Tomatoes always remind me of summer.
Even the way they feel-warm, with a thin, cherry red skin ready to burst- brings me back to a fruit stand near Opp, Alabama; my Uncle Honey’s garden behind his house in Jackson; my mom’s tangled green fruits on a vine by our driveway, baking in the scorching summer sun.
But somehow, some way- tomatoes survive. The temperatures rise- and the crop rises with it. Things get wet- they get juicy. Stomachs are hungry- and we toast bread, smear it in mayonnaise, and cut them thick, grind out some salt and pepper, and call it lunch. Tomatoes are a hallmark of summer, survival, even; and a reward for untangling their vines, setting them straight, and diligently watering until they bloom.
Saturday was a banner day for the thriving tomato. My friend Deborah Stone of Stone Hollow Farmstead in Harpersville hosted The Alabama Tomato Festival, a day to celebrate all that was, and is, tomatoes in the South. A fantastic list of the best of local food vendors (Revelator, Birmingham Bread Works, The Pantry, Good People Brewing Company, Chef U, Day Spring Dairy and a plethora of amazing farmers) arrived, served, sweated, and braved a stray afternoon thunderstorm to share their love of nature’s fruit in all of its creative implications. One of my favorites- the tomato lemonade– was an aperitif for a slew of soups, ratatouille, and sheep’s cheese (see the image of Day Spring Dairy’s black pepper fresca atop some of the South’s finest).
Over 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, including the Green Zebra, one of my favorites and a Thomas Wagner Seeds original- spread like a symphony of color and flavor at the festival, beckoning visitors to sample a bite. Each’s own notes were a backdrop to the live music and speakers who shared similar passions, namely Chris Bennett, a forager, writer, chef- who has combed the open fields of Alabama for edibles he gifts to Birmingham’s best and brightest chefs.
I think the point with all of this, though- is just what The Tomato Festival preaches- that life in the South is good, y’all. Even when it is 115 degrees outside, and the storm winds are blowing, and we run to the barn for cover. There’s something special here, a knowing, a kindness, a comraderie. That just like the tomato, we will all make it through July and thrive- ripely ready for what comes next.
Grilled Tomato Salsa
This salsa is fantastic, and works best with fresh, ripe tomatoes. Heirloom varieties work really well here, so if you don’t have access to a local farmer, ask your grocery store what they offer. You might be surprised by what you find!
What You Will Need:
- Three large tomatoes, cut into thick slices (I got about three to four slices per tomato)
- 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil (plus more for drizzling)
- pinch or two of salt
- 1/2 avocado, cut into cubes (generous 1/4 cup)
- 1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves
- 1/4 cup red onion, diced
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ancho chili powder
3/4 tsp cumin
Juice of one half lime
What You Will Do:
1. Drizzle 1 teaspoon olive oil and a pinch or two of salt over the tomato slices. Sir to coat and let sit in large bowl for about ten minutes.
2. Heat grill pan to medium heat, and drizzle the pan lightly with olive oil. Grill tomato slices for about two minutes per side, or until grill marks appear and tomatoes are softened.
3. Transfer tomatoes to a food processor, and pulse until chunky (about 10 pulses).
4. Pour the tomato mixure back into your large bowl. Put avocado, cilantro, red onion, salt, chili powder, and cumin in a food processor and pulse until combined and no large leaves remain.
5. Add avocado mixture to tomato mixture. Squeeze half of lime over salsa and stir until all ingredients are combined. Ole!