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Tomatoes Take Spotlight

Students learn how to prepare variety of dishes using tomatoes.

Students at this week’s cooking class at Williams-Sonoma learned that there was more than one way to skin a tomato — and more than one way to cook them. Chef Leslie Borden, instructing the 10 participants taking the “It’s Tomato Season” class at the Williams-Sonoma store in Old Town, Alexandria, first discussed the different brands of tomatoes. From tomatoes gathered at the Eastern Shore to ISMT (Icky supermarket tomatoes), she explained the different textures of brands such as Brandy Boys; Mr. Stripey; yellow tomatoes; sun sugars; sugary orange cherries; Amish Salad; and sugar bunch.

As with most chefs, presentation is everything. After she reviewed the types of tomatoes, Borden jumped right into preparing the evening’s menu, which consisted of: fresh tomato toasts; cream of tomato soup with pancetta; black pepper crepes with goat cheese and tomatoes; fresh tomato tart with Roquefort; and baked tomatoes and zucchini.

Throughout the evening, Borden shared her little bits of wisdom with the class — tomatoes should never be refrigerated; a sharp knife is the key to cooking; and cook with all of one's senses.

She referred frequently to Julia Childs, saying “She taught everybody so much.” After one of the staff members commented how good the cooking onions smelled, Borden told the class that Childs used to tell women if they didn’t have time to cook dinner for their husbands, just put an onion in the oven and roast it. “He’ll think you’ve been cooking all day.”

BORDEN HAS her own sense of humor and imparted her view of the world throughout the evening. When talking about how important a sharp knife is, "Sharp knife is magic in your hands,” she admitted that she is afraid to use the mandolin, a quick, efficient way to chop, but very sharp. She suggested using a cooking mitt when using a mandolin, and said, “It’s better to have lint than blood in the food.”

She also said, “You can’t cook and have good hands.”

While the fresh tomato toasts were first on the menu, Borden set about preparing the baked tomato dish first. She explained that one needs to prepare food not in terms of how it appears on the menu, but in terms of what will take the longest to prepare and/or cook.

“When planning a menu, think what’s going to take the longest,” Borden said.

For the baked dish, she spent about 10 minutes caramelizing the onions that would be used as the base; she then sliced the zucchini and tomatoes. She alternated the yellow and red tomatoes with zucchini, and said, “If you have to eat, you might as well eat nicely. What girl doesn’t want to be pretty?”

Tushar Suthar’s wife had given him the class as a birthday present. Both his wife and he love to cook, but they have a two-year-old at home, so they could not both attend.

“I really enjoy cooking,” he said. “Our daughter is already starting to learn; she likes mixing things up.”

As the tomato and zucchini dish was cooking, the class enjoyed sampling the tomato toasts, which was chopped tomatoes mixed up with basil, oil, balsamic vinegar and salt and then spread on pre-prepared baguette slices that had been toasted and rubbed with garlic. Borden spoke about the different types of sea salts, oils and vinegars that are available and the difference between them all.

BORDEN THEN started preparing the soup, this time selecting tomatoes that were “dead ripe.” Since they “just mush into nothing,” ripe tomatoes are fine for soup, whereas less ripe tomatoes are preferable for salads.

When one person asked if the soup could be frozen, Borden said yes, adding, “It’s like summer in a jar.”

While the soup was cooking, Borden started to prepare the tart. A filling of Roquefort and half-and-half was spread on the bottom of the tart, covered by a layer of tomatoes and then baked for 20 minutes.

Throughout the evening, students sampled the dishes as they came out of the oven. All of the dishes received rave reviews, as did the class itself.

“This has been really interesting,” said Dusti Plunkett. “I never thought about tomatoes, but my neighbor grows a prodigious amount of them and now I know what to do with them.”

Chris Guzman said, “I love to cook and these recipes are all so easy and tasty.”

“I have a lot of tomatoes,” said Kate Mertis, who was celebrating her 50th birthday. “I cook quite a bit and this has been really useful.”