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July 26-August 1, 2006

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Tomato-Based Philosophy

Plummy thoughts on the red fruit

By Brett Ascarelli

Spicy, leafy aromas taunt green thumbs throughout the North Bay, and the first early girls have finally stopped thumbing their little noses at tomato lovers and are just ripe enough to plate. As a sea of red prepares to descend from the vine now through early October, three chefs share the juicy.

It's 10am at Napa's new Vietnamese eatery Annaliên, and at the mention of cucumbers and tomatoes together, chef-owner Anna Shepley is suddenly too excited to speak. Shepley is a tiny person who probably measures up somewhere in the four-foot range. She is like an electron, energy bursting out through her spikey, pixie haircut, her chartreuse tank top and her bright red specs. The energy finally makes itself heard. "That's awesome!" she exclaims in an accent as thick as stew.

Fully recovered, she rapidly rattles of a couple of mouthwatering ways to prepare what she sees as this divine combination. Method one involves chopped basil, a slice of purple onion and goat cheese; method two includes pesto, sourdough and--she can't remember how to say this ingredient, so she cups her hands in a sphere to indicate it--mozzarella. Bake and top with basil, tomato and cucumber.

Shepley, who also owns Green Papaya, a restaurant in Los Gatos, moved to the United States from Vietnam in 1975. Describing herself as "a tomato girl," she explains that in her native country, where the skin of oranges is green, the tomatoes are also different. Still red, they are sweeter, and children eat them like candy.

One common way to prepare them in Vietnam is to slice them very thinly, sprinkle with salt, hot chili pepper and a little sugar, and then put them in the sun to dry. This snack is served with beer. Tomatoes also form the flavor backbone of the more substantial bún riêu, crawfish and noodle soup. Vietnamese monks eat raw or sautéed tomatoes with their tofu, and the fruit often accompanies fish dishes or rice, augmented with ginger or lemongrass.

Although Shepley plants early girls, sweet 100s, pearls, zebras, burgundies and beefsteak tomatoes at home, she does not usually cook with the heirloom varieties, preferring to savor them raw.

Anna Shepley's Vietnamese Tomato Soup
2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 c. vegetable stock
7 ounces bok choy or greens of your choice
2 ounces firm tofu
juice of one lime
1 stalk lemongrass
2 tbsp. Thai basil leaves, slivered
3 tbsp. fish sauce
dash fresh chili pepper (optional)
In a large saucepan, sauté onions until translucent. Add most of the tomatoes (reserve some for garnish), chopped garlic, lemongrass and vegetable stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook about 10 minutes. Add greens, tofu, lime juice and fish sauce, and chili pepper if using. Cook for 2 minutes more. Ladle into bowls and top each serving with reserved tomatoes and Thai basil.

Annaliên, 1142 Main St., Napa. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. 707.224.8319.

It's a Sunday afternoon, and John McReynolds, the chef and co-owner of Cafe La Haye, is speaking by phone from his Sonoma home, where he can't grow tomatoes because it's surrounded by shade trees. He remembers the most creative use of tomatoes he's ever encountered. "I had poached lobster medallions in a tomato gelée at a restaurant in Paris. I liked the transformation of the tomato into a clear jelly. It's firmed up with gelatin, so you have something that's converted into a liquid and then back into the form of a solid that still has the essential tomato flavor, but in a highly altered form."

Echoing the foodies' current affection for edible transformation, McReyolds says, "I love a tomato sorbet or granita, where you're turning the tomato into a different form, but preserving its essential tomato-iness."

This creativity dovetails with Cafe La Haye's California cuisine, a somewhat experimental genre rooted in the basics of French and Italian cooking, that also draws on Greek and Middle Eastern flavors. At the height of the season, when the red fruits are coming out of our collective ears, McReynolds makes tomato consommé, starting with some 20 pounds of tomatoes cooked with other vegetables. He strains the stock with a cheesecloth. "It has this intense tomato flavor, but it's a clear, pinkish broth. Now the tomato is in a liquid form, and I just think that's really interesting. We like to serve it cold."

As with all his fresh ingredients, when it comes to fresh tomatoes, McReynolds abstains from using anything but local, in-season tomatoes. He and his staff have grown used to "explaining to people why we don't have tomatoes in winter or even in May or June." The other challenge is dealing with the sheer volume of the fruit once they start rolling in. To handle this overflow, the restaurant puts them in every dish possible, like the French do during white asparagus season. The secret to organizing this potential tomato chaos, McReynolds says, is to "use the right tomato for the job," cooking with higher-acidity tomatoes and serving the lower-acidity heirlooms raw.

John McReynolds' Heirloom Tomatoes with Feta, Arugula and Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette
Serves 6
2 preserved lemons (instructions below)
2 shallots, minced
3 tbsp. Champagne vinegar
1/2-3/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
black pepper to taste
Scrub 2 lemons and slice thinly (Meyer lemons are preferable). Place slices in clean container and sprinkle with kosher salt. Add another layer of lemons and more salt. Cover with fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Do not refrigerate; shake daily for 10 days.
To make the vinaigrette: Rinse lemons with water and strain. Place in food processor. Add vinegar and shallots. With machine running, pour olive oil in steady stream. Strain and add pepper.
2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
1/2 pound arugula, washed and spun dry
8 ounces sheep's milk feta
Cut tomatoes into sections and toss with arugula. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and crumble feta on top.

Cafe La Haye, 140 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Open Tuesday-Saturday for dinner. 707.935.5994.

All year round, we wait for certain times to come," says Jack Kreitzman, chef and owner of Cucina in San Anselmo, trying to articulate the anticipation of tomato season. Speaking by phone from the restaurant, Kreitzman's voice is a New Jersey baritone, emphasizing important words with staccato, "We're just waiting for the aromatic basil and the sweet, juicy tomatoes to exploit them in the best way possible."

And the best way? Uncooked, Kreitzman assures, with no vinegar or added acid whatsoever. Kreitzman waxes rhetorical, asking, "What could be better than a beautiful, ripe, heirloom tomato, a slice of garlic bread and some olive oil?" He pauses to let that sink in for a second, before repeating, as if in refrain, "What could be better?"

He feels that the secret to preparing in-season tomatoes is to do as little as possible to them. Although he uses house-ripened Roma tomatoes year-round for bruschetta, Kreitzman truly gives tomatoes the limelight when they're in season. "We feature pastas with uncooked tomatoes and avocados, pizzas with fresh tomato salad on top and tomatoes sliced with fresh buffalo mozzarella," he lists.

Kreitzman, who also owns the Jackson Fillmore Trattoria, a mainstay Italian spot in San Francisco, says that it's all about "giving your client the most sensual tomato experience you can possibly have." He grew up on the Jersey Shore, eating beefsteak tomatoes like apples with a dusting of salt, and this unplugged approach is still the backbone of his philosophy.

"What I'm interested in is traditional cooking," he explains. "We don't try to be cutting-edge, and you're not going to find any architectural structures on our plate. We serve a classic cuisine." He pauses. "Having said that, we also try to be as provocative as possible with our cuisine--it always has to be delicious."

When asked what his greatest challenge is regarding tomatoes, he replies that he doesn't have any challenges. At all? "I love my job," he states simply. "My job's not challenging."

Jack Kreitzman's Golden Red Beefsteak Tomatoes
Cut golden red beefsteak tomatoes into chunks and place in bowl. Smash a clove of garlic and add to tomatoes. Bathe this bit of manna in extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and fresh basil. Sop up with toasted Acme pain levain.

Cucina, 510 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo. Open Tuesday-Sunday for dinner. 415.454.2942.

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