Top tomatoes: Enjoy summer's bounty with these recipes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 20, 2008

By Bonnie S. Benwick
The Washington Post
Terrific recipes don’t often spring from a loaf of moldy bread, but this season’s best tomato dish did just that, 25 years ago.In fact, the readers who submitted the first-, second- and third-place entries in the Post Food section’s second annual Top Tomato recipe contest have something in common: They made the most of what was available.
As we did last year, we asked readers to submit easy, original creations with no more than 10 ingredients. More than 200 recipes came our way.
The recipes chosen for this special tomato issue, and the readers who sent them will receive organic cotton grocery tote bags announcing their authority as 2008 Top Tomatoes.
A hefty percentage of the recipes were for soups, sandwiches and pastas with basil. We tested dozens of them. Most were solid, yet nothing special.
– Mary Jo Sweeney’s ‘Mato Sammidges were an early standout. In 1983 the Crownsville, Md., resident and her husband, Dave Hoffman, both now retired U.S. Navy captains, were stationed apart, in San Diego and Monterey, Calif. The couple reunited on weekends; grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches were the plan for one particular day, using produce from the Monterey Farmers Market.
When Sweeney brought out the sourdough, she found it had gone bad. “I looked at those big tomatoes and wondered, ‘What if I were to slice and use them like sandwich bread halves instead? The filling could be cheese and bacon. Bacon’s good on anything.’ ”
To keep things in place, she drew on her Georgia fried-tomato roots, treating the tomato sandwiches to a flour-egg-bread-crumb coating and a turn in the skillet until they were golden brown outside but just warm inside. “They came out great,” Sweeney says. “We’ve been making them in the summertime ever since.”
Hoffman is responsible for the name: When he was a child, “sammidge” was as close as he could get to pronouncing “sandwich.” The term stuck as a family endearment. They serve ‘Mato Sammidges as a side dish with grilled meats and as a main course with a salad.
For many summers, the sandwiches have been a big hit with the midshipmen who come to the Sweeney and Hoffman home through the sponsor family program at the nearby U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. “We regularly feed eight to 10 of them every Saturday night through the academic year,” Sweeney says. They consume the sandwiches by the plateful even if they say they don’t like tomatoes.
The sandwiches net the Sweeneys top honors, with a $100 gift certificate from the Le Creuset store in Bethesda, Md., headed their way.
– Reston, Va., resident Andrea Okwesa likes to shop at her nearby Harris Teeter when she can swing past a shelf in the produce department where overripe tomatoes used to cost just 50 cents per pound (they’ve since gone up to 99 cents per pound). “I started noticing in the late spring,” she says. “I would call ahead to make sure they were there each week and then buy as many as I could get.”
Jamaican-born Okwesa says she has always loved to cook with tomatoes and onions, garlic and spices. “I put them all in my mother’s big old iron skillet” and came up with Andrea’s All-Purpose, All-Natural Thick ‘n’ Tasty Tomato Sauce. It’s chunky and luscious, good as a condiment and as an accompaniment for pasta.
On weekends, Okwesa makes batches for her husband and for some of her grown children to take back to their homes. “My grandbabies like it, too,” she says. The sauce earns her a signed copy of “The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table,” by Amy Goldman.
– Diane Leveglia of Waldorf, Md., has reprised a recipe her mother used to make on Fridays when Leveglia was growing up in northern New Jersey.
“We were Italian Catholics who couldn’t eat meat, and we hated fish,” she says, so Summer Garden Poached Eggs was the answer.
After Leveglia had picked plenty of zucchini and tomatoes from her garden this summer, she realized she had the makings of her mom’s economical meal.
“I told my husband that everyone else would be sending in salsa, so why not enter this?” (We did receive a few, it’s true.)
The vegetable combination is light and flavorful, with a gently poached egg and its runny yolk topping things off. Only trouble is, no one in Leveglia’s household will go near it. Her husband and grown sons say: You lost us at the egg.
“That’s why this win is even funnier,” she says. “I entered on a fluke, and look what happened.” Leveglia will receive a signed copy of “Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer,” by Tim Stark, in addition to bragging rights among her sisters, who also know the recipe.