In Celebration of the Tomato

Tomatoes, like grapes, benefit from suffering, as though depriving them of what they seem to need most provokes a deeper search through their own rooted resources. - Paul Bertoli, Cooking by Hand 

I've got Chef Paul Bertoli's essay on my mind as I trek to the 4th Annual Tomato Festival at Cedarbrook Lodge. In the waning days of summer, Cedarbrook throws a fabulous ode to heirloom tomatoes on the back lawn. While I've yet to dine or stay at the lodge, I've kept a close eye on their Executive Chef, Mark Bodinet who's hosting the event. An alumn of Thomas Keller's French Laundry, Bodinet took took top honors at Lamb Jam both years I judged the event. 

A celebration of tomatoes in the hands of some fabulous chefs? I'm in! Arriving before the crowds, I had a chance to chat with the chefs and picked up some terrific tips along the way. Let's check it out...

A cause for celebration! Let's Whole Foods prices, I bet there's over a $1,000 in heirloom tomatoes here.

Pike Brewing Company, one of the pioneers of the microbrew movement, is the first tent I spot. It's always a good time when you see these folks! 

Family-owned Pike Brewery's Space Needle IPA is made with five varieties of Washington State Yakima Valley Hops. Its "golden color with floral notes and assertive hop character" was a perfect quencher for the unseasonably warm day. 

Kicking off the event: James Beard Award-wining chef Holly Smith with a Pike Brewery michelada. Holly, chef-owner of Cafe Juanita, nabbed the Best Chef Northwest award in 2008, and in 2012 was nominated for James Beard's Outstanding Chef in the US. 

 My favorite dish of the day: Cafe Janita's Pappa al Pomodoro. Exquisite simplicity, made with heirloom tomatoes, bread, and olive oil. 

Bar Sajor restaurant in the house! Chef de Cuisine, Edouardo Jordan, served Beef Tongue Pastrami with Tomato Vierge, Sunflower Seeds, and Leek Jam. Jordan is known for his "edible oddities." Noted.

Bar Sajor's Beef Tongue Pastrami

Heading to the Copperleaf table with a flat of still-in-the-dirt microgreens.

Copperleaf' Restaurant featured Heirloom Tomato Foccacia served with a trio of sauce options: Green Tomato, Ratatouille, or Garlic Cream. Love the slate-on-wine-box presentation. 

Who could resist this? Joel  Handshuh, Copperleaf's Chef de Cusine.

Going in for a closer look at those layers: Smoked Tomato Panna Cotta, Parmesan Mousse, a dollop of Basil Cream, and a dusting of Olive Nougatine and Microgreens. 

"Chef, tell me about that olive nougatine. How do you make it?"
"We dehydrate olives for two days, then grind them up. Next, we make a caramel and add the ground (dehydrated) olives. Pour the caramel on a silpat until it dries like toffee, and crush it for a garnish." The result? An intriguing sweet, salty, crunch. 

Trace at the W Hotel, represented by Laura Jacques Hardy and Executive Chef Stephen Ariell.  Impressive chefs have come from Seattle's W Hotel--including James Beard Award-winners Jonathan Sundstrom (Lark) and Maria Hines (Tilth, Golden Beetle, Agrodolce). Then came an extensive remodel, a name change for the restaurant, and a new chef. The remodel was a disappointment, but the chef? One to watch.

An Eclair with Heirloom Tomato Jam and Kurtwood Farm's Dina's Cheese. And then there's the dish that stretched my mind and made me think of tomatoes in a new light: Tomato Sorbet Served in a Hollowed Orange w/ Basil Buds and Flaked Salt. Amazing! 

Serving the tomato sorbet. Each guest got a slice, topped with flaked sea salt and 'basil buds.'

"Chef, what did you do with the orange flesh?"

"Used it for something else. For this dish, all I wanted was the rind."

At the helm of Barking Frog restaurant on the Woodinville wine trail, Executive Chef Bobby Moore.

