Summer kicked off with record-breaking heat in June and July, and with it a record tomato bounty. Portland chefs are embracing the early season’s haul of bright nightshades, but this year, local restaurants are also obsessing over the tomato’s abundant leaves, often thought to be poisonous (food science writer Harold McGee addressed toxicity fears in a New York Times piece from 2009). The trend is, in large part, due to LETumEAT, the one year-old, Salem-based, social media-savvy farm slowly seeding Portland’s dining scene with their pop-ups and nerdy chef produce.
LETumEAT’s resident cooks, Karl Holl and James Serlin (the chef-talent originally slotted for Italian hotspot Renata), owe their tomato leaf know-how to past gigs at San Francisco’s celebrated Perbacco. “It's like walking in the tomato patch,” says Holl, in reference to the leaf’s fragrant perfume. At their last “Takeover Dinner” at New Deal Distillery, the duo served salt cod-filled tomato leaf pasta with heirloom tomatoes, pole beans, and anise hyssop. Their next dinner will be at Vibrant Valley Farm on August 14.
Recent tomato leaf-devotees include:
P.R.E.A.M.: Tomato leaf pizza with red onion agrodolce, roasted garlic, parmesan, and basil.
“It’s a super floral plant that brings another layer of tomato flavor to a dish. It smells like the beginning of summer in your walk-in refrigerator. Introduce that product to a 900-degree wood fired oven, and the smell is heightened.”—chef Nicholas Ford
Bar Avignon: Pole bean and seared squash salad with tomato leaf-almond pesto and fried Padron peppers
“I’ve always been captivated by that smell…it’s the anticipation of tomatoes coming. Every year, it seems like farmers find more stuff that’s ‘edible’: fig leaves, peach leaves, grape leaves. Leaves are really having a renaissance year.”—chef Eric Joppie (also see Joppie’s dynamite tomato recipes)
Renata: Tomato leaf cavatelli with fresh lamb sugo, spigariello, and pecorino
“I make pasta dough out of it to get that extract. It’s a robust, deep accent that lends a lot to the freshness…makes it feel like the garden."—chef Matt Sigler
Farm Spirit: Tomato broth and half-dried, cured Marmande tomato with the perfume of fresh leaves.
“We offer uncooked tomato leaves alongside a dish for people to rub in their hands. The smell of tomato leaves reminds me of gardening with my abuelita when I was a little boy. I cannot pass a tomato plant without rubbing the leaves in my hand.”—chef Aaron Patrick Adams