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Straight Off the Vine

It's tomato season, and the possibilities are endless.
Monday Aug 10, 2009.     By
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Fresh tomato with pork belly and fresh herbs at <A HREF=/music/clubs/uncommon-ground-grace.html>Uncommon Ground</a>. Enjoy fresh tomato with pork belly and herbs at Uncommon Ground.
Ask any Midwestern foodie and they will tell you that buying a tomato out of season is committing one of the most grievous of culinary crimes. This is because, externally, your December Roma may appear to be the luscious, tempting tomato you remember from August. But, in fact, this winter tomato is an impostor getting by on its good looks. It's all skin and no substance, says Natalie Psister, farm director for Uncommon Ground's certified organic rooftop farm in Rogers Park.

When tomatoes ripen on the vine they are able to fully condense their sugars, making them sweet and tasty. But when tomatoes are shipped (like they are in the winter) they are pulled early off the vine and left to ripen, poorly, in trucks.

"We Americans want to believe there is no season for anything and our taste buds pay the price," she says.

This year, you have from August until the end of September to grab as many as you can. Thanks to cold weather (tomatoes like hot temps) and a wide-spread tomato blight, expect prices to be higher than normal, but still better than what you'll pay in January for a sub-par tomato.

Want to know where you can take advantage of the in-season tantalizing tomato? Check out these hot spots:

Uncommon Ground on Devon
While Psister recommends eating a good tomato in slices with a dash of salt and a hint of olive oil, Uncommon Ground serves up a meatier option. Try the pork belly BLT, which features two slices of fresh tomato beneath two cuts of pork belly garnished with herbs. The tomatoes are the perfect fodder for such dense meat.

You may see more versions of tomato on Uncommon Ground's menu than you'd ever heard of. That's because the rooftop farm grows 17 different varieties.

"Tomatoes are a huge category," she says. "There are thousands of tomatoes out there and they've been dumbed down to three."

Green Grocer Chicago
Green Grocer features a wide array of health foods and organic produce meant to serve the neighborhood and beyond. Owner Cassie Green offers up only the ripest locally grown tomatoes for your consumption. She recommends serving them on a piece of toasted crusty bread with homemade mayo, salt and pepper. She still carries tomatoes in the winter, but she will be honest about her opinion of them.

"I will flat out tell them it won't taste good," she says.

Green City Market
Green City is the market to beat all markets here in Chicago and possibly nationally. The produce here is local and fresh and you can actually talk to the farmers who grow your food. Ask any of the farmers selling tomatoes for advice on how to use and care for them. They are usually only too happy to tell you. If you're unable to can tomatoes yourself, you'll also find a lot of vendors here who have prepared fresh tomatoes in a variety of ways for you. Sauces, salsas and dips are all available for you to keep and enjoy through the winter.

Crust
This organic cafe and lounge pays great homage to the tomato with its salads and pizza sauces. For salads, choose from the caprese, with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, basil pesto and balsamic syrup or the organic farm salad with mixed greens, grape tomatoes, carrots, fresh herbs and red wine vinaigrette. Or try the margharita flatbread with organic tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, ricotta, olive oil and fresh basil.

Lake Side Cafe
One of the most tasty ways to celebrate the tomato is with a cool cup of gazpacho. Cold soups may hold some at bay, but for those truly interested in savoring the summery sustenance of a ripe tomato, this sassy soup is the way to go. Lake Side also makes its own marinara sauce and recently featured specials that focused on heirloom tomatoes.

Karyn's Raw and Karyn's Cooked
Perhaps the best way to eat a fresh tomato is raw. No one knows that better than Karyn's Raw, which features the tomato in so many ways it's tough to choose which one to indulge in. There's bruschetta and a wide variety of salads. In the mood for something cooked? Try the stuffed eggplant, with thin grilled eggplant stuffed with a homemade faux ricotta cheese and topped with marinara sauce.

 

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