Stunning heirlooms, no?

Chef Bobby Moore and Barking Frog's sous chef, Chris Smith

Chris Smith was the mastermind behind this dish from Barking Frog. Here we have a Compressed Watermelon, Balsamic 'Paper', Burrata Foam, and Micro Basil.

"Chef, what is 'balsamic paper'?"
Chris Smith explained:  "It's made with all-natural gellan gum.*  First, you puree the gellan gum and balsamic. Bring it to a boil so the gelatin properties kick in. Let it set until it becomes like jello. Then you put it in a blender and turn it back into a liquid. This breaks up the gell into super small pieces so you can spread it out. And then you, dehydrate it." Voila! Balsamic paper.

* Seaweed-based gellan gum is used as a stabilizer, emulsifier, thickener, and gelling agent. 

 West Seattle's Blackboard Bistro owners: Chef Jacob Weigner and his wife, Ginger Weigner.

Blackboard Bistro's Yogurt Cilantro Flan w/ Curried Tomato, Crispy Lentils with Sun Dried Tomato and Greens.

"Chef! What's the story about those crispy lentils?"
"At some point, everything ends up in the deep fryer!"

An eye-catching presentation, no? This is Semiahmoo Resort's Heirloom Tomato Push Pop with Blueberry, Espelette, Aspic (consume w/ gelatin), and Fresh Mozzarella. 

A closer look at those layers: Mozzarella, Heirloom Tomatoes, Blueberries, Heirloom Tomatoes, and another layer of Mozzarella topped with Espelette.
"Chef, blueberries and tomatoes? What's the story?"

In  a heavy French accent, Semiahmoo's Culinary Director, Eric Truglas offers, "What grows together, goes together, no?' Truglas adds, "You get tartness from the tomato and sweetness from the blueberry." He's right. It's surprising how well they go together.

Here we see another play on Chef Truglas' blueberry/tomato theme: Heirloom Tomato and Watermelon Skewers with a Blueberry Vinaigrette. 

Semiahmoo is a seaside resort situated this side of the Canadian border. With four restaurants on the property, they went all out for Tomato Fest. Here we have what Chef Truglas calls the "Porterhouse of Tomatoes." It's a skinned and cored Heirloom Tomato, Stuffed with Halibut Rillettes, and White Anchovy Vinaigrette. 

 Chef de Cuisine Martin Woods takes a moment to tell me about this garnish. This is a sprouted popcorn shoot. It adds a beguiling sweet and bitter component to the dish. I also like the visual appeal. Striking, no?

A peek inside: Heirloom Tomato, Halibut Rillettes, Sprouted Popcorn Shoot, and Microgreens

Garnishes: micro and sprouted 

Tomatoes transported stuffed side up, then inverted for presentation. Beautiful array of heirloom tomato colors, eh?

Good times with the chefs of Semiahmoo: Eric Truglas (Culinary Director), Martin Woods (Chef de Cuisine), Kevin Benner (Sous Chef) 

And at the center of the Tomato Festival is a terrific side-by-side tasting of over 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. A perfect end to a late summer celebration of tomatoes!

Crave-worthy Charmoula Fried Chicken

I wish every meal was great. Truly. I want to sing from the rooftops about magnificent moments in dining, but the truth is, even for a seasoned restaurant veteran, those moments are rare. Maybe not pink-unicorn-in-the-forest rare, but let's just say...stellar moments in dining are not an everyday thing. 

When a dish, or better yet, a restaurant stands out in my mind? I'll spend the next couple months, dining there at every opportunity. VIPs from New York or LA? We go here. Meeting with the folks from Saveur magazine? Do not leave town without trying the butter chicken wings here. Pastry and bread gurus? First stop? Here. You get the idea. 

My latest obsession is Charmoula Fried Chicken at The Old Sage. Succulent and packed with flavor, this chicken has haunted me since the first bite. And wouldn't you know...I forgot my camera. But as I've said, this obsession runs deep, and I was able to cobble together images from three different people for this post! Reporting deliciousness? It takes a village.

