Who knew that the Top Tomato recipe contest could serve as a metaphor for immersion in summer's red ripe fruit? Plant the seeds and wait. Yields vary from year to year, and roots of disappointment may curl around each remembered bite of a lackluster specimen. Sweet 100s and Sun Golds placate us.
Then, a single dissection provides the payoff: so many cavities and channels rich with seeds and gel, so much evocative aroma. Immediate eating is required, with all the satisfaction of a squishy snacking scene in "True Blood."
Yeah, testing tomato dishes by the dozens can get us in the mood.
The competition surged late this year to total 144 entries – the fewest since its inception in 2007. But we received some of our readers' most intriguing recipes to date, including a nonedible first: deer repellent.
As a result, we upped the final cut to 16. A solid four more could have qualified for honorable-mention status. Perhaps increasing the amount of allowed ingredients from 10 to 13 did the trick. Some of the dishes are innovative; some are family gems; some, combined with a sweet back story, were too good to pass up.
The culinary challenge of wowing 20-something family members propelled Sara Leibman to create her Frozen Fattoush, the Top Tomato 2013 winner. The Chevy Chase, Md., lawyer-turned-artist was informed, nicely, that gazpacho ennui had set in.
"I added things like tahini and Greek yogurt to give the mixture more substance," Leibman says. "I tried making a frozen gazpacho once, but it was a little icy and didn't have enough flavor."
This time, softened pita chips, mint and oregano went into the no-cook effort, chilled and then churned in an ice cream machine to form a creamy, coral-colored sorbet. Taking a cue from dishes made successful by layers of textures and complementary flavors, she adorned each serving with a crunchy blend of diced cucumber, feta and crushed pita chips, as well as a drizzle of pomegranate molasses.
Big thumbs up from her son, daughter, visiting nephew and niece.
Leibman, as well as her twin sister in San Francisco, inherited the recipe-inventing gene from their almost-84-year-old mother, Joan, who lives in Indianapolis. "We all tend to cook with what's in the house," Leibman says.
Not everything comes out right, though.
"My mother would sometimes ruin a dish – like sticking orange juice in a chocolate fondue. All of us remember it was a disaster," Leibman says. "Mostly, she's pretty good at it."
So is our winner. Figuring she might enter Frozen Fattoush in Top Tomato, she wrote the recipe as she put the dish together.
First try, first place. Leibman gets a $100 gift certificate to La Cuisine in Alexandria, Va.
Like Leibman, second-place winner Sandhya Babu is comfortable experimenting in the kitchen. Food by the Gaithersburg, Md., blogger (she writes Vegetarian Nirvana) has prompted friends to request cooking lessons. Several months ago, the loyal Washington Post Food section reader became a Post volunteer recipe tester.
We couldn't hold that against her, Top Tomato-wise.
"I have diligently entered every year since the contest began," Babu says, often submitting five recipes at a clip. But this time, she set out to create a single dish: "It's the opposite of how I usually cook."
A soup she enjoyed in mid-July at Toki Underground in D.C. inspired her Top Tomato Ramen.
"They used a mushroom-based broth, deeply flavored, with a nori garnish," Babu says. "I came home and only made [my entry] twice. You know how they say it's the umami that makes the difference? I wanted the strength of tomato flavor to come through, so I used white miso in a tomato-based broth."
Something was missing, even with the fermented Korean chili paste called gochujang, shiitake mushrooms, noodles and nori in play.
Last-minute drops of "sesame oil, my 13th ingredient, gave it the powerful background taste it needed," she says. Babu's family liked the soup. They didn't love it. She sent in the recipe, anyway.
Tasting once everything has been added is her preferred practice, rather than trying a spoonful or two along the way. The Chennai, India, native says she thinks it's a cultural difference between her world of cooking and the Western way. "The balance will be there."
Babu's soup earns her a $50 gift certificate to La Cuisine.
There is balance but a mere three ingredients in Mama's Tomato Preserves, the third-place winner, sent in by Frances O. Pyles. Lemons and sugar provide the yin-yang in a condiment that is especially luscious and sunny when all-yellow tomatoes are used.
The recipe is third-generation, says the 78-year-old Easton, Md., resident, who comes from a family of avowed tomato lovers.
"We never had to use Sure-Jell or anything" to make the preserves set, she says, remembering that she ate them mostly on bread. She figures they'd be lovely spooned over ice cream, too.
She has Early Girls and Big Boys going in pots, but it has been a while since Pyles has done any canning. "I don't know why," she says. "But I was so sure of [the recipe] that I didn't even make it before I sent it in."
Pyles will receive a collection of new cookbooks. Signed copies of "The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers' Favorite Recipes" and a reusable Washington Post Food section grocery bag are making their way to all the winners and finalists.
First place: Frozen Fattoush
From Sara Leibman: "Tomato season in the D.C. area is way too short, and I don't want to miss any of it. As soon as the local red beefsteaks and Better Boys hit the farm stands, I start buying them by the bushel. And while it's lovely to take a homemade soup or sauce out of the freezer in February, nothing compares to fresh tomatoes in the height of the season.
"The problem is, our family and friends can eat only so many Caprese salads, gazpachos and salsas before rebelling. So my goal has been to come up with a new tomato recipe every year. Sometimes they are delicious, and sometimes they are just 'interesting.' This year, I have turned one of my favorite salads – fattoush – into something truly unique."
3 large tomatoes, cored and chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup coarsely crushed plain baked pita chips
3/4 cup chopped fresh mint
2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons tahini
6 ounces low-fat plain Greek yogurt
2 Persian cucumbers, peeled and diced
6 ounces fresh feta cheese, diced
Pomegranate molasses, for garnish (may substitute fig balsamic vinegar)
Combine the tomatoes, half of the oil, the lemon juice, half of the pita chips, 1/2 cup of the mint, 1 teaspoon of the oregano and 2 teaspoons of the salt in a mixing bowl. Let the mixture sit until the pita chips and oregano have softened, about 30 minutes.
