Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Michael Nagrant on Winter Tomatoes

I was encouraged to see criticism of the use of fresh tomatoes in December by Michael Nagrant over on New City.  Just as I feel like we should celebrate those who go out of their way to serve and support local farms in the summer, I am pleased to see that critics are tuned into misplaced tomatoes in the winter.  Read his post here.  While he is writing about a restaurant that has aspirations of and a pedigree that predicts greatness, his comments ring true at for so many spots that I think they are worth sharing. 

You might also look at his post on the Dill Pickle Coop that just opened in Lincoln Square.  Congrats to all the Coop members who have made this project happen!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bye Bye BLTs!

As the days get cooler, fall approaches and the end of the first annual BLT Bonanza is upon us! Tomorrow will be your last chance to snag one of these tasty treats from most of the participating restaurants-- that is, except for Uncommon Ground. They will keep serving their awesome BLT as long as their rooftop gardens keep producing heirloom tomatoes.
We'd also like to send out a huge thanks to all those restaurants who decided to put their resources toward an important cause and join the Bonanza! They have helped us start what will hopefully become a tradition, supporting and endorsing healthy, eco-friendly and obviously delicious local produce that's available in Chicago. We could not have done it without them.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bonanza from the Blogosphere

With the help of, I searched around to see what variations on the BLT have been making their way around the foodie world. Here were some of the most interesting.

Some were semi-traditional sandwiches:

The BLAST (Bacon, Lettuce, Avocado, Shrimp, Tomato)

The Classic

The Fried Green Option:

Some were veg-friendly:

The TMT (Tempeh, Matche, Tomato):

Some interesting tomato-less (boo!) ones for those who've been victims of blight:

Is That Watermelon?

Plums and Bacon!!

And some did away with the sandwich idea entirely:

Savory BLT Cheddar Pancakes

BLT Salad

Here is the full list of results. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

TomatoFest on Vocalo

This morning, our very own Damien Casten was interviewed at, WBEZ's sister station! He discusses all things tomato-related, especially the Second Annual TomatoFest Potluck Supper this Thursday afternoon at the Honey Coop! Please click here for details and to buy tickets.

Damien's segment is available online! Give it a listen here.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Back to Basics: The Beginner's Guide to Heirloom Tomatoes

I distinctly recall the very first time I tasted an heirloom tomato. It happened a couple summers ago on Frog Holler organic farm outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where occasionally volunteering to help snip salad greens and thin carrots sometimes earned me a free meal. One warm July day, lunch featured a reddish gold, pumpkin-fat heirloom behemoth, fresh from the tomato field. I was taken aback by its incredible shape and color. Though I don’t know the variety of heirloom we ate that day, I remember its perfect balance of tart and sweet flavor, rich juiciness and tender flesh. All the other tomatoes I’d eaten in my life suddenly didn’t compare. I was hooked—but I had no idea why these mysterious heirlooms were so good.

The farmer explained that they were open-pollinated, that is, pollinated by natural means (wind, insects, etc.) and allowed to develop without genetic engineering or controlled modifications. As a result, the daughters of an open pollinated plant are always slightly genetically different from the parent and, naturally, promoting biodiversity. Despite genetic evolution, his hefty fruit had more in common with the tomatoes eaten a hundred years ago than the supermarket kind I’d been eating all my life.

However, heirloom tomatoes do have traits that make them challenging to grow, especially for commercial farmers. For instance, they often take longer to ripen, are more susceptible to blight and disease, are difficult to stake and keep organized in the field, and, once ripe, don’t last very long. Nonetheless, maintaining the correct conditions (and growing heirlooms that are suited to the local climate) makes all the difference for these sensitive fruits, which make up for any difficulties in their exceptional quality and contribution to biodiversity.

Genetically modified tomatoes, the ones found in standard produce sections across America, have been bred to avoid these undesirable traits: they are often smaller than the irregular, bulbous heirlooms, and rarely have any of the beautiful heirloom variation in color. The standard coloring and sizing make them easily recognizable for the supermarket shopper, simplifying their sale. Genetically modified tomatoes are also bred for durability, with thicker skin and harder, drier flesh for easy transportation, avoiding crushing or bruising. Convenient though they may be, these tomatoes are nearly unrecognizable shadows of their ancient ancestors when it comes to taste and texture.

