Red, Delicious 

Summer is the season of the tomato, and Nashvillians celebrated last week with a "Tomato Art" show and recipe contest

Summer is the season of the tomato, and Nashvillians celebrated last week with a "Tomato Art" show and recipe contest

The street,

filled with tomatoes,

midday,

summer,

light cuts itself into the two halves,

its juice runs through the street free.

In December,

Unabated,

the tomato

invades

the kitchen,

it enters at lunchtime,

takes

its ease

on countertops,

among glasses,

butter dishes,

blue saltcellars.

It sheds

its own light,

benign majesty

—Pablo Neruda, from "Ode to Tomatoes"

As I write this column, I am sitting at my computer, eating a tomato for lunch. It's not because I need to eat a tomato to get in the mood to write about tomatoes. It's simply that from the moment homegrown summer tomatoes come into season, I eat at least one a day—usually many more.

From the exquisite taste of the very first sun-ripened tomato of the summer, to the bittersweet flavor of the very last bite of the season, I immerse myself in a torrid and insatiable love affair with tomatoes. As Neruda's poem concludes: "...the tomato, star of the earth, recurrent and fertile star, displays its convolutions, its canals, its remarkable amplitude and abundance, no pit, no husk, no leaves or thorns, the tomato offers its gift of fiery color and cool completeness."

A good tomato can be enjoyed just as it is; I love to pluck small cherry tomatoes, warmed by the sun, right off the vine and pop them in my mouth, standing in the garden. But tomatoes are as diverse in their uses as in their varieties. While they are in season, I use them in a multitude of ways: sliced thick on fresh white bread with mayonnaise; as the leading lady in a BLT; diced, tossed with fruity olive oil and piled on toasted, garlic-rubbed rounds of baguette; in sauces, salsas, chutneys and soups; in tarts and pies; with pasta or on grilled fish. And often, for lunch at my desk, I just savor the pure, perfect simplicity of a summer tomato cut into sections and salted.

Like a woman well aware that her lover will not stay forever, I am a glutton for the sensuous rewards of tomatoes, extracting every last bit of pleasure before they bid their inevitable adieu.

I am not alone in my love affair with the tomato, as evidenced by the overwhelming success of the first "Tomato Art Show," presented by Meg and Bret MacFadyen in their Art & Invention Gallery in East Nashville's Five Points. While thousands of football fans crammed the Coliseum just blocks away for the Titans' first pre-season game, hundreds of tomato aficionados jammed into the small gallery for the opening reception of what promises to become an annual event. "We had no idea it would be so well-received," Meg MacFadyen said two days after. "We had somewhere between 800 and 1,000 people in and out all night. I think I feel an East Nashville Tomato Festival coming on."

More than 65 artists exhibited their tomato-inspired work in the gallery, and neighboring Bongo Java hosted the Beautiful Tomato Contest—a tomato decorating contest—won by Plowhaus gallery owner Franne Lee, with her Hula Gal Tomato. Bongo Java also served as the judging pavilion for the Tomato Recipe Contest, which had 24 home cooks vying for the blue, red and white ribbons. Along with Red Wagon Café owner/chef Meg Guiffrida and Yum Catering owner Laure Jabus, I had the enviable task of sticking my fork in all 24. An impressive array of tomato talent it was, and tough to settle on just three winners. But the contestants were clamoring for a decision, and the show attendees were practically storming the BJRC door, hoping to get in for a nibble themselves before plates were cleaned.

Belinda Leslie's tomato pie was pinned with the blue ribbon. She is owner of the new East Nashville B&B/wedding chapel Top O'Woodland. "The key to this is getting some really wonderful tomatoes—I got mine from my garden and the Farmers Market—and serving the pie at the right temperature. I used some yellow tomatoes with the red for color; there is no added salt or seasonings, but thanks to the Ritz crackers, there is a definite Southernness to it."

