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Chef John Foster: Now serving local tomatoes, remarkably, and they are full of flavor and texture

It never ceases to amaze me when every spring for several years now, I’m serving local tomatoes in the same week that I’m planting tomatoes in my garden. Remarkable really when you think about how long our growing seasons have stretched, even in the last few years.

While these tomatoes are not as full and ripe as the ones in July and August, they are a burst of color and a flavorful addition to the plates.

I think it’s the flavor and texture that surprise me the most. The interior structure of the tomato shows very little signs of “mealiness” or stunted growth, suggesting that these tomatoes were picked in a rhythm that will allow them to ripen naturally, minus being gassed and shipped from thousands of miles away. While they are not as richly flavorful as the later tomatoes will be, they take little more effort to find ways of enhancing the flavor that has already been developed.

This is almost a tomato sandwich tomato, and for me, that is saying something! I usually don’t eat a tomato sandwich until well into the summer. More than that is the texture of the tomato, firm, with some moisture. Very little areas of green hard flesh, they project some of the smooth clean texture of a field raised tomato. Bear in mind now that we are talking about a full-fledged tomato in May!?

It wasn’t always the case, and as recently as several years back, when you found tomatoes in May they were regional, stretching down into Florida. Hauling Florida tomatoes to Kentucky was like bringing coals to Newcastle but there was a persistent demand to get them into restaurants as soon as possible.

The alternative, which I deal with every day, was to go without and I’m sure some of my customers missed them more than I did. If there was ever a glimpse into the tortured soul of a farm to table customer, it must have been best viewed through the prism of the out-of-season tomato. Greenhouses and hoop houses took up some of the slack and have been with us far longer than I’ve been in Lexington.

Built from scrap materials or through a series of grants, these structures have at times been a curse and a godsend. Remember please that the sun doesn’t shine much in the winter, so the greenhouse is only as effective as its heating system. The ability to keep things warm, watered, and growing is a delicate balancing act that some farmers declined to be part of.

The ones that opted to try had stories about heaters going down overnight or winds ripping the tops off the hoop house all with the same result: loss. With a margin of error that rivals restaurants, any amount of loss or delay can mean so much more.

In some parts of the state, we have moved past the small greenhouses to the more commercial aspects of off-season growing. Projects are now underway to create larger complexes that extend the seasons almost to the next link in the chain. All season growing will probably never get to that point but our Kentucky climate seems to be ideally suited to give it a try. With the greenhouse system fully established there’s no ceiling on what we could grow, and more importantly when.

Fully armed with the first tomatoes of the season, my goal now is not to waste a second of this precious commodity. There are certain recipes that I will not attempt at this point.

Seta Sapore, a fresh tomato sauce relies too heavily on other ingredients that are still weeks away. Gazpacho is too tomato-centric to try early, plus it’s much better to eat in the hot weather. Right now it’s roasted tomato vinaigrettes, short stacks of tomato and shiitake mushrooms, and panzanella salads, our variation on a Tuscan classic that is cooked to order. What makes the panzanella so adaptable is the bread component, and we have been able to rotate other ingredients through the standard recipe that make sense. Roasted butternut squash and sage was our winter panzanella, roasted greens, and red onion is our current rendition, but with the arrival of tomatoes, and the planting of basil, our original salad with tomato, red onion, basil, and bread will soon make an appearance.

What makes this salad more appealing is the versatility of flavors. You can sub green garlic for red onion, fresh dill for basil, even top it with goat cheese instead of parmesan or asiago.

Our last ingredient is what seems to put this salad over the top. Traditionally this is a cold or room temperature salad. It is also softened through marination of the ingredients in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We make the salad to order so our margination is quick and our finish with olive oil and balsamic provides a spark to the salad. We favor an extra virgin olive oil and a fig based balsamic vinegar. A grind of black pepper and some cheese on top and you have a worthy, and tasty representation of the early season tomato.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here. 

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