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Al Fresco

As many of you may know this year marked Tomato Head’s 25th anniversary.  But after our big celebration in August, we didn’t dwell too much in retrospective – there’s too much going on in our city and in our business to linger overlong on memory lane.  But as our 25th anniversary year winds slowly to a close and with the onset of summer and the increasingly de rigueur proliferation of “June is bustin’ out all over” memes, I find myself drifting back to memories of the first warm evenings eating outside on Market Square.

Like so many things we now take for granted, al fresco dining in downtown Knoxville was a rare treat, mostly relegated to sunny lunchtime escapes from the florescent tyranny of office work.  Our first moments dining in the waning sun weren’t particularly glamourous either – it feels very improvisational in memory: tables and chairs scraping across our threshold as we drag them outside to enjoy an al fresco slice or two almost all alone at first and, later, with a handful of friends. There was a time when the city virtually subsidized our seating – when customers sat at public tables on the square and we, happy to have guests at all in the evening, ran back and forth across the square to serve them.  Memories can be beautiful and a little exhausting, too.

Tomato Head’s Market Square Patio photo: examiner.com

I’d like to describe those moments as prescient, but the call of a pleasantly warm evening inspires many of us to set a table in the open air; and, of course, the as yet unsung beauty of the still, quiet square made a compelling backdrop, an urban equivalent of a verdant and mountainous vista that might tempt anyone who was paying attention as we were then.

The silence of the square is mostly gone, and outdoor seating is a rule rather than exception; but the liveliness brings a different kind of delight to al fresco dining – one that’s communal, joyful.  And you can hear that joy in the chatter of friends and the clinking of glasses, which recalls a time when sips of cool, crisp wine and a cold swallow of a pale ale were forbidden out of doors on the square.

So much has changed for the better, but the best things remain much the same: good food, good friends, and the agreeable atmosphere created by breaking bread together under the summer sun.  In addition to our patio on Market Square, we have a lovely covered patio at the Gallery – both of which await you and yours with a menu full of good eats, refreshing drinks, and the satisfying sensation of an al fresco summer meal.

We look forward to seeing you on our patios soon.

National Peanut Butter Cookie Day

And suddenly, it’s June 12.  For many of us, the kids have already been out of school for long enough; and for those unfortunate scholars who have just been released from their labors, there’s an air of resentment born from a feeling that they’ve been kept unfairly chained to their desks while everybody else has been out having fun.  And that, of course, is and has been a lot of fun for parental ears to hear.  It’s enough to make you need to take a cookie break.  And perhaps that’s why June 12 is National Peanut Butter Cookie Day.

Cookies, by nature, create comfort, which is geometrically increased if there’s peanut butter in the mix.  In the moment of cookie consumption, the ethereal hopes founded on comfort food are made flesh, real and immediate.  It may well calm the kids, too, but today our need is greater.  And, as it’s an official holiday, feast rules apply, so we can indulge without guilt.  In many ways, a Peanut Butter Cookie is good medicine.  It’s certainly good juju.

Peanut Butter itself is one of the undisputed regents of our pantries.  Along with bread and packaged meat, it’s at the top of most grocery shopping lists.  Its blissful union of protein, popularity and simplicity give it special powers that parents appreciate when faced with the often insatiable appetites of young, summer warriors.  But for our purposes, it’s the combination of rich and roasted nuttiness, touched by a gentle sweetness that commends this particular nut butter to our cookie cravings.

We’re unabashedly fond of our Peanut Butter Cookies.  Just picking them up sends appetizing signals to our brain – the weight and texture foretell a good bite, the aroma of sweet, roasted peanuts promises an equally enjoyable taste.  They’re soft and yielding but still firm enough to enjoy a quick dunk in some milk or even coffee.

Of course, the kids love them, too.  And sometimes we’ve been known to split our treats with them; our cookies are big enough to share, and we like to encourage sharing.  On the other hand, they’re just the right size to help us appreciate how sweet life is with friends and family all around us.  And that’s really good juju – especially if everyone has their very own peanut butter cookie.

