Friday, March 6, 2015

You Say Tomato

It was the most hopeful kind of meal imaginable.

On a gray day that delivered ice, snow, sleet and blustery wind, I went to a dinner celebrating not just tomatoes, but also offering an inspiring talk about why we should all plant heirloom tomatoes, which is really the same thing as looking forward to Spring and Summer and the inevitable rewards they bring.

You have to be somewhat of an optimist to plant seeds and expect something edible, don't you think?

Despite dire online warnings about the roads, the worst one I found was my own street and from there on, it was smooth, albeit slow, sailing. The best part was how respectful the few people on the road were of the weather, tooling along at 25 mph.

Which, for those who know how I drive, is not that far off the mark for me normally.

Not everyone who'd bought tickets for the tomato dinner with author Craig LeHouillier showed up at Camden's for the dinner, but those who did were enthusiastically into tomatoes.

The evening began with Craig giving a talk about his his passion for tomatoes and gardening and how it developed from his father's love of the same. He even had a picture of himself as a child with his Dad in the garden.

We heard about him meeting his wife at Dartmouth back in 1980 and their subsequent first garden. Since then, their passion for growing tomatoes has only grown as they sought out heirloom varieties and better ways to grow them. Now they're both tomato-obsessed.

Listening to him was like listening to a tomato cheerleader, someone who'd, by his own admission, become devoted to his hobby and taken it all the way to writing a book on the subject. A gorgeous book, I might add, full of color pictures of Craig's own tomatoes.

My favorite things about his gardening addiction were his devotion to doing it cheaply and to finding rare, old varieties to grow.

The first course of our tomato dinner arrived with panzanella of cherry tomatoes, fresh Mozzarella, arugula, shredded Parmesan and hot fried croutons under balsamic vinaigrette, served with a Rose of Pinot Noir.

As far as I'm concerned, this is an absolutely perfect first course, both food and wine. Add in that the Pandora Marvin Gaye station was playing overhead, and there was nowhere else I wanted to be.

Tomato guy Craig told us about the flats of tomato seedlings he starts (something like 5,000 of them) in his garage and the hundreds of containers planted with seedlings he raises in his driveway. I think he's fortunate none of his suburban neighbors have complained about all that yet.

When our second course of BLT pasta of house-made bacon and grilled endive over house-made tagliatelle with roasted tomato sauce and crumbled Gorgonzola arrived, the chef informed us that he'd spent the entire afternoon making the pasta for this dish.

No doubt because he wanted the appropriate pairing for the Chianti Reserva being poured with it.

All I can say is, good thing he'd made the roasted tomato sauce earlier in the week. That recipe, from Craig's book, was one he said made excellent use of so-so tomatoes, drawing out their best flavors. Although a devoted non-cook, even I've roasted tomatoes on occasion, mainly because the result tastes like so much more work than actually goes into it.

The bookstore owner sitting next to me put it best,"There is nothing like homemade pasta."

As we ate, the author asked the group about Richmond and people chimed in with opinions about its strengths. A woman who looks like she hadn't ridden a bike since childhood raved about the bike paths and upcoming bike championship races.

More than one person mentioned our high rate of tattoo parlors, something I doubt most people care about. It was suggested that Craig sell his tomato book at the annual Hanover Tomato Festival. We talked about how many people leave Richmond only to return.

She's a seductive one, our Richmond.

Our final course was an avocado and goat cheese cheesecake with house-made tomato and orange marmalade, a strikingly beautiful marriage of flavors that complemented the cheesecake to perfection.

With it was poured Blue Bee Harvest ration, a brandy-fortified apple cider made in the building next door to the restaurant. I know it seems a little incestuous, but it totally worked.

The author and his wife live in Raleigh, resulting in discussions of our southern red clay soil (he'd been used to Pennsylvania and far more agreeable dirt), his hands-off neighbors and local farmers' markets.

The funniest moment occurred when the author was talking about his athletic allegiances and said something about the Red Sox. A gasp was heard from the couple at the table next to him, longtime Yankees' fans.

They forgave him his devotion because of his years spent living in Boston. I stayed clear of this discussion, having no idea about any of it.

What did interest me was Craig's recommendations for tomatoes to grow. Dividing varieties into three categories - mild, moderate and intense- I was naturally drawn to intense: Jaune Flamme, Lucky Cross and Ponderosa. I want to grow those.

Best of all, he's a seed saver and participates in seed exchanges, so he generously offered to send us seeds for some of the more unique heirloom varieties that interested us. I hope hes not surprised when I actually contact him for seeds.

By the end of the evening, I bet everyone in the room was jazzed about planting new kinds of tomatoes based on his enthusiasm. His inscription in my copy of his book wished me a healthy garden and abundant harvest.

Given that I had to scrape a layer of snow and ice off my windshield before I could even leave to go home, his hopeful words were just the ticket to remind me that Spring is only 15 days away.

Praise the lord and pass the tomatoes...or at least the seeds. We could all use a love apple fix after this winter.

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