No matter how you slice it, it's tomato time

To home cooks, gardeners, and chefs, this is the season that's ripe for picking

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Most people choose tomatoes by how they look and feel. Not Clark Wolf. The New York food and restaurant consultant also sniffs them for the "smell of summer."

In Mr. Wolf's home city, where the season has brought cooler temperatures than usual, his efforts haven't paid off as well as he'd hoped this year. Next month may finally bring the hot sun tomatoes need to thrive, he says optimistically. In the meantime, though, Wolf hasn't been deprived of his favorite vegetable.

Every week at a farmers' market near his vacation cabin in Sonoma, Calif., he buys what he calls "the best tomatoes of my life." He's one cook who doesn't brake for tomato festivals. "I don't need to," he says, during a recent phone interview. "Every day is a tomato festival at my house!"

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Chef Melissa Kelly could use a few of Wolf's succulent, peak-season tomatoes about now. At Primo, her restaurant in Rockland, Maine, she's been cooking fried green tomatoes for weeks. Ms. Kelly, who last year won the James Beard Award for best chef of the Northeast, can hardly wait until the 30 varieties of tomatoes on Primo's four acres ripen on the vine.

One of the first dishes she'll make is what she calls a simple salad with pesto crostini and fried squash blossoms. Next up will be a "big and bold" Italian dish of tomatoes, olives, capers, caper berries, and calamari. Most of the tomatoes grown at Primo are heirloom varieties, including her all-time favorite, Marble Stripe. Heirlooms, she says, are not only "important to preserve, but also incredibly great tasting, varied, and versatile."

Kelly is one of several chefs who will be preparing dishes with heirloom tomatoes at next month's "Epicurean Tomato Fete" in Lenox, Mass. Also participating is Diane Forley, chef at New York's Verbena restaurant, who literally put down her tomato-seed-coated chef's knife and picked up the phone to talk tomatoes during a recent lunch hour. Ms. Forley would always choose an heirloom tomato, especially a Cherokee, over a standard beefsteak variety. "They're not as cookie-cutter," she says. "Some heirlooms [taste] acidic, others sweet. Some are dense, others light. It's always a surprise."

Most cooks prefer a minimalist approach during peak season, and Forley is no exception. The hottest item on the menu these days is her tomato salad with bibb lettuce, Thai basil, mint, chives, and chive blossoms topped with extra-virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and a generous sprinkling of salt. Verbena's patrons don't seem to notice the dearth of flavorful tomatoes in Manhattan, which Wolf bemoans.

Ellen Ogden hasn't always been enthused about late summer's glut of fresh tomatoes. "Every August, I would become a slave to the stove," says the co-owner, with her husband Shepherd Ogden, of Cook's Garden, a mail-order gardening and seed company. Mrs. Ogden no longer makes elaborate soups and sauces with the boatloads of tomatoes that "Shep" grows. Instead, she either cans or freezes them, skinless, in airtight bags with fresh basil. And freshly picked tomatoes appear regularly at family suppers, especially in her "rainbow platter" of fresh red, green, and yellow tomatoes topped with a simple dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, sugar, basil, and salt.

Their children, Molly and Sam, are especially fond of Green Zebra tomatoes, one of 175 varieties grown at the company's trial gardens in Burlington, Vt. For the past 15 years, at tomato tastings held there, three especially sweet and juicy heirlooms - Persimmon, Brandywine, and Rainbow - have usually clinched the top votes.

Several tomato fields away from Clark Wolf's Cali-fornia cabin is the Culinary Institute of America's Napa Valley campus. There, instructor Lars Kronmark teaches his students all about tomatoes and their uses. It's a subject that never tires him. "We all have fond childhood memories of picking tomatoes in the garden," he says, adding, "Those childhood experiences are often followed by a lull of about 15 years before people's interest in growing them from the garden is often reinvigorated."

The popularity of tomatoes has increased during the past 10 years, says Mr. Kronmark, as consumers have become more familiar with heirloom varieties. Contests and harvest festivals have also awakened taste buds to the satisfaction of this luscious summer crop, he adds. Kronmark first became smitten with tomatoes as a teenage apprentice at a restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. "I made a roasted-tomato sauce, and realized there was much more to tomatoes than the flavorless ones at the store," he says.

His passion for them has intensified every harvest season since. "I have tomatoes growing everywhere at home," he says, laughing. "Behind the house, in front of the house, next to the garage...." His 2-1/2-year-old son, Tommy, is already a fan, and every couple of days when father and son go picking, Tommy gets another lesson in color. "We only pick the red ones," his dad reminds him, often just in the nick of time.

Kronmark fixes tomatoes with only extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, and, occasionally, a slice of mozzarella or a few chunks of feta cheese. He sops up the juices with hunks of European-style bread. "It's such a short season," he laments. "But it has such a big impact."

One of Kronmark's pet peeves is the mistake of storing tomatoes in the refrigerator. "I pull them out of restaurant refrigerators all the time," he says, with disbelief that some chefs don't know better. "I have to explain that refrigeration ruins their flavor." In his own kitchen, just-picked tomatoes form a mountain - plump, red, and ready to be eaten - in a basket on the counter. In a tone of satisfaction, he says: "They are the first thing I always see when I walk in."

The Millennium Epicurean Tomato Fete will be held Sept. 10 at the Wheatleigh Hotel in Lenox, Mass. It's a gathering of top chefs from New England and New York who are passionate about heirloom tomatoes, and is sponsored by the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, a nonprofit plant-conservation organization. For further information, call (413) 229-8316.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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