There are some heirloom varieties that have been preserved for many years by preventing cross-pollinating with other varieties. These are the tried and true tastiest, ones that people know and love, and continue growing year after year. I decided to give some of these famous varieties a try, and visited the Green City Market last week to stock up on as many as I could. Thanks to Nichols, Kinnikinnick and Green Acres farms, I conducted a taste test, to see if the differences between heirloom varieties were noticeable to an untrained palate. The results were pretty incredible—each fruit definitely had a specific consistency and flavor. Here they are, for your information and complete with gorgeous photographs by Julia V. Hendrickson!

Cherokee Purple: This dark fatty was tender and juicy, with a subtly sweet, earthy flavor. It’s evidently one of the strongest heirlooms as far as susceptibility to blight and disease. The origins of this variety are indicated by its name—it is said to have been grown and preserved by the Cherokee nation hundreds of years ago. The color is an incredible dusky purple and has that classic heirloom shape. 8-9 in. diameter.

Amish Paste: A weirdly named variety, this bright red fruit was curiously elongated. It was not the best one eaten fresh (which was how I sampled it) but a fellow tomato enthusiast at the GCM said they are great for canning and making sauces. I could definitely see that—the consistency was a little harder than some of the other tomatoes we tried, but the flavor was bright and delicious. 5 in. in length, 3 in. wide.

Green Zebra: True to its name, this tomato is bright green with fair yellow stripes when ripe. It is very juicy, though not as tender as the larger heirlooms we tasted. It has a really bright, lemony flavor (one tester compared it to the taste of kiwi). This is the variety currently being used by chef Mark Mendez in his BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato) sandwich at Carnivale! 3 in. diameter.

Brandywine Pink: This was probably the most beautiful of all the tomatoes in the taste test. It was a fair pink with green tinges on the “shoulders.” Unfortunately, this one wasn’t quite ripe, and didn’t have the flavor I’d hoped for. After reading up on it, I learned that the Brandywines in general are some of the most beloved heirlooms, and the pink seems to be especially popular. It’s said to be one of the oldest Brandywine varieties with a complex, rich and sweet flavor. Make sure it’s pretty soft before you taste it, to be sure that it’s ripe! 7-8 in. diameter.

Nyagous: This was another strangely dark tomato, about the same size and spherical shape of the Green Zebra, but similar in color to the Cherokee Purple. It had a similar flavor to the Purple, but a not as sweet and rich. Apparently, this variety was introduced from Russia several decades ago. There were two Nyagous varieties that we sampled here: the Russian Black and a mysterious, unnamed second one with reddish skin and green striations on the sides. They tasted identical. 3 in. diameter.

Black Cherry: These little cherries were unbelievably delicious. They had an earthy, rich flavor that tended to be sour, rather than sweet. About the size of an average cherry tomato, they would be incredibly good in any salad. 1 in. diameter.

Red Pear: These were the most precious tomatoes I’d ever seen. They looked like little gnomes, perfectly pear-shaped and leaning against each other for the pictures we took. They were sweet and juicy and brightly reddish orange. 1 in. length, .5 in width.

Striped German: This tomato was by far my favorite out of the bunch. It was another thick, juicy monster, with tender flesh and beautiful orange to red color. What shocked me about this tomato, grown by Green Acres farms and affectionately referred to by the sales people as “Mr. Stripey,” was its sweetness. At times, this was more like eating a ripe peach than a tomato. I ended up dismissing the salt, pepper and olive oil with which we’d been sampling the others, and eating it plain. It was delicious. 8-9 in. diameter.

If you don’t get the chance to hit up your local farmer’s market to taste test these guys on your own, attend and participate in the Second Annual TomatoFest Potluck Supper on September 10th at the Honey Coop! Click here for details on this lovely, family-friendly event!

The Amish Paste

Cherokee Purple

The Brandywine Pink

The Green Zebra and Black Cherries

Red Pears

Striped German

The Nyagous variety, with some light mozzarella and homegrown basil.

A beautiful assortment (clockwise from bottom left): Brandywine Pink, Cherokee Purple, Striped German, Black Cherries, Big Beef, Green Zebra, Nyagous, and the little Red Pears!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Uncommonly delicious

I went over to Uncommon Ground tonight to sample their tasty Uncommon BLT appetizer!

Here it is, two perfectly toasted pieces of bread with homemade herb aioli, crispy organic pork belly, two thick slabs of heirloom tomato and a little heap of unbelievably fresh herbs (basil, parsley and chives, I think) on top. The flavors complemented each other so perfectly-- the richness of the pork belly and the aioli was well balanced with the bright, fresh tomatoes and herbs. It was exactly what I was hoping for on a nice summer night!

My first bite.. carefully including every ingredient! (Those are their sweet potato fries in the background, served with goat cheese fondue-- also worth a taste.)