Transfer to a blender, along with the sugar, tahini and yogurt. Puree until smooth. Press through a fine-mesh strainer into a container with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to a day.
Stir in the remaining 1/4 cup of mint. Transfer to an ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer's directions to make the frozen fattoush (a sorbet).
Meanwhile, combine the cucumbers, the feta and the remaining 1/4 cup of oil, teaspoon of oregano and teaspoon of salt in a medium bowl, stirring to incorporate. Let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.
Divide small scoops of the frozen fattoush among individual bowls or dishes. Top each scoop with a few tablespoons of the cucumber-feta mixture, then sprinkle with the remaining crushed pita chips. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses. Serve right away.
Nutrition ingredients are too varied for a meaningful analysis.
Second place: Top Tomato Ramen
From Sandhya Babu: "I was recently at Toki Underground (in D.C.) and had their mushroom broth noodle bowl (vegan), which was dynamite. I began to think on the lines of a tomato broth ramen."
You'll need a food mill for this recipe.
For the tofu and mushrooms
2 ounces firm tofu, drained and cut into four equal pieces
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 sheets nori (a sheet measures 7 1/2 by 8 inches)
1/4 cup water
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and cut into 1/4-inch-wide slices
For the broth and noodles
2 to 2 1/2 cups water
2 pounds (about 6 medium) ripe red tomatoes, hulled
2 1/2 tablespoons white miso
1 1/2 tablespoons gochujang (fermented Korean chili paste; available at Asian markets)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
Dried ramen noodles from two 3-ounce packages (do not use the flavor packets)
2 red radishes, sliced thinly, preferably using a mandoline
A few drops toasted sesame oil, for garnish
For the tofu and mushrooms: Place the tofu in a small bowl.
Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, 1/2 sheet of nori (torn into a few pieces) and the water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then pour half of the mixture over the tofu, which will marinate while you're making the rest of the dish.
Immediately add the mushrooms to the remaining soy sauce mixture in the saucepan; once the mixture returns to a boil, reduce the heat to low and cook for a few minutes. Remove from the heat; the mushrooms will pickle while you make the broth and cook the noodles.
During this period, turn the tofu over a few times so all sides can absorb the soy sauce mixture in the bowl.
For the broth and noodles: Heat 1/2 cup of the water in a large skillet or saucepan over medium heat. Arrange the tomatoes top side down in the skillet. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook for 15 minutes, so the tomatoes soften, using tongs to turn them over halfway through.
Working in batches, transfer the tomatoes and the water in the skillet to a food mill placed inside a large mixing bowl. Process to yield 4 to 4 1/2 cups of liquid. Pour enough of the remaining water through the food mill (extracting more tomato flavor) to yield a total of 6 cups of broth. Discard the solids from the food mill.
Transfer the broth to a large saucepan. Stir in the white miso, gochujang and sugar; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook while you assemble the noodle bowls.
Prepare the noodles according to the package directions (without the flavor packets), making sure the noodles are a bit on the firm side. Drain, and rinse with cool water. Fill the same noodle pot with a few inches of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Meanwhile, place a piece of the pickled tofu in each individual bowl, discarding any remaining marinade. Add equal portions of radish slices, then pour equal amounts of broth in each bowl.
Use tongs to briefly dip the cooked ramen noodles into the boiling water to warm them up, then divide them among the bowls of broth, arranging them on one side of each bowl.
Strain the pickled mushrooms and arrange them on the opposite side of each bowl, discarding the nori and reserving the strained marinade. Add a drop or two of sesame oil to each bowl, stirring it in.
Fold the remaining nori sheet in half. Use scissors to cut it into thin strips, then divide them evenly among the bowls.
Serve hot, with the reserved strained marinade on the side.
Nutrition ingredients are too varied for a meaningful analysis.
Third place: Mama's Tomato Preserves
Makes 8 1/2 to 9 cups (a generous 2 to 2 1/4 quarts)
From Easton, Md., resident Frances O. Pyles: "This is a family recipe, passed down in my family for years." Using yellow tomatoes and lemons makes for a sweet-tart, sunny condiment.
MAKE AHEAD: The preserves can be frozen in freezer-safe zip-top bags for up to 3 months. If you use yellow tomatoes, we do not recommend water-bath canning (due to reduced acidity).
About 9 pounds ripe yellow tomatoes (about 15 large; may substitute red ripe tomatoes or a combination of yellow and red)
3 large lemons, seeded and cut crosswise into very thin slices
4 cups sugar
Bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. Score an X in the bottom of each tomato. Working in batches, drop them into the boiling water to loosen the skins. When they are cool enough to handle, peel and discard the skins.
Place a flexible cutting board inside a rimmed baking sheet; this will help corral the tomatoes and their juices. Chop the peeled tomatoes into small pieces (including the gel and seeds) and transfer to a large colander seated inside a mixing bowl. Press on the tomato pulp to extract as much juice as possible; reserve the juice, if desired, for another use. There should be about 8 cups of pulp.
Transfer the pulp to a large pot along with the seeded lemon slices. Cook (uncovered) over medium-low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally; the lemon slices should be quite soft. Stir in the sugar, making sure it has dissolved. Cook uncovered for 15 minutes; the preserves may be a little loose.
Cool completely, then transfer to zip-top bags for freezing, pressing to extract as much air as possible before sealing.
Nutrition per tablespoon (based on 9 cups): 25 calories, 0 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar.