With a little help from Vivian Howard
BY LYNNE FOSTER
If there was a logo for summer it would have to be the vine-ripened heirloom tomato.
I wait impatiently all through the rest of the year for “real” tomatoes and when they come I embarrass myself with my gorging. In truth, I don’t eat tomatoes until then so that’s how I justify my manic behavior.
Who doesn’t eagerly devour juicy, sliced tomatoes on sliced white bread that has been slathered with jarred mayonnaise (Hellmann’s or Duke?) and liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper? While standing over the kitchen sink? At least once a day? It is, for many of us, the ideal summer lunch – or breakfast or snack or supper.
There is a highly respected chef, restaurant owner, TV personality, and author in Eastern North Carolina who shares our addiction.
Vivian Howard grew up in the farmlands of the fabled Coastal Plains, once world-renowned for its thousands and thousands of acres of flue-cured tobacco and for its equally large number of hogs. International buyers and marketers from the farthest reaches of the globe swarmed the area during the tobacco auction season to both select leaves for cigarette production and to enjoy Eastern NC barbecue in its restaurants and BBQ joints.
There is little tobacco in those fields now, more cotton, sorghum and soy beans, and the warehouses and auction rooms of Wilson and Greenville are now shuttered. But the market gardens remain, as do various livestock and poultry operations.
A lot of jobs are gone and the region has been struggling; the small farming communities in need of a wisp of magic dust to keep them viable.
Kinston, NC is one such town. Vivian Howard describes it as, “halfway between Raleigh and the Atlantic Ocean.” It is way out-of-the-way, “a community that housed more pigs than people,” and hasn’t been all that magnetic to travelers.
When Howard came home after several years in the hectic world of the big city, she and her husband, artist Ben Knight, opened a restaurant in downtown Kinston. It was a bold, and some would say, risky or even crazy move, especially considering the style of dining they present.
They have taken an approach unlike most chefs or restaurateurs.
Rather than design a menu and locate the ingredients, they search out the best ingredients and then figure out what to do with them! That seems to be a very creative process!
Utilizing only seasonal products from local family farms, they have introduced a unique dining experience and boosted local businesses, something we are trying to do for our local fishermen.
There are now two Howard/Knight eateries in Kinston. The Chef and the Farmer, the original, and the more casual Boiler Room, draw curious diners from all across the country and they are planning other establishments and food trucks too. An empire is being built right here in Eastern North Carolina!
A PBS series, A Chef’s Life , brings us into their home and their kitchen with honesty. We don’t get the gloss or the perfection. We get it all as it really is: disagreements, disappointments, dish failures that have to be re-worked, even scrapped, and we get great successes.
It is, not to be trite about it, genuine and it bonds us to them in a strangely familial way. I think of my sister and I sharing a new recipe. When Howard cooks her mom Scarlet’s dishes with her, I miss my mom and remember the family favorites that she taught me and that I still make.
When she takes her young twins into the fields with her, we get pleasure watching them get that good dirt on their little fingers and knees as they try picking and tasting something new and we feel a part of the generational learning process.
When her suppliers, area farmers all, talk about their produce and livestock there is a quiet, humble pride in their manner and we feel we are right there learning how and when to select the best. We even go into their homes and see how these Eastern NC cooks prepare and preserve the bounty of their fields. I feel like Warren and Lily are my friends too!
It is invaluable information for us here on the islands. The produce we get at our markets comes from Eastern NC farms – that’s local for us – so we are eating the very same foods.
Now there is a convenient resource that I suggest everyone who cooks should have. In fact, anyone who eats should too.
Deep Run Roots, Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South by Vivian Howard, published by Little Brown and Company, will delight your senses – all of your senses. It is a storybook, a picture book, and a recipe book that is bound to become dog-eared and stained with use. I never even put mine on the bookshelf but keep it on my kitchen island; maybe not always for recipes but it is handy for inspiration.
Howard’s other unique approach is really fun! It is something we can all relate to.
Each section is devoted to a particular ingredient. There are stories, tips, and recipes. What really shines is the progression of recipes using the ingredient.
Starting with the simplest home preparation, usually a family or a community favorite, she then moves us into more sophisticated usage that she considers restaurant-worthy. But even these are accessible to home cooks. The joy of this book is that unpretentious quality.
As is her commitment to the innate flavor of the featured ingredient. Yes, she combines them with other tastes in unusual ways but doesn’t overwhelm them with layer upon layer of discordant flavors. Many of the recipes are built upon the foundation of a basic preparation. Once you get that, the rest easily follow.
She seems to really want us to succeed with her recipes and that comes across in the writing style – no hint of the intimidation that often arises in chefs’ cookbooks. Her manner is comfortable and friendly.
So, back to the noble tomato.
My favorite photo in the entire book (and there are many gorgeous shots throughout the 564 pages!) is Vivian Howard chomping on her “Elbow-Lick Tomato Sandwich,” juice and mayo running down her chin and a joyous, childish grin! Remind you of yourself?
She is surely a hugely successful chef, author, tv personality, and business woman but she conveys a sense of wonder in the simplest pleasures. You will love her!
As she reminds us in the chapter about tomatoes, “What I really want you to do is eat tomato sandwiches as often as you can when tomatoes are juicy and at their best.”
Now for a few tomato recipes – enjoy them now while you can!
COCKTAIL TOMATOES WITH BROWN-BUTTER SCALLOPS
Howard suggests using them also on deviled eggs, pimiento cheese sandwiches, burgers. The juice is a good marinade for shrimp or a base for vinaigrettes.
