Craig LeHoullier is in his element among the potted vegetable jungle in his North Raleigh driveway.
Each tomato in LeHoullier’s hands sparks a story: the Speckled Roman with not just stripes but “tiger stripes,” the Dester tomato, which is “one of the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten,” the Viva Lindsey Kentucky Heirloom that was given as a wedding present. “To think of a tomato variety as a wedding present is really something,” LeHoullier says.
LeHoullier, known as the N.C. Tomato Man, has been spreading his heirloom tomato gospel for years. He’s responsible for naming and saving the Cherokee Purple tomato, as well as promoting other heirloom varieties, such as Mexican Midget and Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, and spearheading an effort to develop dozens of dwarf tomato varieties.
LeHoullier is also well-known for his annual Tomatopalooza tomato tasting events, which he organized in the Triangle for a decade.
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In the height of tomato season, it seemed appropriate to seek advice and recipe suggestions from LeHoullier on the best way to use and preserve this summer’s tomato bounty.
Late last year, LeHoullier, 59, turned his three decades’ worth of gardening and seed-saving experience into a book, “Epic Tomatoes.” The gardening book from Storey Publishing has gone into a second printing. LeHoullier has been traveling the country on a book tour, speaking at a Seed Savers Exchange conference and other gardener gatherings.
Standing in his driveway, holding a basket full of red, purple, pink and green tomatoes, LeHoullier says he hopes his efforts do more than bring in a bountiful crop.
“I grow a pretty cool garden,” LeHoullier said. “I’d be happy if I can grow some future gardeners.”
N.C. Tomato Man’s 4 ways with tomatoes
Craig LeHoullier shares his advice for four easy tomato preparations to enjoy now and later.
Make Salsa: Chop 1 green onion (both white and green parts) per each diced tomato. Add minced hot chile pepper, salt, pepper, olive oil and sherry vinegar to taste. Taste and adjust seasonings. LeHoullier likes to make what he calls “stoplight salsa” – using green tomatoes to make a mild salsa with the least amount of hot peppers, yellow tomatoes with medium heat and red tomatoes with the most heat. He likes to serve the salsa with nacho chips, spooned over grilled or sauteed fish or added to omelets.
Roasting: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Fill a large, deep roasting pan with quartered tomatoes, 1 peeled, chopped sweet onion, 1 chopped sweet red pepper (seeds, stem and ribs removed) and 1 peeled garlic clove. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and olive oil. Roast for two to three hours, stirring vegetables every 45 minutes, until roasted to the texture you prefer. This mixture can be frozen in zip-top plastic bags to use later. Serve with pasta and cheese, over steamed zucchini or as a layering sauce for eggplant Parmesan.
Freezing: Tomatoes can be washed and frozen whole with the skins on in zip-top plastic bags. Once out of the freezer and lightly defrosted, run water over whole tomatoes and the skins will crack and easily come off. Add to stews or soups, such as tortilla soup or tomato bisque.
Canning: Quartered tomatoes with the skins can be canned in glass canning jars using the boiling water method in quart jars. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons lemon juice per quart jar. Follow boiling water instructions on freshpreserving.com. LeHoullier uses his canned tomatoes to make the Farro Vegetarian Jambalaya recipe that he shared.
Heirloom tomato dinners
Craig LeHoullier is partnering with Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen for a five-course heirloom tomato dinner with wine pairings on Aug. 18. The dinner will be held at her new event space, Bridge Club, in downtown Raleigh. LeHoullier will be signing and selling copies of his book. Cost: $108.
Other restaurants with heirloom tomato events include:
▪ Piedmont in Durham, which is offering an ongoing three-course heirloom tomato tasting dinner Mondays thru Thursdays until tomato season ends. Piedmont is sourcing 55 different tomato varieties from its farm partner, Coon Rock Farm. Cost: $35 per person, $50 with wine pairings.
Info: 919-683-1213, piedmontrestaurant.com/events/
▪ Cary’s Whisk kitchen wares store and cooking school has an interactive heirloom tomato class with Jamie Dement, co-owner of Coon Rock Farm, at 2 p.m. Aug. 9. Cost: $59.
Info: 919-322-2458, whiskcarolina.com
▪ Primal Food and Spirits in Durham has a four-course tomato dinner with wine pairings at 7 p.m. July 29 and Aug. 12. Cost: $55.
Info: 919-248-3000, primalfoodandspirits.com/events/
Adapted by Craig LeHoullier from a Lidia Bastianich recipe.
1 pound (about 3 1/2 cups) Sungold or Black Cherry tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
1/3 cup whole almonds, lightly toasted
20 large fresh basil leaves
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more to taste
1 pound spaghetti
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano
Rinse the cherry tomatoes and basil leaves and pat them dry.
Drop the tomatoes into the blender jar or food processor bowl followed by garlic, almonds, basil leaves, red pepper flakes and salt. Blend for a minute or more to a fine puree; scrape down the bowl and blend again if any large bits or pieces have survived.
With the machine still running, pour in the olive oil in a steady stream, emulsifying the puree into a thick pesto. (You can add more depending upon how thick you like pesto.) Taste and adjust seasoning. (If you’re going dress the pasta within a couple of hours, leave the pesto at room temperature. Refrigerate if you’ll use it within two days, but let it return to room temperature before cooking the pasta.)
To cook the spaghetti, heat 6 quarts of water to the boil in the large pot. Scrape all the pesto into a big warm bowl.
Cook the spaghetti al dente, lift it from the cooking pot, drain briefly, and drop onto the pesto. Toss quickly to coat the spaghetti, sprinkle the cheese all over, and toss again. Serve immediately in warm bowls.
Yield: 3-4 servings.
From “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” by Craig LeHoullier (Storey Publishing, 2015).
12 heirloom tomatoes
1 leek or sweet onion, peeled
1 sweet pepper – stem, ribs and seeds removed
2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
12 basil leaves
Cherry tomatoes, halved, for garnish
Extra virgin olive oil, for garnish
Dice tomatoes, onion, cucumber and pepper and combine in a large bowl.
Add salt, pepper and vinegar to the vegetable mixture and let marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Add basil and puree in a food processor or blender.
Serve slightly chilled, with some colorful cherry tomatoes and a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.
Yield: 6-8 servings.
Farro Vegetarian Jambalaya
Adapted by Craig LeHoullier from an Emeril Lagasse recipe.
3 cups vegetable stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large sweet onion, peeled, diced
1 large sweet bell pepper, stems, ribs and seeds removed, diced
3 stalks celery, trimmed and diced
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup whole grain farro (or spelt), picked over for impurities and rinsed
4 cups (1 quart) diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon chile powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 large zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
Grated Parmesan cheese, to taste
In a medium saucepan, bring the vegetable stock to a simmer. Lower the heat to keep warm.
In a medium pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, pepper, celery and carrots and cook until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add farro to the pan and cook, stirring, until the faro is toasted and coated with oil, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf and thyme, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add 2 cups of the warm stock, salt, black pepper, chile powder and cayenne, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring, until the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding the stock, 2 cups at a time, as the previous addition is absorbed, cooking and stirring. After last 2 cups are added, add zucchini, peas and corn. Keep stirring until all the stock is absorbed and the grains are plump and tender.
Remove from the heat and discard the bay leaf. Stir in the parsley and adjust the seasoning, to taste. Serve immediately with Parmesan cheese.
Yield: 6 servings.