Thursday, September 16, 2010

Feast of tomatoes heralds peak of local food

Nothing captures the sweetness of late summer better than slow roasted tomatoes.

Unless it’s a simple BLT with juicy slices of heirloom tomatoes and Applewood smoked bacon from Ranch Foods Direct. (By the way, Slow Food of the Pikes Peak region is hosting a BLT tasting party this coming Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at the Margarita at Pine Creek.)

It’s been too warm and mild so far to stoke a yearning for baked squash, or cabbage, or apples, or pumpkin. For now, it’s still tomato, corn and pepper weather.

Roasting hunks of meaty plum tomatoes mixed with chopped red onion (consider adding corn kernels cut from the cob and chopped up chili peppers), sprinkled with fresh herbs and drizzled with olive oil, in a 200-degree oven for three to five hours, yields fragrance and flavor with minimal effort.

For many of us, the current abundance and variety of tomatoes represents the peak of the food-growing season. The weekly Colorado Farm and Art Market (which continues through Oct. 16) is the ideal spot to harvest the cream of the crop, including Green Zebras and Old German Stripes from Larga Vista Ranch or black cherries from Country Roots Farm (both located along the Arkansas River east of Pueblo.)

All of this luscious produce also means the return of Peak to Plains “Local Food Week” (Sept. 21-26.) According to administrator Michele Mukatis, the highlights include an evening of food and music at Front Range BBQ on Wednesday to raise funds for the local food effort and a recipe contest and community potluck on Sunday afternoon at the Care and Share Food Bank Warehouse. Ranch Foods Direct will be there grilling meat. (The Peak to Plains Alliance website lists all the activities going on throughout the week.) Meanwhile, Bon Appetit, food service provider for Colorado College, is gearing up for their Eat Local Challenge on Sept. 28. Consider stopping by one of the dining halls on campus that day for a menu consisting entirely of food grown within 150 miles. (The Miami Herald ran an excellent article about it this week. Read it here.) Finally, the CC student farmers are hosting around a hundred guests at tonight’s “Harvest Dinner” banquet at Beamis Hall.

Tomatoes are a barometer of the modern food system. They tell the story of how production and processing and distribution have changed traditional foods and the way we eat them. To follow this saga, Arthur Allen globe-trots across the world of tomatoes in his book, RIPE: The Search for the Perfect Tomato. Here’s an excerpt:

“There are about seven thousand known fragrances in foods, four hundred in the tomato alone. The fragrances are called volatiles, and they are low-molecular-weight compounds that generally have little nutritional value. From an evolutionary perspective, however, the aesthetics of smell and taste carry important information for survival. Many of the fragrances and tastes we enjoy in food help us and other members of the animal kingdom distinguish nutritious foods from dangerous or lackluster ones…

The most abundant volatiles in tomato fruits, it turns out, are linked to valuable nutrients in the plant…

… Domestication has had a negative effect on tomato flavor and smell. And this is a far-from-trivial concern… Tomatoes, a wholesome food with clear nutritional benefits, have been bred to taste plain, while food chemists and the companies they work for have gussied up their corn-syrup-based snacks with savory essences culled from nature. As nutritionists recommend that we eat more fresh fruits and veggies, the food industry, until recently, has been making fresh fruits and veggies less interesting, while adding new taste thrills to processed foods. This is not… a healthy policy.”

   From RIPE: The Search for the Perfect Tomato by Arthur Allen