Happy Summer Vacation! Happy Peanut Butter Cookie Day!

Terrapin Brewing

The proliferation of food broadcasting has produced a variety of results in both the marketplace and our minds.  Some, like Guy Fieri’s restaurant food excesses, aren’t particularly thrilling; others, like a general upswing in flavor curiosity, are pretty exciting.  Of course, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s responsible for the pursuit of unusual or exotic flavors in everything from ice cream to whiskey, but whatever it is, we like it.  Well, perhaps not cappuccino flavored potato chips, but if that suits you, go for it.

Craft beer is one fine example of what makes us a little giddy about flavor expansion, and nobody does that quite like the folks at this month’s featured brewery: Terrapin Beer Co.

The very first of Terrapin’s beers, just about 14 years ago, was a Rye Pale Ale, and it was a home run.  It took a gold medal at Great American Beer Festival and gave Terrapin a moment in the sun that they’ve never let go.  Rye beer wasn’t a brand new idea; but keep in mind that 14 years ago, while lots of folks were making use of rye’s sometimes dry, spicy character in potent potables, particularly in whiskey mash bills, they weren’t making a big deal of it.

Despite the gold medal, John said, in an interview with The Brewer, not everybody loved the Terrapin style:  ““When we first started all we ever heard from people was: ‘this is too aggressive, I can only drink one of these beers.  It’s amazing how much people’s tastes have changed in the past 14 years.”

As with the beginning of many a craft beer company, Terrapin was a product of home brewers gone wild.  Founders John Cochran and Brian “Spike” Buckowski met and began putting their dreams on paper while working in an Atlanta brewery.  Their efforts have not only had an impressive impact on beer drinkers’ palates, their initial efforts helped change legislation to allow Georgia breweries to serve a total of 32 ounces of samples instead of a paltry one ounce limit.  Obviously, John and Spike are our kind of people; Good beer, tenacious spirit, and neighbors, too – what’s not to like?

At both locations this month we’ll feature a rotating selection of Terrapin’s brew on tap, including mainstays and special releases, and, perhaps, a special release in cans.  Some of these will be limited in quantity – so visit often or, you can keep up with our current selection on http://beermenus.com.

The terrapin itself doesn’t move fast – but its namesake beers sure do.  Hope to see you soon!  Cheers.

American Craft Beer Week

Here at Tomato Head, keeping track of food holidays is something of a hobby.  Sometimes we decide to write about the day, and other times, we just giggle at some of strange things that get recognized – like National Raisin and Spice Bar Day or even National Liver and Onions Day.

Some holidays are strangely specific like National Baked Ham with Pineapple Day – glazed gam gets its own feast day.  And others are oddly placed; National Zucchini Bread Day is on April 25th, but any gardener will tell you that it’s the great squash glut of late summer that inspires people to sneak that green cucurbit into bread and just about anywhere else they can think to stick it.

Beer, however, is an enjoyment that knows no seasonal confines, which may account for the hordes of holidays that honor its production, consumption, appreciation and proliferation.  This week begins American Craft Beer Week, but already this month we’ve celebrated National Homebrew Day and National Take Mom Out for a Beer Day.  Almost as soon as June gets started so too will SAVOR: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience in DC.  Virginia sets aside the entire month of August to toast its own 100+ craft breweries and 5 beer trails.

And that’s only a sampling.  Heck, IPA gets its own day, too.

And we love it.  We love it so much that we set aside an even larger Tomato Head holiday to honor the whole of craft beer, a celebration of brew that starts at the beginning of January and ends about a year later – and then starts all over again.  Of course we celebrate everybody else’s hoppy-days, too, but we’re just too much in love with craft beer to wait for an official observance to feast and fete these artful suds.

The fact is that every day is craft beer day at the Tomato Head.  With our regional tap selection of all craft beers as well as a craft heavy bottle and can selection, our revels are never ending.