I'm a proud member of the BLT clean plate club.

This BLT app. is available for $10 on the dinner menu at Uncommon Ground. It is very good-- especially when paired with one of their unique cocktails, like the zippy Palmer on the Porch (Ginger-infused vodka, flowering fruit iced tea and lemonade). Check it out!

Second Annual TomatoFest Potluck Supper!

In conjunction with the HoneyCoop, Slow Food Chicago and Candid Wines, TomatoFest is pleased to announce the speedily approaching second annual Potluck Supper! This event will celebrate the end of tomato season, and help you use up all the tomatoes from the seedling heirlooms you bought from Candid Wines and Uncommon Ground earlier this year. We invite everyone and anyone to come and bring their favorite dish (tomato-centric or not). There will be organic wine from Candid Wines, Goose Island craft beer, fun events, nice people and lots of delicious, home-cooked food!

Where: Chicago HoneyCoop, 3740 W. Fillmore
When: September 10th
Tickets: $10 for HoneyCoop or Slow Food Chicago members, $15 for non-members. They can be purchased here. (All proceeds will benefit Slow Food Chicago.) Children under 10 get in free!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tomato-Fennel Sauce for February

I met Jenny Borchardt at a New Year's Day party this year. We connected over a bit of aged Foie Gras, and I have to admit that I paid far too little attention to the fact that she and her husband are organic farmers up in Wisconsin. Happily, we reconnected recently at the Uncommon Ground Farmer's Market where she had all of her wares on display. Holy cow, Harvest Moon, in just its second full year, is a serious farm. Their produce is stunning in appearance and flavor and I can not recommend a share in their CSA highly enough.

Imagine my delight when at the end of Friday's market Jenny asked what I'd like to take home for myself, and then proceeded to fill a massive box with onions, fennel, peppers, a melon, leeks and some of her Amish neighbor's pickles. In the few moments that Jenny's generous hands needed to fill the box, my Saturday plans crystallized in my mind. It's time to make a Tomato Sauce to freeze for the coming winter.

Tomato - Fennel Sauce,
featuring organic onion and fennel from Harvest Moon and tomatoes from my garden.

I used smaller tomatoes that I have in abundance right now. Principe de Borghese, Thai Pink Egg, and Pearly Pink are featured.

The juice and seeds are seperated to control the level of liquid in the sauce.

Onions from Harvest Moon. 1.5 lbs each!

Fennel seed, fresh from a plant outside. At this stage, they are full of bright flavor and will add some nice oils to the base of the sauce.

We roasted the flesh of the tomatoes on a bed of fennel fronds. I am not convinced that this adds lots of flavor, but it keeps the fruit off the hot pan, making for easier extraction. Plus, it's beautiful and it smells good.

Did I mention that it smells good?

The juice from the tomatoes is strained and poured into the caramelized onions.

The blended onions, tomato juice, and fennel seeds meet the roasted tomatoes.

A quick saute of rough chopped fennel and some more tomatoes.

I intentionally kept the pieces large. I want big bites of bright summer flavors when I eat this over the winter, and rustic style seemed appropriate. I am thinking this might go over some roasted chicken. Perhaps Jenny's neighbor, who also does eggs, will have some for me at that point.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Socca's B.L.H.T is here!

Socca launches the Bacon, Lettuce, and Heirloom Tomato Pizza! Nice work, Roger!

Socca has a thriving fan community on Facebook. Find them here.

Pizzeria Via Stato BLT Sales increase 830%

With the arrival of locally grown heirloom tomatoes and their delicious use of Slagel Farms bacon, Pizzeria Via Stato has seen sales of their BLT lunch special increase by 830% since the Old School BLT Bonanza began as compared to average sales of their BLT in July.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Carnivale's BLAT in pictures

Becker lane organic pork belly, Spring Valley Green Zebra Tomatoes, Kinnikinnick Farms oragnic Arugula, and avocado all for $10? I think I have a man crush of Chef Mark Mendez of Carnivale...