I'm a huge fan chef-owners Dana Tough and Brian McCracken. The Old Sage is the latest in their stable of restaurants including Spur, Tavern Law, and Coterie Room. (Food & Wine magazine dubbed their first restaurant, Spur, one of "the most outstanding, must-visit restaurants in the world.") Earlier this month, Keren Brown collaborated with Kitchenbug and The Old Sage for blogger meet up, and I jumped at the opportunity.

This haven on Capitol Hill is dark and moody with a "thinking man's" vibe. 

Old Sage's kitchen is open to the bar, so cooks can see what's happening in the dining room, without being completely exposed. From the dining room, it provides peek into the kitchen-as-theater element. Pictured: Chef de Cuisine Mathew Woolen and cook Kirby Snyder. 

Chef Mathew Woolen addressed the crowd of bloggers, food stylists, and photographers. When the passed apps came around, the food was familiar, and yet, every dish had an element of mystery. Succulence like I've never known before. A spice blend that lingered, calling up memories of souks and spice bazaars. "Chef, how would you describe your culinary style?" Woolen builds flavor with old world, forgotten techniques (souring, sprouting, smoke, fire) and spice trail ingredients (urfa biber, etc), with a contemporary spin (sous vide). The magical. 

During the social hour, I stepped in the kitchen to say hello. The tiny chef's station is compact--no bigger than a boat kitchen. And yet, two steps from the line is a Wood Stone-fired oven, Below rests a tub of yeast-risen dough, at the ready for freshly-fired breads. To his right is a small smoker. All within reach. 

Fire it up! Pork belly BLT's and puffs of yeast-risen bread. 

As luck would have it, prep was underway for a batch of their Charmoula Fried Chicken.

Something about this prep caught my eye. "What are you doing?" Cook Kirby Snyder explained, that fall-off the bone element is enhanced by first, cutting the skin and pulling the meat back "like a meat pop." 

The key here is to cut the tendon above the joint. It's the tendon that makes the meat seize up. Once you cut the tendon, it relaxes and adds to the tenderness. Genius! (Ever wonder what the difference between restaurant food and home food is? Tips like this.) 

For more on the technique, I rang up chef-owner Dana Tough. Here's the how to:

Once all the meat is prepped, season it liberally (like a rub) with salt and pepper. Let it rest for an hour. 

Next, completely submerge the seasoned chicken in yogurt and charmoula. Braise it in this flavor-packed liquid at 300 degrees for 2 1/2 - 3 hours. 

Cool the chicken to room temp in the braising liquid. Chef says, "A big mistake people make is taking the meat out of the braising liquid. Flavor penetrates the surface of the meat during cooking, but to get that deep penetration of flavor, leave it in the liquid." 

When the chicken in braising liquid is cool to room temperature, fish out the chicken and set it on a resting rack. Meanwhile, heat a deep fryer to 360 degrees.

Season the braised chicken with ras el hanout ("a Moroccan spice blend with saffron, coriander, rose petals and 20 other spices.") 

Then deep fry the chicken until golden brown. 

Once the chicken is out of the oil, lightly season with salt immediately. Chef Tough adds, "There's a very short window for seasoning fried food. If you miss it, the salt won't stick."  

After the event, chef Matthew sent this shot. See the "meat pop"  element?  And the sauce? That's  the turmeric-infused braising liquid, strained. Beautiful, isn't it? 

And if you're not up for brining, braising, and then frying your own chicken? Head over to The Old Sage. Their food is a cravable adventure in dining, worth singing from the rooftops. 

As  I mentioned, gathering all the pieces for this post was a huge collaborative effort. Thanks to Megan Reardon (Not Martha), Keren Brown (Frantic Foodie), Deanna Rivaldo, Dana Tough, Brian McCracken, Mathew Woolen, and Kirby Snyder.