Of course, we look forward to serving you excellent suds this week; it’s a fine week to be sure.  But we hate that feeling of letdown that comes at the end of every party and holiday – you know the feeling when the shindig ends and the drudgery of daily rote intrudes once again.  So we just don’t let that happen and neither should you.  Anytime you need a beer holiday don’t worry about looking at the calendar, just come on down to see us – we’ve got a craft beer bash going on every day.

Trifecta of Food Holidays

3 is a magical number.  In Roman and Chinese systems, it’s one of the few numbers that’s written with as many strokes as the number represents.  It’s a significant number to Christians, Hindus, Pagans, and Pythagoras, too. In less consecrated  ways, those who fancy a flutter on the gee-gees on Derby Day or anytime Keeneland is open have the option of betting Trifectas – a challenging but profitable prediction of the order of first, second and THIRD place winners.

Even cultural superstitions are pervaded by the number – third on a match dies, celebrities die in trios, and the third time is a charm.

Although we’re not especially superstitious, nor particularly wont to wager, as we consider the number 3 alongside our immediate future, it becomes clear that the prognosis is good, bright, and perhaps even wondrous.  We might even play the numbers.

May 13, 14 and 15 constitute a Trifecta of taste, practically a Tomato Head triduum, which celebrates three of the foods that are dear to our heart and hunger.  First comes National Hummus Day, followed by Buttermilk Biscuit Day, and finally Chocolate Chip Cookie Day.  Can you imagine a better way to celebrate the middle of the lusty month of May?

Hummus remains one of our most popular offerings in and out of our restaurants – you can find it on the shelves of 14 area grocery stores (you can see where here).  Our blend of pureed chick peas, tahini and (sort of) secret seasonings is a wholesome and tasty snack that makes a lot of sense for today’s diet – it tastes great, it’s packed with protein, and, best of all, it’s made by your neighbors.  If you have yet to spread hummus on a sandwich or tortilla come on down to see us on May 13th, and we’ll happily show you how it’s done.  Heck, come any day – Roger Roger and Lucy are just hanging out on the sandwich menu waiting to meet you, while Jose Jose Burrito practically pines for your attention on this special day.

Lucky for us all, May 14, better known as National Buttermilk Biscuit Day, falls on a Saturday this year, so you don’t have to postpone your party.  You can celebrate on schedule at brunch when we have a little bit of biscuit heaven available right here on earth.  We talked about the noble biscuit and shared the best biscuit recipe, too, in this blog entry from September.  Still it’s worth remembering that biscuits are not just an important part of a good southern diet, they make for a party day extraordinaire in Knoxville.  We serve our biscuits in classic fashion with gravy galore, but you can also really throw down with our option to top the biscuit with scrambled eggs, Sweetwater valley smoked cheddar, our housemade breakfast gravy & your choice of either ham, Benton’s bacon, chorizo, housemade soysage, or baked tofu.

Finally, you can wrap up this exceptional trio of tasty days with national Chocolate Chip Cookie Day which, as you may have gathered, falls on Sunday Fun Day.  For Tomato Head, this day holds a lot of significance – not just because of our inner cookie monster but because we can share the day with so many people.  It’s a good day for us to reflect on the value of having Flour Head Bakery in our lives because they give us three kinds of chocolate chip cookies including the traditional recipe along with options for both the Vegan and the Gluten Sensitive folks that we love.

The great thing about this trifecta is that the bets always pay off. And if you’re superstitious, the only thing bad that ever happened to the third person on a cookie is that they had to ask for another cookie.

So, party on.  And if you aren’t inclined to party like a rock star, you can certainly eat like a king. Bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

 

Carl Gombert – May/June 2016 Featured Artist

Carl Gombert believes in magic.

And if you were to meet him, in person you might sense some magical vibe – the good kind that tells you if a person has been to Narnia, knows talking beasts and believes in Aslan.  It’s the magic of play and imagination.

Gombert is currently the featured artist at Tomato Head Market Square, and while you probably won’t catch him there to share his personal magic, the works in his exhibit have a magic all their own.  The exhibit consists of rubber stamped decorative pieces that have been Gombert’s focus for the last five years.