The red ribbon was awarded to Lee Ann Merrick, a fabulous home cook, for her late-summer tomato sauce, which the judges thought not only robustly delicious, but timely for its use of all the late-summer tomatoes now flooding home gardens and produce stands; she used Bradley varieties from Smiley's at the Farmers Market. Merrick ripped out the recipe from a Glamour magazine she was perusing in her OB/GYN's office while pregnant with her now 8-year-old son Collin. (In the two-degrees-of-Nashville-separation theory, I would bet my bottom dollar that the recipe came from former Nashvillian Susan Quick, who was then food editor at the magazine.)

Finally, third place went to Tammy Tallent, who had planned to make tomato ice cream for the contest, but feared the heat that evening would turn it into soup. Instead, she snatched up a loaf of day-old bread and made up a recipe for tomato bread pudding.

If these three recipes don't take care of your surplus of summer tomatoes, pick up a copy of Ronni Lundy's wonderful new book, In Praise of Tomatoes, which she was on hand that night to sign. Gorgeously photographed and illustrated, the book offers tomato history, legend and lore, garden secrets and more than 50 recipes.

Anyone who's read Neruda's poem may wonder why in the world he is waxing poetic about December tomatoes. The poet is from Chile, below the equator, of course, where their summer takes place during our winter. It is nice to know that somewhere, as I am embedded in the dreary gray chill of a Nashville winter, the Southern Hemisphere is abundant with the star of the earth.

Top O'Woodland Tomato Pie

1 pie crust, fresh or frozen, in pie pan

1/2 cup crushed Ritz crackers

1 tsp. unflavored Knox gelatin

1 Tbs. sugar (or Splenda)

3 to 4 homegrown or organic tomatoes

(critical to flavor)

1 1/2 cups shredded mild cheddar cheese

2 Tbs. real mayonnaise

Aluminum foil to cover

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

With the pie crust at room temperature (i.e., sort of sticky), dust with crushed Ritz crackers and gently press some crackers into crust walls, leaving the rest on the bottom. Mix cheese, gelatin, sugar and mayonnaise, putting one-quarter of the mixture on the Ritz cracker crumbs. Thinly slice the tomatoes and layer in the pan. Spread out the remaining cheese mixture on top and cover with aluminum foil. Tear a 2-inch opening in the middle of the foil to let the moisture escape without overcooking the crust. Bake for about 30 minutes covered like this, then remove the cover and bake until cheese looks toasted (usually about another 15 minutes, but be sure to watch it). Let cool for 20 minutes or longer before serving.

Late-Summer Tomato Sauce

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup chopped red onion

1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives

1/4 cup drained capers

1 tsp. fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp. dried

Pinch of cayenne pepper

4 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil

2 pounds ripe tomatoes

1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs such as

parsley, basil or oregano (optional)

Pasta of your choice

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a medium-size baking pan large enough to hold the tomatoes without overlapping, combine the garlic, onion, olives, capers, thyme and cayenne. Drizzle with olive oil and spread out ingredients evenly.

Core the tomatoes, halve crosswise and arrange, cut side down, on top of the other ingredients in the pan. Roast 20 to 25 minutes or until the tomato skins appear blistered and wrinkled. Cool in the pan about 15 minutes. Using your fingertips and a paring knife, carefully remove the tomato skins; discard.

Working in batches, place contents of the pan (including juices) into a blender and pulse two or three times (sauce should be very chunky). Return the sauce to the pan and keep warm in the turned-off oven.

Prepare pasta. Stir fresh herbs into the sauce just before serving. Serve with grated Parmesan, if desired. Makes about 4 cups of sauce. Note: if you're going to freeze the sauce, omit the capers and the olives. They can be added later, after thawing.

Tomato Bread Pudding

2 Tbs. olive oil

6 large tomatoes, quartered and salted

3 cloves garlic, sliced

lots of fresh basil

4 large eggs

3 cups heavy whipping cream

1 cup milk

6 cups day-old bread, cut into

half-inch cubes

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup finely chopped pistachio nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sauté tomatoes and garlic in olive oil and set aside to cool.

Whisk together eggs, milk and cream. Add basil, bread and tomato mixture, and stir. Pour into baking dish and bake for about one hour. Remove from heat and top with Parmesan and pistachio mixture. Bake for another 10 minutes until golden. Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

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