Up close:

A tour of the kitchen revealed 200 lbs of local tomatoes:

Including these beauties:

The menu:

As I left, Chef Mendez said he was psyched to be part of the event because "I am a freak about tomatoes". Holding a box of Klug Farm blackberries, which he identified as being "ridunkulous" he added "Well, I am a freak about a lot of things". Indeed. Thanks for a great addition to the lunch time offerings of our Old School Blt Bonanza.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Spotlight on Uncommon Ground

Chef Brian Millman over at Uncommon Ground has taken it upon himself to create two BLT variations for the Bonanza-- both featuring crispy braised pork belly from Slagel Family Farm! The $13 Uncommon BLT is a delicious sounding sandwich available for lunch, using heirloom tomatoes from their very own rooftop gardens or Harvest Moon Organics, and put together with Green Acres arugula, herb aioli and sourdough bread! For dinner, a tasty $10 BLT appetizer is available, made with that crispy pork belly, heirloom tomatoes, herb salad, crostini and e.v. olive oil. Delicious and accessible. Sounds phenomenal to me.

Plan Your Meals Accordingly

A huge shout out to Heather Sperling, over at The Tasting Table Chicago, who put together a fabulous BLT Bonanza Map with her great article on the event! Check it out!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Spotlight on Cafe Spiaggia: Double the BLT Deliciousness

Chef Sarah Grueneberg has truly risen to the TomatoFest challenge, serving two wonderful variations on the BLT at Café Spiaggia. The first is a lunchtime BLT pizza-- or rather, a PLT, with the P standing for house-made pancetta. The pork is tastily organic, hailing from Becker Lane Organic Farm in Iowa. Those irresistible heirlooms (cherokee purples, sungold cherries, orange blossoms and black princes) come from Nichols Farm. For dinner, Grueneberg will bust out the PLT crostini, featuring Capriole goat cheese and arugula.
I, for one, cannot wait to try these treats out. Congratulations to Chef Grueneberg: creator of the BLT Bonanza double feature!

Monday, August 17, 2009

And our poster contest winner is...

"The Plant" Congratulations to Emily and Paul, over at PoppySeed Heroes. If you are looking for young artistic talent to design a logo, a tshirt, or perhaps paint a potrait of you for your mantle piece, we bet they can do something clever. Come to think of it, if you are interested in a portrait for your own mantle piece, you might want to head somewhere else. These folks are far too down to earth for you, but I digress.

Thanks to everyone who submitted posters!

Look for "The Plant" at restaurants participating in our Old School BLT Bonanza!

Eat Old School BLT's & Win Free Wine!

Ladies and gentlemen, start your stomachs and bring your camera phones...

Beginning today and going until September 20th, some of the best area restaurants are featuring Old School BLT's. Snap a picture of your favorite and you might win a free bottle of wine from Candid Wines and The Green Grocer Chicago! We are giving away 1 bottle to the first person who tweets a picture of an Old School BLT, and another chosen at random at the end of the week. Get moving!

Need a high class, but affordable business lunch? Head over to Blackbird for a sandwich at the bar from Executive Chef Mike Sheerin. It will be cheaper than you think, but just as good as you hope. Want to enjoy great views of the city? Take the elevator up to Sixteen in the Trump Tower for Chef Frank Brunacci's sandwich, or go all the way up to The Signature Room at the 95th in the Hancock Tower for Chef Patrick Sheerin's take. (Chef Pat and Chef Mike are brothers, our only fraternal pairing). Need a few sandwiches for an office party? Green Grocer Chicago is offering City Provisions' Old School BLT's to go, and the list goes on, including Cafe Spiaggia, Carnivale, Webster's Wine Bar, Osteria Via Stato, The Gage, Publican, Avec, Socca, Lockwood, and more coming soon.

We want to know what you are eating and where, and we'll give one luck winner a bottle of wine. Simply photograph your Old School BLT at one of the participating restaurants and Tweet, mentioning the farm that grew the tomatoes, the restaurant, and @tomatofest. One winner will be chosen at random on Friday afternoon, and you can select any bottle of Candid Wines currently in stock at the Green Grocer Chicago!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

BLT TwitPic Contest!

Tomorrow is the big day-- the very first in a month of Old School BLTs!

To celebrate, Damien has cleverly offered a bottle of some excellent wine from Candid Wines to one lucky winner of the BLT TwitPic contest. Simply visit one of the participating restaurants, order that BLT, snap a photo of it from your trusty camera phone and tweet it with "@tomatofest" in your text. The winner will be chosen at random.

Looking forward to seeing you all enjoying those tasty sandwiches!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Old School BLT Poster Contest Finalists

Help us select the winner of our poster contest. Some creative and cool entries came into Chicago TomatoFest headquarters from art students around the city, and we have selected two finalists. Both posters might be tweaked, but we want your opinion as to which artist should be the winner of the First Annual Chicago TomatoFest Poster Contest Winner! Please leave comments below to help us decide.

Our first finalist is a collaboration between Chicago based artists Emily Szopa and Paul Slayton. There is something about the bright colors and folksy feel they have evoked that seems to scream "grow something!"

