The Tomato Whisperer
A perfect day for Tim Mountz is eating tomatoes in his fields from dawn to dusk. Obsessive? Maybe. But, imagine yourself in his shoes on that day. Maybe not.
By Mike Madaio
Of all the fruits of summer, the tomato may be the one I covet most. Lettuce, peppers and beans, welcome sight as they are, come on so strong. Same with the berries. It can be smothering. But the tomato plays hard to get. While I gather another armful of cucumbers to haul back to the kitchen, the tomato, still Hulk-green after a summer’s worth of sunbathing, refuses to bend to my will. Until right about now. Even then, that first ripe tomato always comes as a surprise.
All of that comes from a couple of modest plants. Imagine the depth of Tim Mountz’s fixation. He’s growing over 400 kinds this summer. For the last eight years, Mountz and his wife, Amy Bloom, have been selling heirloom seeds, produce and, more recently, scratch-made sauces from that produce at a handful of markets and online as the Kennett Square-based brand Happy Cat Farm. But, tomatoes, obviously, are his first love. Second. Second love. Amy, of course, is his first. Probably.
“The perfect day for me,” Mountz says with a light laugh, “is when I lay down in bed at night and realize that breakfast, lunch and dinner were tomatoes in the field. That’s it.
“I was working with Tim Stark out at Eckerton Hill Farm,” he says. “I had never bitten into a tomato like an apple before. But one afternoon, I had a Jefferson Airplane-like, out-of-body experience. It might have been from sunstroke or something, but it was transcendent. From that point on, I started eating every tomato I could get my hands on.”
Whether cherry-picking from a farm stand or nursing them from your own backyard plot, heed Mountz’s advice on when the time is finally right: “A tomato has to have a little give, some movement to the flesh, so you know there’s juice in there. And full color. Unless it’s a green variety, it shouldn’t have any green. Lastly, fragrance: Much of the tomato’s aroma comes from the vine itself, but the fruit has a definite fragrance.”
Now, for what to do with those lush prizes, keep reading.
A tomato salad is the epitome of summertime eating: simple preparation, complex taste. That line savvy chefs deliver whenever prompted about letting quality ingredients express themselves? It’s because seasonal fruits and veg at the height of their harvest, like tomatoes are right now, are akin to snowflakes—no two taste the same. All that nuance concentrated in just a few bites is the essence of summer: potent humidity, parched earth, a simmering sun and a soul-affirming oomph as it all comes together on the back of your tongue.
Recipe by Yelena Strokin
Heirloom Tomato and Beet Salad
3 sweet heirloom tomatoes (vary the sizes and colors)
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1-2 small beets, cooked, peeled and sliced
2 tbsps. feta
Olive oil to taste
Lemon juice to taste
2 cloves garlic (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Halve the small tomatoes and cut the large ones into thick slices. Then, layer them on a platter, mixing the different shapes and colors in a way that looks as good as it’ll taste.
Tuck in the beets and onions, then the basil and mint. Sprinkle the feta over the entire salad. Season with salt, pepper and garlic to taste. Drizzle with the olive oil and lemon juice, and serve immediately, preferably with a baguette to sop up that beautiful medley of juices that’ll be waiting at the bottom of the dish.
Yelena Strokin is a Newtown-based food stylist and photographer and the founder of the blog Cooking Melangery.
Photos by (Tim Mountz) Matthew J. Rhein and (Heirloom Tomato and Beet Salad) Yelena Strokin