The Ripe Stuff

Local chefs revel in the bounty of their own gardens

Posted: August 23, 2007

DURING THESE last days of August, savoring the final flavors of summer is bittersweet. Gardens are at their zenith, offering a bounty of juicy tomatoes, fresh herbs, zesty peppers and boatloads of tender zucchini. With autumnal veggies just around the corner, the time to wring every drop of flavor out of the summer garden is right now.

When Christopher Lichtman was growing up, he spent many a long summer day at his grandfather's farm in Westville Grove, N.J. "I remember at the end of the summer, we'd have tomatoes everywhere. We'd make tomato jam, tomato soup, fried tomatoes, tomato casserole - and it was all delicious."

Lichtman, executive chef at City Grange in the Westin Philadelphia hotel, included his grandfather's favorite fried tomatoes on the new restaurant's menu.

"My grandfather was a huge source of inspiration to me," said Lichtman, who works with a co-op of 30 Lancaster farmers and purveyors to fuel City Grange's seasonal and sustainable menu. "I learned early on that when vegetables are at their ripest, they are going to taste best."

At the Marshalton Inn, four miles outside of West Chester, chef Brendan Dougherty works with nearby Linvilla Orchards, along with a handful of local farmers and foragers, to offer diners the best of the season, from plump blackberries and juicy peaches to sugar sweet ears of white and yellow corn.

Dougherty and owner David Cox, who was executive chef at Picholine and Artisanal Bistro in New York before moving south, also keep a garden behind the restaurant.

"Between what we grow, and what people bring to us, we're using all local produce," said Dougherty, who buys 40 pounds of tomatoes at a time from a farmer he calls the Tomato Man.

"Tomatoes are incredibly versatile," said Dougherty, who last worked at Lacroix. "Sure, they're great in a salad. But you can make a terrific jam in small batches - as the tomatoes are ripe. You don't have to can a big batch if you don't want to."

Kate Rapine, whose pocket-sized Pepper's Café in Ardmore serves fresh and seasonal Mediterranean-tinged dishes to a wide range of Main Line clientele, started gardening in earnest a few years ago. "My mom always grew flowers in our yard in Merion, and I did that too. But as the kids were getting older, I realized, I'm a chef, I need to be growing veggies!"

Rapine has experimented with heirloom tomatoes, colorful varieties of chard and stately stalks of Brussels sprouts in the past few years. "They are the coolest looking things, big stalks with a sprout at every leaf junction. I watch them get bigger all summer and cut the stalks to the ground at first frost. Then I caramelized them in olive oil, pancetta and chicken stock with a touch of balsamic vinegar, reduced down until the liquid evaporates. Yum."

Rapine makes a tasty and easy appetizer with hot cherry peppers, stuffing them with prosciutto and sharp Italian cheese and baking them until they literally bubble with flavor.

Pesto is ever present in her King of Prussia kitchen, made with different varieties of basil, as well as other herbs, including mint, which doubles as an excellent ingredient for mint juleps. "I wish I could grow bourbon . . . but haven't figured that one out yet," she joked.

A passion for vegetable gardening came late to David Anderson, culinary director for six area Iron Hill Breweries. Anderson and his wife bought her childhood home in Wallingford, clearing a few trees to let the sunshine in. For the first time in his 43 years, he planted neat rows of tomatoes, herbs, eggplant, sweet peppers and yellow squash.

"This is my first season, and I have five different kinds of tomatoes," he said. "I enslaved my children to help with the weeding. It's torture for them, but they do it."

Oven drying is one of Anderson's favorite ways to distill the very essence of tomato flavor - and make a dent in a bumper crop in the process. "Just slice the tomatoes on the thin side, lay them out on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, add salt and pepper, a little garlic if you like, and put them in the oven at a really low temperature, 150 or 175 degrees, for about six or seven hours.

"Store them in some olive oil in the fridge and use them in salads, with pasta, on bread. They're delicious."

London's chef Michael McNally gives tomatoes the same treatment at the restaurant, drying them in large baking sheets overnight.

"We also do a lot of pickling, making chutney or relish as an accompaniment to meats and cheese," he said.

Although he didn't have a garden growing up - McNally was raised on urban streets in North Philly and the Northeast - he remembers stopping on the way to Long Beach Island at the Red Top and Green Top farm stands on Route 70 every summer. "We'd always get tomatoes and peaches on the way to the shore."

To Patrice Rames, chef/owner of Patou and Bistro St. Tropez, the fruits of summer always take him back to his childhood.

"When I was living in France with my parents, I have vivid memories of my mother being exasperated by the green thumb of my father. He loved gardening, and when he planted tomatoes or string beans it was way too much for our family and friends to consume. So my mother and aunt had to pickle string beans, make tomato sauce, make jams. It was quite a job.

"We all got involved and helped - and when I look back, it was a nice way to spend family time, cleaning string beans and then drinking pastis."

As sweet as it is to savor summer fruits and veggies, the satisfaction of eating food the way it's meant to be eaten - ripe and freshly picked - is positively addicting. "There's something about walking through your own garden and picking a zucchini the size of your head, or dashing out in the pouring rain to pick herbs, that is just great," said Rapine. "It doesn't get better than that." *

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