Finalist # 1 : The Plant

Our second finalist is from freelance artist Debi Nafis ( Look carefully at this one. We found it creative and rich in texture, and we loved the subtle inclusion of the Chicago skyline. Well played!

Finalist # 2 : The Sandwich

So what do you think? Please tell us quickly as we are deciding by Sunday, August 14th at noon.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sixteen's Frank Brunacci joins bonanza fun!

Yes, it looks like Chef Frank Brunacci of Sixteen is also a BLT fan and has signed up to participate in the Bonanza! In this interview, Australian-born Brunacci says, "Chicago, to put it bluntly, is definitely in the top three in the country for dining. Chicago has got the cosmopolitan aura of San Francisco but the sophistication and city life of New York, with a Midwest mentality... I’ve been in the United States for 10 years, and this is my seventh state, and it is the first time I’ve felt at home since I’ve been here." A great observation-- I agree that the grounded, Midwestern attitude is wonderful to encounter in an urban space (especially when you're a Chicago newbie, like I am!). And what better way to repay the city's kindness than to help promote local agriculture?
Welcome aboard Chicago TomatoFest, Chef!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

BLT Bonanza Poster Contest

Calling all burgeoning artists: Chicago TomatoFest needs your help!

We invite you, local design student/art enthusiast/amateur photoshop whiz, to create our official Old School BLT Bonanza poster. The winning poster will be put up in some of the finest restaurants around the city to indicate their participation in this event. The winning designer will have their name on the press release and opportunities for future freelance jobs, too.
It is important to the participating restaurants that the poster looks clean and sophisticated. Chicago TomatoFest would like it to evoke fresh food, health, sun, summertime, sustainable/local agriculture and the space of Chicago. Please read our mission statement for a better idea of our perspective!
The logos of our partners, Slow Food Chicago and WBEZ's sister station Vocalo should also be incorporated into the design as well. Vocalo is more liberal with the use of their logo, so it can be adapted for the poster, but Slow Food has asked us not to change theirs at all. The logos are:

The Vocalo representation can just be the :V part of the logo.

Posters must be submitted in PDF format and emailed to by Friday August 14!

Text that must be included:

Chicago TomatoFest’s Old School BLT Bonanza

This restaurant is a proud participant in Chicago Tomatofest’s Old School BLT Bonanza, Slow Food Chicago’s celebration of heirloom tomatoes and the people who grow, cook and eat them. Check the menu for a unique variation on the classic American BLT, featuring produce from farms near you.

August 17th-September 20th

For more information, including a list of other fine restaurants participating, please visit:

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Gage and Carnivale sign up for the BLT Bonanza!

It's our pleasure to announce that Mark Mendez of Carnivale and Dirk Flanigan of The Gage have agreed to participate in the Old School BLT Bonanza as well! They are also on the 312 Dining Diva's list of favorite local restaurants. We welcome them to our quickly growing list of BLTers and can't wait to taste their dishes.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Phillip Foss & Lockwood join the BLT Bonanza

We asked the 312 Dining Diva to name a dozen chefs that had to be part of anything as fun as our BLT Bonanza and she gave us some of the best in town. The first results are in and we are thrilled to announce that Phillip Foss of Lockwood is joining forces with Chicago TomatoFest.

We can't wait to see which farms he'll use, which varieites of heirlooms he favors, and of course, what he'll create as a BLT.

Chef Foss has a wonderful blog over at : Check him out! The restaurant is here:

Harvest Time! (For Chefs' Pledges)

The tomatoes are coming! Chefs who are considering signing our pledge should do so asap to ensure a spot in our outreach, including email blasts to 3500 + Chicago foodies next week. Join Roger Herring of Socca, Pat Sheerin of the Signature Room on the 95, Chef David DiGregorio at Osteria Via Stato, and Paul Kahan, among others for the Old School BLT Bonanza. Here's the pledge chefs have to sign:

Chicago TomatoFest 2009


The Old School BLT Bonanza

August 17th to September 20th 2009

In conjunction with the Chicago TomatoFest, we are seeking Chicagoland restaurateurs who will present their own unique take on the classic BLT sandwich, featuring Heirloom and Ark Varieties of tomatoes and pigs, if the chef chooses to use Bacon. Our restaurant partners will agree to promote the local farmers and the varieties they grow in an effort to increase the general public’s awareness of the local bounty we enjoy here in Illinois. To participate, sign this pledge:

The Chef’s Pledge:

From August 17th to September 20th, the height of the 2009 local tomato season, my restaurant will serve our take on the BLT Sandwich as part of Chicago TomatoFest's BLT Bonanza. I agree to the following:

1) I will feature locally grown heirloom tomatoes in my BLT. My staff and I will communicate to our customers the names of the varieties we have selected and the farmer or farmers who grow them. If I do not have enough local heirlooms, I will not offer the special.

2) If I decide to use bacon in my BLT, I will use locally grown pork, ideally from a heritage and / or Slow Food Ark of Taste breed. My staff and I will communicate to our customers the variety we have selected and the farmer or farmers who grew the pork we will serve.

3) If and when I am contacted by local media, I will do my best to explain the meaning of heirlooms and to promote the local farmers from whom I am buying the ingredients for my BLT.

Chef’s Name: _________________ Restaurant (s) Name (s): __________________________________

In recognition of restaurants’ efforts, Chicago TomatoFest’s Sponsors, Slow Food Chicago, Candid Wines, and The Chicago Honey Coop, agree in turn to promote the event and the participating restaurants through all relevant media channels, increasing exposure and supporting Chicago area chefs who agree to “The Chef’s Pledge”.
You can download a copy here. For more info, please contact Alana Cuellar at

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Osteria Via Stato Summer's Eve Dinner!

The BLT Bonanza will begin with a bang at Chicago's own Osteria Via Stato, on Sunday, August 23rd. Executive Chef David DiGregorio has put together an incredible menu of tomatoey/baconey delights, including mini-BLTs with applewood smoked bacon, caprese salad with hand-pulled mozzarella, house made tomato focaccia, and baconcello (bacon infused vodka!). Candid Wines will be providing excellent wine, and special guest David Cleverdon of Kinnikinnick Farm will give an informal chat on the midwest tomato season.
Tickets are only $35, and part of the proceeds will benefit Slow Food Chicago! This will be a great evening with wonderful food and interesting discussion, so contact Osteria Via Stato's Events Manager Allison Galese at 312-642-8450 for reservations, or go here for more information.


This event sold out in 48 hours! Stop by Osteria Via Stato for a taste of their Old School BLT's. From the OSV website:

Pizzeria Via Stato is a proud participant of the 1st Annual Slow Food Chicago Tomato Fest and Candid Wines Old School BLT Bonanza.

Here's Executive Chef David DiGregorio's version of the classic

Chef David also suggest a glass of Seedling Farm Hard Cider ($7.00) as a perfect pairing.

(BLT Bonanza is for lunch only & only available while locally grown heirlooms are ripe!)

Chicago TomatoFest Closing Ceremonies at Socca!

The closing night of the BLT Bonanza promises to be beautiful and elegant at Socca, the "sleek but homey" bistro on 3301 N Clark. Chef Roger Herring and Chicago TomatoFest have invited some favorite BLT chefs (who will be serving their delicious inventions) and farmers. This September 20th event will benefit Slow Food Chicago, and will be a wonderful opportunity for farmers, chefs and food lovers to kick back and enjoy the last tomatoes of the summer!
More details on purchasing tickets to follow shortly.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Some famous tomato fans!

During an exciting meeting with the folks over at Vocalo (more details on our partnership to follow soon!), we bumped into some celebrity heirloom enthusiasts... can you name them?

That's right, it's Melba Lara of WBEZ and Peter Sagal, the host of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me! We hope to see them both at the TomatoFest Potluck at the Honey Coop on September 10th.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Statement of Purpose: TomatoFest 2009

Chicago TomatoFest is Slow Food Chicago’s celebration of local heirloom tomatoes, promoting the people who grow, cook, and eat them.

Chicago TomatoFest celebrates the arrival of locally grown heirloom tomatoes with an annual potluck and, for the first time in 2009, The Old School BLT Bonanza. The city’s best chefs will promote local farmers by reinterpreting this American classic and making these summery creations available on their respective menus from August 17th to September 20th.

Restaurants participating in The Old School BLT Bonanza will sign a two-part pledge, promising to: a) use local heirlooms and (should they choose to use bacon) locally and sustainably raised pork, and b) publicly promote the farmers from whom they sourced these ingredients.

Chicago TomatoFest believes that a rising tide lifts all ships, especially when it comes to preserving our local food supply. We aim to:

1) Encourage individuals to plant their own food through our heirloom plant sale.
2) Create an annual event that will provide a sustainable market for heirloom varieties, encouraging more local farmers to plant them.
3) Facilitate relationships between farmers and restaurants to improve the accessibility of local products.
4) Promote biodiversity.
5) Generate media/public interest in heirlooms and other endangered tomato varieties on the Slow Food Ark of Taste by exposing Chicagoans to their unbeatable quality.
6) Promote Chicagoland restaurants that commit to our BLT pledge by buying from and endorsing local farms.