Makes 4 quarts
5 pounds Roma tomatoes, or other firm, meaty tomatoes, quartered
1 bunch scallions, white and green parts, sliced thin
4 jalapenos, sliced thin
Zest of 3 lemons, removed with a vegetable peeler
1 cup lemon juice
1 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup prepared horseradish
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons salt
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup molasses
2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup chopped garlic
3 tablespoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoons ground celery seeds
1 tablespoon cayenne
Place the quartered tomatoes in a 6-to-8 quart glass or heatproof plastic container and set aside.
Bring the remaining ingredients up to a bare boil in a 4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven. Carefully pour the hot liquid over the tomatoes. Let them cool at room temperature overnight. Then transfer them, covered, to the refrigerator and let them cure for a minimum of 1 week before using.
1 pound fresh sea scallops
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 cups Cocktail Tomatoes plus 1/2 cup reserved liquid
Remove and discard the connector muscle from the scallops and dry them well with a paper towel. Preheat your oven to 200F and season the scallops on both sides with the salt and cayenne.
In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, heat 1 teaspoon oil and 1 teaspoon butter over high heat. Add half the scallops, making sure they do not otuch one another, and cook on the first side for 2 minutes. They should be nicely caramelized around the edges at the very least. With any luck they will be picture-quality seared all over the top. Flip and cook on the other side for 30 seconds. Transfer the first round to the oven and quickly wipe out the pan.
Add the remaining oil and 1 more teaspoon butter . Brown the final batch of scallops on 1 side for 2 minutes. Flip them over and add the remaining butter to the pan. Let it sizzle and foam while the scallops cook on the other side for 30 seconds. Remove the scallops from the pan and transfer them to the oven. Continue to heat the butter til it smells nutty and has browned slightly, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes and their liquid. Watch it come up to a quick bubble.
Serve under the scallops with Foolproof Grits. (page 31 of her book, just another reason to invest in it!)
Because everyone is always looking for a new party dip and you’ve never had this before! Full of favored flavors!
Makes 1 cup
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup picked basil leaves
2 tablespoons picked tarragon leaves
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 anchovy fillets or 1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 garlic clove, sliced
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 medium tomatoes, small-diced
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 head heart of Romaine
10 turns of the peppermill or 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 pound smoked bacon, cooked till crisp, then crumbled
1/3 cup thinly sliced scallions, green part only
MAKE THE DRESSING
Combine everything in the blender and blend until completely smooth and green. refrigerate till you’re ready to use.
MAKE AND ASSEMBLE THE DIP
Toss the tomatoes together with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the sugar. Set that over a colander to drain for about 30 minutes.
To prep the Romaine, cut off all but 1/4 inch of the leafy portion of each piece of lettuce on either side of the stem and reserve that for another use. Chop the Romaine stems into 1/3-inch pieces. You should have about 1 cup Romaine stems.
Set aside about 2 tablespoons sliced scallions and 1/4 cup Romaine stems for garnish. Then in a medium bowl, stir the tomatoes, black pepper, remaining salt, Romaine, and scallions together with the Green Goddess.
To serve, spoon the tomato mixture into a serving bowl. Top with the reserved Romaine stems followed by the bacon. Garnish with the scallions. Serve at room temperature.
Howard likes to “go retro” and make white bread triangle toast for this.
ROASTED AND FRESH TOMATO PIE
Makes a 10-inch pie
This outsells everything on her menu all summer – who doesn’t love tomatoes and cheese baked together with herbs? If you can, use different colored tomatoes for an interesting visual effect.
It is okay to use a store bought pie crust if you don’t have time (or, in my case, the skill) to make your own.
1 tablespoon butter
1 large yellow onion, halved and cut into julienne with the grain
2 teaspoons salt, divided
3 1/2 pounds tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice, divided
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon picked thyme
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
10 turns of the peppermill or 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 cup picked basil leaves
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup grated Fontina
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons ice-cold water
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
MAKE THE CRUST
Place the flour, sugar, and salt into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
Mix on medium for a few seconds. Then begin adding the butter one cube at a time. Continue until the flour is speckled and crumbly. With the mixer still running, add the water and vinegar until just combined. Do not overmix.
Lay roughly on a 10×10-inch square of plastic wrap on the counter in front of you and turn the dough onto it. Wrap the dough tightly in the plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator overnight.
Bring the crust to room temperature. Dust your counter and rolling pin lightly with flour and roll the crust slightly larger than your pie pan. Lay the crust in the pan and press gently into its edges. Cut off the edges that hang over and discard. Freeze the crust in the pie pan for at least 15 minutes or until you’re ready to blind-bake.
Preheat the oven to 400F. Lay foil or parchment paper on top of the crust and weigh that down with dried beans or rice. Blind-bake for 30 minutes.
MAKE THE FILLING AND TOPPING
Preheat your oven to 375F. In a medium saute pan or skillet, melt the butter and add the onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook the onions over medium-low heat till they are deeply caramelized. This will take about 40 minutes. If your onions get away from you and burn a little, add 1/4 cup of water to the pan, scrape up the browned bits, and keep going. In the end, you’ll have a scant 2/3 cup caramelized onions.
Toss half the tomatoes with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Set them over a colander and let them drain while you get everything else ready, at least 30 minutes.
Toss the remaining tomatoes with 1/2 teaspoon salt, the thyme, and the olive oil. Spread them out in a single layer on a sheet tray with as much room separating the individual pieces as possible. Slide the tray onto the middle rack of your oven and roast for 20 to 30 minutes. You are looking for the tomatoes to dry out and brown slightly.
Once all the individual components are done, stir together the onions, the fresh tomatoes, the roasted tomatoes, the remaining salt and sugar, black pepper, and basil. In a separate, smaller bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, Fontina, and Parm.
Spoon the filling into your blind-baked crust and crown with the mayo-and-cheese topping. Bake in the middle rack of your oven for 30 minutes. You can serve this warm or at room temperature. Both have their virtues.