Dressed up or down, this fruit is a Delaware favorite

By Pam George

On a sweltering day, I traveled to Marini’s Produce in Brandywine Hundred to find a juicy tomato and white bread. I wasn’t thrilled about the latter, but an overwhelming number of Facebook friends insisted that white bread is the preferred platform for Delaware’s unofficial summer dish: the tomato sandwich.

The SIW farmstand in Chadds Ford has more than 50 types of tomatoes, including heirloom varieties. There are more than 1,000 tomato plants on the farm. Photo courtesy SIW

My admission that I’d never experienced said sammy — which also includes mayonnaise, salt and pepper — prompted a slew of open-mouthed emojis. I prefer a protein between bread slices., but I was willing to give it a try because, hey, it’s tomato season.

As any home grower can attest, the flavor profile between just picked and shipped tomatoes is dramatic, equaled only by a strawberry in season versus one from South America. In August, sliced fresh tomatoes and sweet corn are standard side dishes, and the simplicity of the tomato sandwich demonstrates that power of locally grown products.

But several factors have turned the ubiquitous backyard crop into an epicurean delight. For one, there are more varieties available than in the past. For another, they’re versatile. So, while area chefs might munch tomato sandwiches before service, their tomato specials are works of art. 

Elevating the Ordinary

Although a Delaware favorite, tomatoes are not the state fruit. That honor goes to the strawberry. But they should get top billing, area chefs maintain. 

“We have a really good climate here for tomatoes,” notes Bill Hoffman of The House of William & Merry in Hockessin, who never buys grocery store tomatoes.

The soil affects the flavor, explains Jason Barrowcliff, executive chef at Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford. Compare it to grapes and coffee beans, which vary depending on where they’re grown. Discovering the differences appeals to consumers.

“People love tomatoes like they love oysters — they love the variety and different flavors,” says Barrowcliff, who once had 600 tomato plants, including Pork Chop, which yields yellow fruit for months. 

Bill Hoffman of The House of William & Merry gets tomatoes from multiple sources, including SIW, Coverdale Farm Preserve, Bright Spots Farm and friends and customers —not to mention his backyard. Photo courtesy Bill Hoffman

The public’s awareness has created a demand for diversity. SIW in Chadds Ford offers more than 50 tomato varieties, from the Brandywine to the Hawaiian Pineapple to the Black Pear. There are red, pink, green, striped, yellow and orange tomatoes. Some are fat and yielding, while others are firm and oblong.

While SIW’s offerings are extensive, multiple varieties are also available at farm stands throughout the area.

In addition to SIW, Hoffman shops at Bright Spots Farm, an urban agriculture program, and Coverdale Farm Preserve, part of the Delaware Nature Society. The Centreville Café is currently showcasing Coverdale’s tomatoes on sandwiches and in signature dishes.

Sometimes customers gift a chef with their bounty. For instance, William & Merry customers have brought Hoffman heirloom varieties. By definition, heirlooms must have originated at least 50 years ago, according to Burpee. The seed company compares heirlooms to prizewinning horses. Hearty hybrid tomatoes, meanwhile, are workhorse mules.

“Nobody messes with them; nobody modifies them,” Barrowcliff says of heirloom varieties. “You might clean out your grandfather’s tool shed and find seeds from 50 years ago that he saved — and they’re still able to produce.” 

Hoffman is fascinated by the heirloom culture. “There is this underground club for people who have these rare seeds, some of which they can trace back to the 1800s,” he says.

A Sweet or Savory Sensation

The varieties encourage chefs to experiment. For example, Hoffman has paired Cherokee Purple tomatoes with bluefin tuna. The rich, somewhat smoky flavor complements the fish. He’s also strained tomato juice through a filter for days to get a “pure elixir of tomato juice.” He mixed it with oyster juice, warmed it, and poured it over petite Raspberry Point fried oysters from Virginia. 

“It’s a beautiful light but focused flavor of tomatoes,” he explains.

For August, Robert Lhulier created a menu of tomato dishes at Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar. You might spot a yellow taxi tomato with watermelon, cherry tomato, Bulgarian feta, pickled red onion and chili lime.. Photo courtesy Snuff Mill

Softshell crabs benefit from a tomato vinaigrette that includes crab fat and other seasonings. 

“You name it, I’ve done it,” says Hoffman, who once organized a multicourse tomato dinner to raise money for charity.

As a solo caterer, Robert Lhulier — now executive chef at Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar in Brandywine Hundred — won raves for the multicourse tomato dinners he offered at summer’s end. For August, he crafted a limited menu of dishes featuring the “ripest, brightest tomatoes” for Snuff Mill’s clientele. 

Like Hoffman, there isn’t much that Lhulier has not done with tomatoes, including making dessert. Inspired by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the French chef, Lhulier once hollowed out a tomato and blended the pulp with quinoa, candied ginger and almonds. He then stuffed the tomato with the mixture, drizzled honey on top and baked it. The finishing sauce consisted of tomato juice, butter and honey.

Try This at Home

Home chefs don’t need to get as fancy. A salad, for instance, is an easy way to savor fresh tomatoes. Among the most popular is the caprese, made with tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, basil, olive oil and seasonings. (Some add balsamic vinegar.) Reportedly, the dish was invented by an Italian patriot at the close of World War I to salute his country’s red, white and green flag.

Panzanella, available at Ciro Food & Drink on the Wilmington Riverfront, is another Italian favorite. The Tuscan salad includes bread that soaks up the juices. Many people add kalamata olives.

Bill Hoffman at The House of William & Merry has dressed caramelized Berkshire pork belly and crispy East Coast oysters with tomato-oyster essence, bronze fennel-tomato salad and basil oil. Photo courtesy Bill Hoffman

Patrick Bradley, who oversees Jamestown Hospitality Group’s culinary operations, tosses tomatoes with watermelon and roasted jalapeno. Sometimes, he tops it with crabmeat. To add interest, he’ll use a variety of colored tomatoes.

“It becomes much more interesting a salad even though it’s simplistic,” says Bradley, who is often seen at Tonic Seafood & Steak and Park Café.

Lhulier would agree. He uses multiple colors to produce a mosaic on a sheet of puff pastry brushed with olive oil. On top, he sprinkles herbs, parmesan, sea salt and a drizzle of more olive oil. He recommends cooking the flatbread at high heat — up to 425 degrees — to keep the tomatoes from making the dough soggy. Bake until the crust is golden and the tomatoes are brown.

If you want to get back to basics, do like Bradley and eat a tomato like an apple. If the chef wants something more substantial, he’ll slap together a tomato sandwich. 

Alone or with bread, the tomato is Bradley’s madeleine (Proust’s symbol of the past that arises unintentionally.) And after trying the tomato sandwich, I can relate. 

“It’s almost a memory,” Bradley agrees. “It’s a summertime feeling, tasting a tomato at this time of year.”

In short, it’s a juicy bite of nostalgia.

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.

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