New Kid in Town

Hello, TomatoFest followers! My name is Alana and I was recently taken on by Slow Food Chicago as the official TomatoFest Coordinator. I will be posting articles featuring TomatoFest participants, ways for you to get involved and updates on the Old School BLT Bonanza (Damien Casten's tasty plan for exposing Chicagoans to the delights of the heirloom tomato-- more details to follow). You might see me taking pictures and chatting with people at farmer's markets or happily sampling some of the wonderful food this city has to offer (I have yet to try this deep dish, Chicago-style pizza everyone keeps raving about!). Needless to say, I'm very excited to be here, working for such an important and delicious cause.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Determinate vs. Inderterminate: Guest post on Chicago Now

Local garden blogger, photographer, and connector of people, Mr. BrownThumb asked me to do a guest post on his Chicago Now Blog describing determinate vs indeterminate tomato plants. My post is here.

Take a look around Mr. BrownThumb's site. He has unearthed some of the more interesting gardeners in Chicagoland and is a great source for information. For example, he followed my post with great info of staking tomato plants. He also has a flickr pool set up for Chicago Garden pics.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Skinny Beaks for a Skinny Garden

This short post is in response to Gina over at My Skinny Garden, and her query about birds' nests.

Though it confuses me, I do admire her honesty as a gardener when she says:

I'll be the first to admit that I don't know crap about birds. And when it comes right down to it, I don't really care for them.


Gina, you seem to have unbridled enthusiasm and ambition in the garden, you find all sorts of creative ways to grow things, and for goodness sakes, you have a "kitchen garden" complete with six raised beds! How can you be so flip when it comes to birds? You're nuts! Who else is going to eat the little bugs that seem to be living in your compost rich soil? Which other creature is going to gently till the soil as they pull up worms? Color me confused.

I am an unabashed supporter of all the birds that settle into the nooks and crannies of my family's garden each year. In fact, your post inspired me to photograph a few of them as they emerge from their nests, ready to eat all the things we don't want in the garden. At the entrance to the veggie garden, we have a structure that attracts nests under the eaves. At the moment it is home to two nests; one robin and one wren.

These are for you, Gina. You may have to look close to see the detail, but there are three little bug eating, soil tilling, seed distributing, poop leaving birds in this picture.

In the wine world, I often use a bird's sense of taste as an indication of balance in wine. There is a moment when the acid and fruit is perfectly balanced in a grape, making it delicious to eat. This of course in quite intentionally arranged by evolution. The acid and the fruit are balanced when the seed is ripe.

I talk to a lot of winemakers and ask them questions about wine and grape growing. Below is a video with Fred Scherrer talking about the life of a berry and what happens as it ripens through a growing season. I post it here because I think it's relevant to understanding a bird's view of ripening fruit, and becuase Fred's use of the word "vector" for an animal that will eat and then poop out a seed always makes me chuckle in its geekiness.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Rain Will Not Deter Honey Coop's Solstice Fete (nor backyard tomato growing)

Slow Food and the Chicago Honey Coop are pressing on with the Summer Solstice Party tonight! Be there, be wet, and embrace summer in the City.

Need more encouragement to get over to the party? Word is chocolatier Katherine-Ann is going to be there with a homeade strawberry-rhubarb pie for the potluck. Maybe if you send her a nice note, she'll bring a few extra truffles as well...she can be reached on her website, or via twitter @kachocolatier.
The rain has certainly taken it's toll on local farmers and now more than ever we hear at TomatoFest Chicago encourage you to "Get thee to a Farmer's Market!" I heard from Peter Klein at Seedling Fruit Farm that the storm knocked down some older apple trees at his Michigan orchard yesterday, and I know lots of folks have had a hard time getting out to plant.

On a smaller scale, I just received an udpate via Twitter that @baconfestchi (aka Seth Zurer) followed my advice and topped up the soil in his Black Cherry pot and gave his heirloom a few companions. Looking good Seth, now all you need is a compost tea watering before your fruit sets and you should be in great shape. May they go forth, prosper, and one day end up on a delicious homemade BLT.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Our first report from the fields of Chicago

This @CandidWines Slowfood Tomatofest Black Cherry Heirloom S... on Twitpic This Black Cherry Tomato is growing in Seth Zurer's backyard garden in Albany Park. Seth is a co-founder of BaconFest Chicago and will be a key partner in our BLT Fest later this summer. He bought the plant at the Uncommon Ground Plant Sale.

