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Summertime and Virginia Tomatoes


Tomato Harvest by Sylvie Rowand

Tomato Harvest by Sylvie Rowand

We grow some pretty good tomatoes – and quite a few, too, in Virginia (the fourth largest producer of fresh-eating tomatoes in the U.S. based on value). Our diverse landscape of tidewater, central plains and mountain areas offers varied conditions, propitious to a fairly long growing season and many different kinds of tomatoes, which is good because the list of tomato cultivars is several thousands long.

From ‘Abraham Lincoln’ to ‘Zarnitsa’, from tiny cherries (‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ the size of your small finger nail) to mammoth beefsteaks (‘Mortgage Lifter’) that can weigh over two pounds, there’s a tomato for everyone. Some are pear-shaped (‘Yellow Pear’), plum shaped (‘Viva Italia’), elongated (‘Jersey Banana’), egg-shaped (‘Roma’) or heart-shaped (‘Giant Oxheart’); some are ribbed (‘Costuleto’), others almost perfectly spherical (‘Celebrity’) or somewhat flattened (‘Dinner Plate’).

Tomatoes are more colorful than you might expect: vermillion red (‘Old Virginia’), dark dusty red (‘Black Krim’), green shoulders (‘Cherokee Purple’), pinkish (‘Pink German’), bright yellow (‘Lemon Boy’), just yellow (‘Garden Peach’) or pale yellow (‘White Wonder’), orange (‘Valencia’), bicolor (‘Flame’) or multicolor (‘Black Pineapple’), green (‘Green Zebra’) and striped (‘Speckled Roman’).

Some are better turned into sauce or canned (the “processing” type like ‘Amish Paste’),  to dry (‘Principe Borghese’), stuff (‘Striped Stuffer’), or just slice (‘Mr. Stripey’).

While hydroponic and greenhouse cultures are all very well allowing tomatoes earlier in the season than nature otherwise provides, nothing – nothing! – beats a dirt-grown, sun-ripened, freshly picked tomato in August. If you grow your own, this is hardly news. If you don’t grow your own, head to the closest Farmers Market on an early summer morning (locate one at and click the “Virginia Grown” icon).

What are the best tomatoes? My favorite (of the moment) may not be your favorite tomatoes. There is only way to know: try as many different ones as possible. While heirlooms are all the rage, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with hybrids when it comes to flavor. Flavor and texture are determined by the cultivar name, how well it was grown, whether it’s adapted to its local conditions, the weather, its ripeness, when it was picked, how long it was stored, its intended use (salad or sauce?) and personal taste. So… try them out (and don’t keep them in the fridge, cold dulls their flavor considerably).

A flavor-bursting tomato needs nothing more than a little sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil. If you feel like working hard for your lunch, cut up some sturdy white sandwich bread, spread a fat dollop of mayonnaise, tuck a few leaves of Genovese basil, layer your tomato slices, sprinkle with sea salt, close your eyes, bite, sigh…. as close to heaven as a mundane lunch will allow – especially if you have a bottle of dry Virginia Rosé on hand, such as Sharp Rock’s Rosé or Rosé Noir.

But once in a while, even in summer, a little cooking is fun. How about an upside-down tomato tart and a tomato sorbet?

Tomato Tatin by Sylvie Rowand

Tomato Tatin by Sylvie Rowand

Savory Tomato Tatin

Serves 4 to 6

-       Oven preserved tomatoes*

-       Freshly grated parmesan –  2 tablespoons for a large tart

-       Raw puff pastry, rolled out.

Arrange the oven-preserved tomatoes on the bottom of a glass pie dish (NOT a removable bottom pan), cut side up, packing them snuggly. Sprinkle parmesan.

Cut puff pastry 1 inch larger than your pan. Put it on top of the tomatoes, tucking the edges all around so that when you unmold the tart, the tomatoes are contained in neatly.

Bake in a preheated 400F oven about 25/30 minutes or until puffed and pleasantly golden.

Let cool until you can handle comfortably but still warm. Carefully invert on a plate larger than the pan. Gently lift any tomatoes adhering to the pan and put them back on the tart.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

White wine lovers will want to pair this with a fresh, vivacious Riesling such as Doukénie, or a fruity viognier, like Chester Gap Cellars. If you’d prefer a red, seek out a lively Cabernet Franc.


* Oven Preserved Tomatoes

-       4 lb Italian type tomatoes, or other smallish not too juicy tomatoes

-       2 tablespoons olive oil and more for drizzling

-       1 tablespoon sugar

-       1/2 teaspoon salt

-       3 large sprigs of fresh rosemary or 6 large sprigs of thyme (optional)

The evening prior, wash, halve and core the tomatoes. Oil a rimmed cookie sheet large enough to hold the tomatoes halves, cut side up. Sprinkle with salt and sugar. Drizzle with olive oil if desired. Bake in 215°F oven for 2 to 3 hours. Check after 1 hour, drizzle additional oil if the tomatoes seem to be drying too fast. Rotate the cookie sheets if using several. Turn the oven off, let the tomatoes rest overnight. Will keep up to 2 weeks packed in a glass jar, covered with olive oil and refrigerated.

Yellow Tomato Sorbet by Sylvie Rowand

Yellow Tomato Sorbet by Sylvie Rowand

Tomato Sorbet

Yields about 1 quart

-       2 lb ripe flavorful meaty tomatoes.

-       ¾ cup sugar +/- to taste

-       2 tablespoons lemon juice +/- to taste

-       2 basil tips

-       1 tablespoon vodka (optional)

Remove stem ends. Puree tomatoes in blender until smooth. Sieve to remove seeds.

Cook in a non-reactive saucepan, with sugar, lemon juice and basil, simmering 10-15 minutes. Let cool. Remove basil tips. Add vodka.

Chill thoroughly in an ice-bath or overnight in the fridge. Process in ice-cream maker following manufacturer’s instructions. Eat just out of the machine or store in freezer.

A great pairing for this sweet/tart dessert is Thibaut “Virginia Fizz”
or Prince Michel Sparkling 2005. Try this with bubbles!

Sylvie Rowand of Laughing Duck Gardens & Cookery holds cooking and canning classes in Washington, VA. She is also a private chef and is available for special occasion & small event catering. You can e-mail her at Website: Food & Kitchen Garden Blog: