," an event description states.
Gamble Garden Manager Ella Ancheta will also be on hand to answer questions about growing tomatoes.
For more information and to register, go to gamblegarden.org.