My fall project, outside of Italiaoutdoors, is developing a 10-segment series of short cooking episodes for WSKI-TV at Sugarloaf, ME. A long way from Italy, but my philosophy remains the same – celebrating fresh, local foods. This is a bit harder in the harsh climate of Maine, but I am discovering an entire community that is dedicated to producing local foods even in this region. So with the support of both WSKI-TV and the Skowhegan Savings Bank, we are putting together this series and introducing a local producer during each segment. We’ll learn what they make, where to buy it, what to do with it, and why they are crazy enough to attempt this in Maine! But for those of us who live there, we know why. Our home is remote, but allows us to indulge in all sorts of outdoors activities – skiing, of course, but also hiking, kayaking, golf, mountain biking, snowmobiling, and so on. Finding great ingredients is a bit more difficult that it is in Italy, but the whole ‘locavore’ movement has arrived even here, and our options are increasing rapidly. Hopefully this project will provide a bit of encouragement and support for these local farmers and producers.
My first farm visit was to the biggest and most successful local producer in the region. Backyard Farms started in 2004 as Backyard Beauties, with the goal of growing good, local tomatoes. At that time, if you wanted a tomato in the ‘off-season’, your choices were from Mexico or some other far-off location. These tomatoes are bred not for flavor, but for looks and their ability to survive long transport. They are picked when still firm and green to minimize shipping damage, usually a good two weeks before their optimum ripe stage. They are then held in cold storage up to a month before they reach the shelves of your market. Ethylene gas chambers are used to artificially induce color and ripeness. All of these processes result in something that looks like tomato, but tastes like cardboard.
Backyard Farms today grows hydroponic tomatoes in two enormous greenhouses in Madison, ME. Their enterprise is quite impressive, with perfectly manicured tomato vines stretching up to 30 feet in the air. Each ‘bunch’ is hand pruned to ensure optimum ripening of each tomato, and hand picked when perfectly ripe. Their rule is to only supply those outlets that are within a day’s drive of Madison, so their tomatoes ripen on the vine and are never chilled to preserve. They produce year-round, which requires an incredible vigilance to prevent pests and diseases from spreading within and between the greenhouses. To tour the greenhouses, I had to don a very attractive white jumpsuit made out of Tyvek to prevent any stray microbe on my person from jumping off in the greenhouse. They also have bees for pollination, and wasps for pest control within the houses.
Many claim that hydroponic products, as they are not grown in soil, will never have the flavor of a true, dirt-grown tomato. While nothing may yet compete with the heirloom tomato just picked out of your own backyard, the Backyard Farm tomatoes do taste like a tomato, and are worth buying and using fresh all year round. I usually only use raw tomatoes when they are in season, which is only a few weeks a year. The rest of the time I cook with them, trying to somehow bestow some flavor by concentrating, reducing, or adding herbs, salt, sugar and other ingredients. The Backyard Farms tomatoes I will definitely use year round in their delicious, tasty, raw form!
I asked my tour guides how they used their tomatoes, and both immediately expressed a preference for raw tomatoes. Tim di Kok, Head Grower, and fourth generation greenhouse farmer, and Pete Lewis, VP of Marketing, showed me around. Pete described his favorite recipe, using their cocktail tomatoes, and Tim gave me a full box of their various tomatoes to play with at home. Pete’s recipe sounded so good and easy that I made it for an antipasti for guests a few days later. It is a spin on the classic Italian Caprese salad. Stay tuned for more recipes using these, including a grilled fresh tomato pasta sauce that I’ll feature on an upcoming cooking segment.
Backyard Farms Caprese Cocktail Tomatoes with Mozzarella and Basil
16 Backyard Farms Cocktail Tomatoes
8 ounces fresh mozzarella
8 fresh basil leaves
Good extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the broiler on low.
Remove the tomatoes from their stem. Using a melon baller, or a sharp knife and a 1/2 teaspoon measuring spoon, scoop out the inside of each of the 16 cocktail tomatoes, at the top where the stem attaches to the tomato. If you have a melon baller, you can just scoop out the flesh; the edge of the melon baller should be sharp enough to cut through the tomato skin. If you don’t (I didn’t), cut a small circle on the top around the stem end with a small sharp knife, then use a small spoon to scoop out the flesh. The goal here is to create little tomato cups that we can stuff.
Place the 16 tomato cups on a sheet pan.
Cut the mozzarella into 16 cubes, about 3/4 of an inch on all sides. Place a mozzarella cube into each of the 16 tomato cups. Place the sheet pan under the broiler, and heat until the cheese is just beginning to melt and turn just slightly brown. Remove from oven. Keep a close eye on them while they are in the oven, you don’t want the tomato to cook too much.
Take the basil leaves and stack into a pile. Roll the leaves lengthwise, creating a basil cigar. With a sharp knife, cut the crosswise into narrow strips. This should give you lots of pretty narrow ribbons of basil, called ‘chiffonade’.
Place the stuffed tomato cups on your serving platter. Garnish with the basil ribbons, and drizzle with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with a little sea salt and serve.