by Selene D. Guerrero
photography by Amanda Lucier
Madelyn Maggard is known by local restaurateurs as “The Tomato Lady,” a title that makes her wince. Then again, tomatoes are her job – and she wouldn’t change that.
She and her husband were in the restaurant business for many years, but when his health declined they began selling locally grown tomatoes to restaurants. After he died, she expanded the business. “I sell tomatoes for a living – how crazy is that?” she exclaims. “But it works perfectly for me.”
All these years have yielded a few tomato tips that she’s happy to pass on.
For starters, planting. Some tomato fans would rather plant than buy. For them, April 15 is considered tomato-planting day for picking to start at the Fourth. But if you haven’t planted yet, it’s OK; Maggard suggests staggering seed-planting, with another set planted in May for the later fall months. Here, tomato season runs till the first freeze.
For people who’d rather buy (in season, she gets hers from farmers in Pungo and on the Eastern Shore), she offers these tips: “Tomatoes ripen from the inside out,” she says. If the skin is slightly pale or pink, the tomato will be pale inside. Look for a ruby red color; if the tomato is slightly pale, put it on a window sill to ripen – getting redder and better. Feel for firmness. And never refrigerate a tomato; refrigeration changes the texture and stops the ripening process.
When prep time comes, never skimp on high-quality ingredients, Maggard stresses: “You always buy the freshest and the best you can afford.” Rule 2: Serve tomatoes simple.
One of her favorite pairings is a perfectly grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup, but she took that unassuming dish to another level when she married the sandwich with tomato. Her grilled pimento cheese and tomato sandwich is messy and comforting. The pimento cheese gives the sandwich bite and the slice of sweet tomato in the middle neutralizes the spicy pimento. “You want it to be gooey and yummy,” she says, laughing. And although it can be intimidating to bite into, every morsel is worth the untidiness.
For a less unkempt dish, Maggard prefers a refreshing tomato salad that combines robust beefsteaks, heirlooms and an avocado. The recipe is simple and open to interpretation. For instance, you can add a creamy goat cheese or a bold blue-veined cheese as a topping. And of course, “use good quality, finishing olive oil.”
4 tomatoes (Maggard uses combinations that include beefsteak and heirloom tomatoes, but you can use any kind)
Freshly cracked pepper
With a serrated knife, cut the tomatoes into wedges, from the stem down.
Cut the avocado lengthwise and slice into sections. Separate segmented slices using a spoon or your fingers.
Combine the tomatoes and avocado on a salad plate, drizzle high-quality olive oil to taste, squeeze lemon over the salad and sprinkle kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste.
Two 1-inch thick slices of white, hand-cut bread
½ cup pimento cheese (Maggard uses one from Taste Unlimited)
3 tablespoons of butter, separated
1 slice of beefsteak tomato
Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add one tablespoon of butter.
Evenly spread 1 tablespoon of butter to one side of both slices of bread. Divide the half-cup of pimento cheese evenly and spread on both slices, on the unbuttered side.
Place both slices of bread open-faced, butter side down in the skillet and cook for five minutes to achieve a crisped crust and melted cheese that seeps into a slightly toasted middle.