Gombert owns a series of little rubber stamps – things like butterflies, guitars, and fish and so on – very much like something you’d buy for your kids.  These varied images become the building blocks of Gombert’s work – he combines them in ever widening shapes.  In one instance the shapes form a circle of alternating banjos and guitars, in another you might find a stamp of a fish next to one of a skull and crossbones.  The results, in both black and white and color prints, are all visually alluring – but they aren’t always what they seem.

The individual pieces vary in size and shape, but they all share a seemingly deliberate structure.  And yet, Gombert insists that “They’re a lot more improvisational than they look.  They look like they’re incredibly planned out – all I can really tell you is that they start with an image in the middle that’s vaguely round and then will get bigger and bigger.  I just try to make decisions that don’t reckon.”

Still, one look at these pieces may make you wonder if Gombert is telling the truth.  He is adamant that he is, but, he adds, “I know now from a lot of experience that certain kinds of repetition and rotation will yield very geometric, mandala like organization; and yet I don’t have a preset idea of what images I’ll use – one thing will suggest another.  And so that improvisational nature versus the highly structured underpinnings really appeals to me as an artist.   I’m all about the dichotomies of planned chaos or ordered disarray.”

One particular piece is an alluring series of what appear to be pinwheels, perhaps even flowers, and yet if you get close to the image, you’ll notice that the prominent stamp is the image of a pistol.  Likewise, a series of decorative triangles, upon closer inspection, reveal themselves to be a series of butterflies.

Gombert avoids defining his work in terms of specific style, but for this amateur observer, it’s hard not to make general comparisons to pointillism or the photomosaic technique which is probably best known through Dali’s Lincoln in Dalivision.  Gombert chuckles at the thought and proceeds to talk about Dali’s work, Mae West’s Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment (which is definitely worth a visit with your favorite search engine).

The dichotomy of things that look like one thing but are really something entirely different appeals to him – but one wonders if the appeal arises from the artist’s aesthetic or comes from a more mischievous place where lions speak and fauns make tea for young ladies who travel via wardrobe.

Gombert, who is also a professor of Art at Maryville College, will display his work at Market Square through the end of May and then the show will move westward to the Gallery for the month of June.

Mother’s Day 2016

My first real memory of flowers coincides with Mother’s Day.  As in many parts of the country, we wore blooms pinned to our lapels or dresses as we went to church on Mother’s Day: red roses if our mothers were still alive or white if they had died.  For my family that meant gathering the buds of wild roses that grew on the property – whites grew amongst the piney scrub on a steep embankment across the road from our driveway, while, in the back yard, the red roses climbed a weathered trestle that stood alongside a little brick-colored dog house with a sturdy, asphalt-shingled roof that my father built for a sweet mutt named Mingo.

At the time, Mom, Dad, Sister and I all wore red roses but we picked the white ones to share with my grandmothers and also to assemble into little bouquets that were destined for the Old Piney Church cemetery where some of my great grandparents rested.  Mother’s Day was, and still is Decoration Day for this cemetery that now holds my father’s parents, his brother and a nephew – my cousin, who was born only three months after me.

That may strike some of you as maudlin, or perhaps more evidence that the predilections of the Southern Gothic are not limited to states of mind in the deeper south.  But for me, it wasn’t necessarily a sad time – it was family time that had some lessons about mortality but mostly I remember my mother’s hand and feeling the comfort and warmth of her presence as we placed the flowers, taking care not to step on anyone’s grave.  Now it reminds me to treasure the family that I can still see.

I’m still fond of holding my mother’s hand, and I’m grateful for that;  nothing quite calms the troubled mind like her big hugs or eases sorrow like a good cry on her shoulder.  But when I look back on those days when I was about 4 feet tall and clad in a blue polyester suit gathering flowers early on Mother’s Day, I’m reminded of just how sweet my youth was, of how fortunate I was to live where wild roses grew, and of how good it was to have a mother who cared enough about the memory of relatives long gone to decorate their resting places with little bouquets – humble and wild though they were.

