The 16th annual Tait Farm Tomato Festival took place Saturday, and scheduling the event at the height of summer made sure of two things — that tomatoes would be riper with the date a week later than usual and that traffic would be a challenge, given the return of tens of thousands of students to Penn State’s campus, many along U.S. Route 322, which cuts in front of the farm.
Penn State Master Gardeners prepared the more than 60 varieties of tomatoes for the tasting and tallied the results of the people’s choice competition. Attendees moved down the line with their toothpicks and ballots to vote for their favorite varieties. This year, the top three favorites were white currant, sun peach and sun gold, dethroning the popular sun gold cherry tomato.
New this year was an Iron Chef tomato contest, which required that the recipe use fresh tomatoes and be completed within 15 minutes. Five competitors stepped up and all were awarded prizes for their efforts.
Stacey Budd, one of the board members of the Friends & Farmers Cooperative, won for Best Use of the Most Local Ingredients for her peach gazpacho that used Way Fruit Farm peaches in addition to the Tait Farm tomatoes provided. An icy peach granita helped to chill the gazpacho and croutons dusted with Chinese five-spice powder provided an interesting counterpoint.
Nittany Lion Inn chef Rodney Campbell won Best Classic Expression (as well as Speediest) for his tomato basil salad that was completed in a flash, giving Campbell enough time to carve a tomato rose for garnish during his last few minutes.
Liz Hofner, co-owner of Revival Kitchen in Reedsville, braved the Saturday move-in traffic to come over the mountain just in the nick of time to create her dish and to win recognition for Most Original and Unique Flavor for her heirloom tomatoes with red miso dressing, basil and pine nuts. Hofner attributed the success of her dish to the umami factor in the miso.
Kelly Renfrew, whose son Ben works at Tait Farm and convinced her to enter the contest with her family recipe, tomato, avocado and feta salsa, was a strong amateur surrounded by pros. Her salsa, served with corn tortilla cups, was recognized for Best Flavor and Texture, and had an especially pleasing balance on the palate. Judging from the crowd buzz around the dish, it sounded “Most Likely to be Dinner Tonight” in many Centre County homes.
Tony Sapia, of Gemelli Bakers, won Best Visual Appeal, as well as Best of Show for his August backyard bisque that used multiple varieties of tomatoes, fresh corn and herbs made into a green garden goddess pesto. Though not a dish that many could pull off in 15 minutes, the creative cold soup was made by one of the masters of our food universe here in central Pennsylvania and the well-seasoned chef made it look easy — and beautiful, garnished with colorful nasturtiums and his own bakery’s crispy grissini.
All the recipes created at the Iron Chef contest will be posted on the Tait Farm website, www.taitfarm foods.com.