Hey, you forgot the bacon

Tomatoes. Nothing but tomatoes, as far as the eye could see. There were big tomatoes that filled a palm. There were tiny tomatoes the size of a pinky fingernail. Ones with the palest tint of green to rich, deep reds that were nearly black.

And the names, which conjured stories in my head: Mortgage Lifter Radiator Charlie, Midas, Spears Tennessee Green. The tales the names of these heirloom varieties might tell are nearly as interesting as the story of Tomatopalooza, an annual celebration of wonderful tomatoes and those who love them, especially one crazy guy.

The host, organizer and Tomato Man is Craig LeHoullier, who started out as an average RTP chemist, but became entranced by tomatoes. Specifically, heirloom varieties of tomatoes – ones that are old, rare and in need of protection and propagation. These varieties existed before we felt the need to ship ‘maters across the country and eat them in January. The resulting breeding rush to create an indestructible tomato made supermarket tomatoes into flavorless red blobs. And nearly wiped out the old heirlooms.

The flavors of heirlooms are exquisite and varied, but they are a fleeting delight. As tomatoes should be, I say. Give me a brief encounter with a Green Zebra or Cherokee Purple over those ever-available red tennis balls anytime.

Now, Craig seeks out, grows and sells plants, and works on research concerning heirloom tomatoes. You can read more about his projects here. The sixth annual Tomatopalooza, held July 26, united those of like mind and similarly stained shirts from around the country, all to taste tomatoes and, perhaps, pick up a few seeds to sprout for next summer.

It was hard to believe that the dozens of varieties I tasted there were all tomatoes, the shapes, sizes, hues and flavors were so different.

I like a good acid edge to a tomato, and the Anna Banana Russian had a lemon color and flavor I enjoyed. Because of my love of tartness, I went for the green-when-ripe offerings, like the Spears Tennessee Green, which usually are highest in acid flavor. Green Zebra is one kind that’s become somewhat popular in farmers markets and some supermarkets.

Purple Haze, a large cherry tomato with a green-purple color, tasted like plums. Some small tomatoes, called Blue, were – there was a navy blush around the stem end of the red fruit.

The green-when-ripe variety called Striped Cavern indeed contained a cavern. The seeds in the center of the thick meat fell out easily when the tomato was cut.

Tasters were encouraged to vote for the tomatoes that they thought tasted best, but that was impossible for me. The balanced sweetness of the Rasp Red? The citrus zing of the Anna Banana? I just wanted to eat them all, because it will be hard to find tomatoes with flavors like these again.

Only one problem with the event. People brought brownies and salads and other such things to eat besides the stars of the show, but where was the bacon and mayo? By the end of the day, I was crying for a BLT.

Susan LeHoullier holding a Mexico MidgetAt the left is Susan LeHoullier holding the smallest tomato I’ve ever seen – the Mexico Midget. Eating them was like munching little veggie sugar lumps.

Go out now, during the height of BLT season, and seek heirlooms, ask your favorite market to stock them, plan where to put a plant in your yard next summer. Once you try a bite, there’s no going back to those cottony red things.

Put the lime in the beef, you nut

My attention went immediately to two items in the latest CSA box: more lime basil and baby leeks. Baby leeks look and taste like green onions, but with a little more pronounced garlicky flavor. I figured I could use them the same way.

And that lime basil – my yard will be filled with it next summer, I assure you. I could smell it all day. The thing about basil of any kind is that after it’s cut, it’s as fragile and short-lived as a cool breeze in July. I’ve discovered that when the lime basil arrives, I have to use it within a day or so or I end up with black goo. Even recutting what stems were long enough to do so and putting them in a glass of water, like cut flowers, made little difference.

It was time for a sort-of-Thai lime beef. I started by stir-frying sliced flank steak. I added the baby leeks, fresh garlic (also from the box), a little carrot, fish sauce, soy sauce and lime juice. Some fresh Thai chilies would have been ideal, but I didn’t have any. I did have Thai chili-garlic sauce, which went into the mix in liberal amounts. At the end, just before serving, in went a good cup’s worth of the lime basil, just long enough for it to wilt a bit.

I love citrus flavors of all kinds, and will put a squeeze of lime or lemon into almost anything. It just perks up the flavors, I think. Lime is a lush flavor, though, and can be overdone more easily than lemon. Lemon is the sunny girl-next-door flavor; lime is her exotic sister, a little more aloof but worth getting to know.

The CSA Cocktail

The typical summer visitors, squash and zucchini, arrived in the current CSA box. The droplets before the flood.

But there was a surprise: lime basil. I hadn’t see this herb before, and I just wanted to bury my nose in it. The fragrance was strongly lime with a little herbal, green edge to it – a much headier and sweeter scent than a lime, without the fruit’s astringency. I thought: mojito.

Some months ago, I had a sublime cocktail at Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill that was made with Thai basil. A different flavor, but similar idea. Here’s the result.

The CSA Cocktail: In the bottom of a tall glass, use a spoon to crush 25 or so leaves of lime basil in 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice. Crush and shred the leaves well. Stir in 1 tablespoon of simple syrup and 1 to 2 ounces of gold rum. Fill the glass with crushed ice, add a little water or club soda and stir. Garnish with a sprig of lime basil.