I suppose there are few of us who can claim an untroubled relationship with mom or dad or anyone, really, but I hope that if you think hard enough you can find one or two, maybe thousands of moments that make you happy to call someone Mom. And perhaps you’ll be seeing that person on Mother’s Day.

Like many holidays, Mother’s Day is easy to phone in or gloss over with a glittery, silly or sentimental card from the grocery.  And if, like my Mom, yours has been forgotten a few times, she may be happy just to be remembered – and really that’s enough.  But, as we’ve often written in this blog, it’s worth taking the time to do something special to really remember the person you love instead of just not forgetting the date or anniversary or whatever.  So, get the card, but don’t forget the kiss.  And if it’s flowers that you give, try to remember her favorite kind.  And best of all save some of your time and spend it with her.

Scones

Lord knows we love a biscuit.  Fluffy, warm, dripping in butter and slathered in jam or glistening with honey, the very thought jump starts the appetite and sets the mouth to water.  And yet, as good as that is – and really, it’s nearly unbeatable goodness – there are times when the human spirit, driven by a blend of hunger and ambition, urges us to go above and beyond the expected, to gild the lily and say damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

It is on those days when desire and determination meet that we make scones.

The scone, a biscuit-like favorite of our cousins across the pond, is no less subject to disputes of origin and authenticity than any other good food of ancient lineage.  So whether you ascribe the origin of the name, scone itself to the Dutch schoonbrood or get your Scots’ pride on and claim the name for the Stone of Destiny (where the kings of Scotland were crowned), we’ll gladly listen to your argument if you don’t mind if we eat while you jabber.

The scone at heart is very similar to the biscuit: its origin, humble and its purpose, nourishing.  They are made of similar ingredients and can produce equal euphoria in many eaters.  Yet, as any true scone lover will tell you, the similarity ends there.  Scones are not light and fluffy, they don’t have buttermilk, and they just don’t match red eye gravy.

Instead a scone is dense with a fine crumb; it sometimes includes egg in the recipe, and, so is, generally speaking, a richer bite.  That’s part of what makes it special. The heavy cream doesn’t hurt either.

If you haven’t had one – or perhaps your mother needs treating – we have a solution for you.  After all, it’s a weekend worthy of treats, and this is a pretty fine way to treat the lovely woman who helped you learn to wash your hands after you went to the garden.

This weekend, we’ll be serving sweet cream scones that we’ll top with Zavell’s farm strawberries, Moore’s Acre honey and some crème fraiche.

Sound rich?  Well, yes it is, but it’s also delicious and has the added advantage of being dressed up by good stuff from our neighbors – sweet strawberries from Blaine and delicious honey made in Washburn.  Scones are always better with friends.

Once you try this, you’ll probably want it in your repertoire alongside your best biscuit recipe.  So make sure you tune in to WBIR on Saturday – Mahasti will be making scones on Weekend Today, so you can get the recipe and see it come to life at the same time.

 

Sweet Cream Scones with Honeyed Strawberries and Whipped Cream

For the scone: 

2.5 cups all purpose flour

¼ cup sugar

1 Tbs baking powder

¼ tsp salt

4 Tbs chilled unsalted butter

1 ¼ cup heavy cream

1 Tbl vanilla

Place flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.  Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the bowl.  With a pastry cutter or rubbing with your fingertips, work the butter into the flour until butter is in pea size pieces.  Add the heavy cream and vanilla and stir with a wooden spoon until all the flour has been moistened.  Turn the dough around a couple of time in the bowl, and then transfer to a floured cutting board.  Bring the dough together to form a ball, then flatten slightly and place in the refrigerator for 10 minutes uncovered.  Remove the dough from the refrigerator, roll it out to ½ inch thickness, then fold it over itself, and place back in the refrigerator uncovered for 10 minutes longer.  Remove once again, and roll out to ½ inch thickness.  Cut the dough out with a 2.5 inch biscuit cutter, and place rounds on a parchment lined cookie sheet.  Place the cookie sheet back in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees while the scones are chilling.  Place chilled scones in preheated oven and bake for 13- 15 minutes until tops are light brown.

