L’étoile Executive Chef Mark Gresge is a big fan of Megan Weary’s tomatoes, and not just because the beautiful Striped Germans, Cherokee Purples and other heirloom varieties as well as classic Romas and cherry tomatoes that she and her husband Rob cultivate at their four-year-old Roundabout Farm in Keswick are flavorful in a way that hothouse-grown commodities shipped before their prime from Mexico never will be. Gresge says it’s also because, “She’s the first to have heirlooms at the market.”
Megan Weary transfers her heirloom tomatoes very carefully from field to farmers market.
L’étoile’s menu changes frequently with the seasons, and Gresge has been taking advantage of Roundabout’s unusually early bounty for dishes such as his chilled heirloom tomato soup recipe (shared below) far before the summer solstice.
“We’re among the first people out there. We’ve been pushing the date because the return is really big then,” says Weary, who begins seeding tomato plants in her greenhouse in March. By mid-April she’s transferring that first batch of plants (1,400 or so) to her garden and harvesting them by the beginning of June. At that point, when everyone around here is eager for that first tomato taste, Weary says they can fetch $4 a pound. In the heart of July, however, when every local gardener and her mother is flush with the red fruit and the appetites of even the most devoted tomato lovers are staring to wane, prices fall to around $2 a pound.
Weary says she can harvest as much as 800 pounds a week at the height of the season, but there are juicy tomatoes everywhere you turn by then, and Weary says retail buyers from chefs to Saturday City Market shoppers “like to spread the wealth” among the growers. She, who also runs a Community Supported Agriculture program for a limited number of weekly subscribers throughout the season, understands the power of loyalty and relationships in the local food market. Providing delicious tomatoes “often” is almost as important as “early” in Roundabout’s business strategy. Weary seeds and transfers tomatoes in three phases for three successive harvests throughout the season and plants much more than she’ll need because of the inevitably high percentage of loss due to common diseases and pests. Though not certified organic, Roundabout practices sustainable and eco-friendly farming and does not spray the plants with chemicals.
While flipping through her complicated spreadsheet that tracks the planting of every type of seed in her operation (there were entries for 515 different types of plantings of a variety of produce and flowers last year) she says she’s already planning an even earlier start to her greenhouse tomato seeding in January for the 2010 season.
In this volatile market where local farmers compete not only with each other but with cheaper factory-food from grocery story chains, as well as the sometimes disingenuous offering of “organic” and “local” produce from the same, Roundabout’s go-getter strategy as well as its gradual switch from growing lots of different types of items to fewer (Weary’s sunflowers are also famous) seems to be paying off. “We want to do a few crops really well,” says Weary, a former teacher and UVA graduate turned farmer. While her husband continues to work for the Nature Conservancy to help support them and their young daughter, Weary is jazzed by her own recent financial contribution from the farm: “I paid myself my first paycheck this year.”
Greatest kitchen invention since sliced bread: the handheld blender. $37 from the Happy Cook.
Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup with Lobster Relish
From Mark Gresge, executive chef of L’étoile
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cups onions, peeled and thinly sliced
3 Tbs. garlic, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
4 lbs. firm, heirloom tomatoes, cored, seeded, and cut into eighths
1 Tbs. plus 1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. thyme leaves
4 cups water
2 cups chicken stock
2 Tbs. lemon juice
1/2 lb. lobster meat, picked over for cartilage, tails chopped and claws left whole
1 lime, juiced
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. fresh oregano leaves, chopped
2 tsp. fresh parsley leaves, chopped
2 tsp. scallions, chopped
1 tsp. fresh chives, choppped
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
8 Tbs. crème fraîche, for garnish
Basil sprigs, for garnish
In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and bay leaves and cook for 5 more minutes. Add the tomatoes, 1 tablespoon salt and thyme and cook for 15 minutes or until the tomatoes soften. Add the water and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and continue to cook until the tomatoes are very tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaves. Using a handheld blender, puree the soup until smooth. Chill the soup. Add 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice and hot sauce to taste, as desired.
While the soup is chilling, in a mixing bowl, combine the lobster tails, lime juice, remaining tablespoon of lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, oregano, parsley, scallions, chives, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and the pepper and toss gently to thoroughly combine.
When ready to serve, ladle the soup into individual bowls. Float a lobster claw in the center of the soup and divide the lobster garnish among the bowls, about 3 tablespoons per bowl. Garnish each bowl with crème fraîche and a basil sprig. Soup also can be served warm. Serves 6.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) might be the worst kind of camp, but its message rings eerily true today. You won’t catch us going near those gigantic, genetically-modified, perfectly round, red orbs in the grocery store. They give us the creeps.
Back to FOOD & DRINK ANNUAL 2009