My suggestion to Seth is that he bring the level of the soil up to the top of the pot. The small leaves at the base can be stripped, and the small "hairs" at the base of the plant will grow into roots over the summer. I would look for a mix of potting soil and organic compost to give the plant a good slow feed.

I also encouraged Seth to consider planting either some herbs - basil, oregano or thyme - as companions, or perhaps a few carrots. It seems odd to grow carrots in a pot, but they really seem to love Tomatoes. (A fact I learned from a book on companion planting entitles "Carrots Love Tomatoes"). We tried it last year and had hands down the best carrot crop we ever have grown.

Whist I am doing some encouraging, I encourage you to go check out and to follow Seth on Twitter: @baconfestchi
Earlier today, Seth and I had a very productive lunch meeting at Hot Doug's, and I don't say that only because we both enjoyed a Foie Gras and Sauternes dog. The Chicago BaconFest team is going to be a huge ally in the spreading of love for heirloom tomatoes and heritage breed pigs come the fall.
They shall speak for generations about the @HotDougs Summit o... on Twitpic
R to L - Seth Zurer, Hot Doug himself, Damien Casten

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Honey Coop's Sweet Summer Solstice Party

Chicago TomatoFest's host, partner, and supplier of delicious local honey The Chicago Honey Coop is throwing a Sweet Summer Solstice party this Friday night, June 19th. Few organizations in Chicago have done as much with so little to promote urban agriculture, good food, and a vibrant local community than the Honey Coop. The Solstice Party, being thrown in conjunction with Slow Food Chicago, has as a goal to raise $10,000 that they will use to begin raising their very own honey bee queens, which will in turn make the coop a more sustainable local venture. At present, the Coop buys queens from folks in the southwest where the climate is warmer and the bees winter over without dying in the Chicago cold. This money will go towards keeping the colony alive and healthy here in Chicago, avoiding the annual costs of transport and repurchase of the queens.
From the Coop's blog: Only $15 per person ($10 for Co-op and Slow Food members). Bring a dish to share and a chair to sit on. We'll also be holding a raffle with great prizes including a private tour of the City Hall rooftop garden and beehives, a dinner for 2 at Brasserie Jo, a Joe Breezer Itzy folding bicycle, organic/biodynamic wine from Candid Wines and more. Reservations are required. Find out more here - Slow Food Chicago
Sadly, it does not look like anyone from Candid Wines can be at the event as Friday night is the same night as our fundraiser with Chicago Public Radio's Sound Opinions team and Clandestino. We'll be having a great time pairing wine and food with five decades of Chicago music. If you are interested in that event, details on the menu are here. To buy a ticket, visit the Sound Opinions page.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How we stake tomatoes

A visit to the Scherrer Vineyard in the California's Alexander Valley a few year's back provided the inspiration for my current trellising system. Pictured at right is octogenarian grape grower Ed Scherrer's trellising system. Ed treats tomatoes like vines, saying "they want to grow up, so let them".

His trellis is a fairly simply tacked together wood and metal fence of sorts. There are a few keys to its success:

1) Each stake is firmly anchored into the ground (buried roughly 8-12 inches). As the vines become heavy with fruit and thick with leaves, they risk toppling the 'fence' under their weight, and can act as sails, catching lots of wind. Deeply planted stakes help to solve this problem.

2) The cross bars are firmly attached, but the work they do in supporting the plants is minimal. The plant is directed back in towards the fence with a long string tied to one end and woven through the fence as the plants grow. Having multiple levels of garden string that begin near the base is key. Waiting to tie the plants to the fence once they are too big creates pressure that can cut the stem. As they grow, this means a new string once every ten days to 2 weeks.

3) The fact that the plants grow up means that the fruit is exposed to wind, which helps prevent rot after a rain, and of course avoids contact with the soil.

Here are the fences we have built and used for the past three years. Next year, they will need to be replaced.

We move them into a new bed each year in the interest of crop rotation, and because it allows us to scope out the ideal spot. We are fortunate to have good room in our raised beds and we can experiment with a north / south vs. east / west alingment. This picture is north / south, and it appears to be doing quite well.

One other development this year is the addition of metal labels for each plant. We have a habit of either losing tags or having the marker wear off over time. Using a home labeler, my folks made metal labels this year that are attached to the wood in the fence above each plant.

This might be the best new addtion to the garden this year.