Allow the scones to cool to room temperature.

For the Honeyed Strawberries:

1 quart strawberries, rinsed, capped and sliced

3/4 cup  honey

Place sliced strawberries in a small bowl, toss with honey and allow to sit until juices from the strawberries have been released.

For the whipped Cream

1 cup heavy cream

1/8 cup plus 1Tbl Confectioner’s sugar

1 tsp vanilla

Place  heavy cream in the bowl of stand mixer with the whisk attachment and beat with confectioner’s sugar and vanilla until soft peaks form

To assemble scones:

Place one scone on a small plate

Top with ½ cup sliced strawberries and some of the juice

Top the strawberries with ¼ cup of whipped cream

Serve immediately

Serves 8 – 10

 

 

Cinco de Mayo

For the well-read individual, the historian, and, perhaps, for some champions of authenticity, Cinco de Mayo isn’t an exciting holiday.  In the way of the commercial world, the 5th of May, like a few other notable holidays, may have more of its roots in sales routes than in anything else.  But for us at Tomato Head, this particular Cinco de Mayo is an unusually special day, and, if you remember our second restaurant on Market Square in the 90’s, the beloved if short lived Lula, you, too, may think this Cinco de Mayo is pretty cool.

It’s not uncommon for food and beverage writers to lament that Cinco de Mayo is a trumped up little holiday without much correspondence to the reality of Mexico’s own holiday calendar.  It is not the Mexican Independence Day, which is actually on September 16th, nor is it a huge party day across the Mexican nation.  The common complaint is that May 5th was the creation of beer marketers and, later, further popularized by the caramel colored clown that is our nation’s best-selling tequila.

That’s not entirely true.

It’s certainly a holiday that generates its fair share of American hangovers, but it does commemorate an unlikely Mexican victory over invading French troops in 1862.  The battle is still celebrated in Puebla, the state where it happened, and the locals keep the day in festive array with reenactments, parades, and other celebratory happenings.

But what makes Cinco de Mayo particularly fascinating is the way that it has impacted the United States – and not by booze alone.

The victory at Puebla, though not a major battle in the way that strategists think of such things, was a major symbol in the Mexican resistance to Napoleon III’s attempts to reclaim a debt and establish a colonial power.  It helped energize the resistance, which not only kept France from solidifying power but prevented them from fiddling in the American Civil War.  If France had been able to overrun Mexico, there’s a pretty good chance they would have aided the Confederacy in order to end the Union’s pesky blockade of Southern ports.

That might have been a major game changer in the course of human events.

More recently, and perhaps the reason that beer marketers found the holiday, Cinco de Mayo was an important rally day for the Chicano Movement in the 1960’s.  The movement embraced the day as a way to celebrate Mexican tradition, history, and identity in the United States during their struggle for equal rights.

There’s a lot more to the history of the day than we have room to discuss – and that’s certainly true of the Chicano Movement and its impact on Civil Rights.  But suffice to say that we’re proud to celebrate.

And, to show our joy, and to celebrate a little of our own history (not to mention showing off our shiny new liquor license), we’ll be adding tequila to our small but growing collection of spirits.  It will be a 100% blue agave tequila which we’ll mix with house made limeade for a margarita that will almost reincarnate the very popular drinks that we served at Lula back in the day.

If you don’t recall, Lula, our second restaurant on Market Square, featured a contemporary take on Mexican and southwestern cuisine from mole to margaritas.  Sadly, Lula was ahead of its time (and ahead of the crowds on the Square), and we closed the restaurant in 2000 to concentrate on making Tomato Head the best it could be.

Still, we, and many of our friends, have always kept fond memories of Lula in our heart. Now we’ll keep some at the bar.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!  And regardless of what you celebrate, we hope you’ll share part of the day with us!

¡Salud!

© 2016 The Tomato Head Site by: Robin Easter Design