I may be what produce marketers would call a hard case.
Growing up, I was a very picky eater — particularly resistant to produce — and it was not until fairly recently that I started trying new things.
That change may or may not coincide with my marriage to a professional cook, whose creativity and skill has led me to try many new things, including fresh tomatoes. Previously, I always picked the tomatoes out of my pizzas, burgers and salads. Something about them just bothered me.
About a month ago, he made a caprese salad with seasoned red and green heirloom tomatoes, set it in front of me and said, “Eat it … or else.”
Well, you don’t insult a cook, even if he is your husband. I ate the salad, tomatoes and all, and I liked it so much that I went back for seconds. I don’t know what he did, but all of a sudden, tomatoes were no longer an enemy.
Coincidentally, a few days later, I was invited to judge a tomato contest for NatureSweet in Denver. Before that caprese salad, I might have panicked. But with the memory of delicious heirlooms fresh in my mind, I thought, why not?
So when I arrived at King Soopers on Saturday, Sept. 7, I was eager to sample different tomatoes and see whether that salad was a fluke. I mingled with the robust crowd, watched the contestants cook for the Glorys Tomatoes Chef’s Challenge, and asked questions.
When it came time to judge, I was a little nervous. I had no specialized knowledge about flavor or texture or any metric by which to evaluate a tomato. I wasn’t even an average consumer with hundreds of tomatoes under her belt — literally.
To make matters worse, there were a record-busting 170 homegrown tomato entries. Coloradans are big on home- and locally grown. I was relieved to learn these entries would be narrowed down through brix testing, and we’d only have to eat three large and three small fruit.
Phew. The deep end wouldn’t be that deep.
As we judged dish after large tomato after small tomato, I peeked at the score sheet of co-judge and former Denver Bronco Billy Thompson. Was I at least near the target? Or were my taste buds out in left field?
I still don’t know, but this I do know — all the homegrown tomatoes we judged were delicious. They were light and juicy, flavorful and crunchy, or hearty and beefy.
I hadn’t known tomatoes could be so diverse.
And the cooked dishes were creative. The winner, created by Adrienne Hernandez, was a yellow pepper stuffed with a tomato and sausage blend with a sausage and basil sauce. It had a kick to it. It also had a stronger tomato flavor than the other dishes, which was an eye-opener for me — tomatoes can make a dish.
After the judging wrapped, I talked with home growers Linda Thomas, who won the large tomato category with her big boy variety, and Louise Yannutz, whose sun gold took first in small tomatoes.
They talked about home gardens, varieties, and best growing practices. I don’t have a home garden beyond the few scraggly potted herbs on our balcony, so I asked for advice about eating tomatoes.
Let them ripen on the vine,” Thomas told me. “Just enjoy the wonderful taste and quality of the tomato. Get creative and make new recipes or just plain with salt.”
Grow lots of basil to go with the tomatoes,” said Yannutz, who makes salsa, marinara sauce, ketchup, chutney and green tomato pickles with her tomatoes.
Thompson, the ex-Bronco, chipped in his own tidbit: “My favorite way was and still is just off the vine!”
For me, this moment epitomized the value of NatureSweet’s community event: connecting grower-shippers, home growers and cooks with each other and with regular consumers who may not know much about tomatoes. Like me.
Trying tomato-centric dishes and hearing so many people — including local celebrities — talk about how they love tomatoes fresh off the vine made an impact. What had I been missing out on during all these years of virulent tomato resistance, picking tomatoes out of my food?
The event also showcased how produce can be a family and community affair. Parents and children alike sampled NatureSweet’s recipes and watched the judging. And Thomas and Yannutz talked to me about gardening with their children and grandchildren, even as they greeted fellow growers and friends.
Events like NatureSweet’s are a wonderful way to capitalize on existing community bonds to increase awareness about choosing and eating produce, what’s happening on the local level, and how that can complement traditional retail offerings.
I hope to see more of these events in my area.
Until then, good thing one of my pots contains plenty of basil!