Simple syrup is easy, and keeps in the refrigerator for several weeks. Just combine equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan, bring to a boil, stir until the sugar dissolves, then cool to room temperature and refrigerate. You can infuse the syrup with flavorings, too.

Pearls of onions

Squash and kale arrived in the most recent CSA box, but the most interesting denizens were some small onions. Tiny purple ones, actually; the size of the end of my pinkie finger. I tossed them, whole, with red, white (well Yukon Gold) and blue potatoes and roasted them all with olive oil, dried marjoram, garlic powder and dried thyme.

The remaining baby onions went raw into a big salad last night that included leftover herb-grilled chicken breast, cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and peaches. I love peaches and savory things together. You can’t beat a ripe peach with prosciutto.

The chicken was marinated in white wine, lemon juice, olive oil and a gob of fresh basil (also in the box), fresh sage and fresh thyme (both from the backyard). I adapted the recipe from an old cookbook that I love, “Flavors of Tuscany” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins.

I was drawn to the book because it contained a recipe for a simple soup called acquacotta that my husband and I tasted in Florence. It’s probably one of those soups that every Tuscan cook makes in her own way, and it was certainly what we needed when we arrived from a delayed flight on a rainy night, bedraggled and chilled. It’s a vegetable soup made with water, not stock (hence the name, which means “cooked water”), and including white beans. To serve, you put a toasted slice of good, crusty bread in the bottom of each bowl, pour the soup over the bread and top with a poached egg. Add some olive oil and Parmesan, if you like. I’ve dipped into other recipes in the book, and they’ve been good, but the acquacotta holds a special place.

It tastes so good, when the bread softens and magnifies the other ingredients, and when the richness of the poached egg yolk spreads through the soup, that even my bean-phobic husband will eat it. Now, that’s a soup.

The cat's last meow

When I left The News & Observer ten years ago, the final thing I did was delete two voice mails which I had saved for a long time.

One was from a high-school friend, Randy, who had left a message on the day Jackie Onassis died. I hadn’t heard from him for many years, since the last time I saw him. While visiting him in Manhattan, we actually saw Jackie, at a Picasso exhibition at MOMA. Randy was ecstatic, absorbing every detail of this tiny woman with jet-black hair. I was glad to be able to view Guernica alone – everyone else was watching her, too.

I am honored to say that I was the first person of our high-school set that Randy came out to as a gay man, while we were still in college. After he left the message, we talked a few more times, but he moved around a lot before eventually dying of AIDS. He challenged my thoughts on a lot of things, and from him I learned that love and friendship can remain constant, despite time and tremendous changes.

His message shared space with an extremely unlikely phone bedfellow: Jesse Helms.

I’d been assigned to localize a story on a book about pets of presidents. Yeah, that’s the kind of thing you get asked to do in a Features department in a slow week. I was to contact the state’s politicians and ask them about their pets. At that time, Jesse was not talking to anyone from the N&O. But I made the call, and the person at his office that I spoke to made the usual response. We’d both done our jobs and I moved on.

But that flashing voice mail light I saw later turned out to be Senator Helms, telling “Miss Debbie” that he’d be delighted to talk to me about his cat, I believe it was. We never connected, but I kept that voice mail to be sure I hadn’t been hallucinating. Political reporters from the News Department came over to my desk to listen to it, verifying that it wasn’t an impersonator and shaking their heads.

Let people like my friend suffer, sure. But we’ll talk about the cat.

I’m not a political expert, and there has been plenty of analysis of North Carolina’s complicated son since his death July 4. For a great one, go to Dan Gearino’s blog today. But I realized that, like Randy, Jesse taught me something, too: There’s a difference between holding to your principles and refusing to evolve. As for Jesse, Bono and AIDS in Africa – even a stopped clock can be right twice a day.

When I pushed the delete button, realizing it would be the last time I’d hear Randy’s voice, I shed some tears. When I deleted Jesse, I laughed. It took North Carolina decades to do the same thing.

Beet week

Beets made a return engagement in the CSA box. This time, they were the classic ruby ones, with beautiful bronze-red leafy tops.

Roasting beets is easy, and it turns the vegetable sweet and soft, but not too soft. Use a fairly high oven temperature, 400 at least. The fact that roasting makes them so sweet and, well, un-beety makes it a good way to persuade the beet-phobic to try them. It also helps if you call them “root vegetables” rather than the B-word. It’s all in the marketing.

This time, I used a recipe from Deborah Madison’s cookbook “The Savory Way” for a beet salad. I tossed the sliced roasted beets with balsamic and red wine vinegars, olive oil, sliced onions and some baby lettuce. If I make this kind of salad again, I think I’d roast the onion, too, to mellow out the texture and flavor.

That bag of tender potatoes became part of a roasted Greek chicken dish, covered in olive oil, oregano, lemon juice and garlic – 10-12 cloves worth. The small squashes ended up in a ratatouille. Yes, I know that’s not traditional, but I’m not French, either. And those shoestring-thin green beans I simply steamed, keeping their fresh flavor.