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The tomato has landed

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The tomato at Landmark, 1633 N. Halsted: layered with bacon, dill, shallots and buttermilk dressing.


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Remember last summer's tomatoes-

On second thought, maybe you'd rather not.

Cool weather conspired against last year's tomato crop. It's not that they tasted terrible, but they were puny, ugly and late to the party, if they even came in at all.

This year, the warm days arrived early and are sticking around, which has meant earlier tomatoes, and lots of them.

"All in all, a good tomato year," says Chicagoan-turned-Michigan farmer Dave Dyrek of Leaning Shed Farm. He grows more than 47 tomato varieties.

Still, this year's more-than-average rainfall can ruin the good thing we have going.

The moister it is, the more diluted the tomato's flavor tends to be. And with excess moisture comes spores that can cause leaf disease, says Chuck Voigt, a vegetable specialist with the University of Illinois Extension.

"I would think there's going to be some major blight issues as we continue through the season, because of all the rain," Voigt says.

Dyrek has already been dealing with early blight on his tomato plants, though he says he caught it early enough and, by spraying with liquid copper, an organic fungicide, he has been able to keep it in check.

We're rooting for you, Dave. But enough talk of big bad blight. Think happy thoughts. Like: Tomatoes are here, they're plentiful, they're what you've been waiting for. So much so, you might be inclined to eat tomatoes all day long.

So I propose just that: a road map for an all-tomato eating day.

There's inspiration to be found all over town. Tomato salads, soups and sorbets, garnished with more tomato. Tomatoes atop Wagyu beef at the Purple Pig, 500 N. Michigan, and underneath goat-cheese stuffed fried squash blossoms at Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark.

Drinking tomatoes isn't off limits. At the Publican, 837 W. Fulton, the Immaculate Mary - tomato water, Death's Door vodka, jalapeno and salt - is on the brunch menu. The wonderful book Cooking From the Garden (Taunton Press, $29.95) offers a carrot juice and tomato smoothie.

Is it possible to tire of tomatoes- In this land of the nine-month winter, I think not. So let's take the tomato one day at a time.

Breakfast

Farmer Chris Covelli of Tomato Mountain Farm in Brooklyn, Wis. snacks on small, sweet Sun Gold cherry tomatoes for breakfast "all the time," he says.

In my childhood, big red tomatoes were an integral part of my mom's Filipino breakfast of champions, a weekend treat: fried fish or a sweet sausage called longanisa, eggplant charred over open flame, rice and fish sauce.

Even now, when feeling nostalgic, I make a morning meal of the rice, tomatoes and fish sauce, with a scrambled egg.

Here's another idea from another culture: eggs baked in tomatoes, from Recipes from an Italian Summer (Phaidon, $39.95). It is just as stripped down, and seems as good as any way to start the day.

Lunch

The BLT is an obvious choice for the midday meal. A tomato and Brie sandwich, a little less so.

This sandwich is what Jill Barron loves about Paris; it's a given at virtually every little bakery there, she says.

At home in Chicago, the chef at MANA food bar, 1742 W. Division, prefers to start with Red Hen multi-grain bread, though toasted ciabatta wouldn't be shabby, either.

She layers her sandwich like this: creamy goat Brie, basil leaves, sliced tomatoes.

This probably would suffice for lunch. But say I want soup, too. Then I'd go for gazpacho. At the Portage, 3938 N. Central, tomatoes and watermelon are roasted, then pureed with grapes, cucumber, shallot and garlic. How cool.

Dinner

The perfect tomato appetizer plays with the tomato, but not too much. Tomatoes softened in shallot-flavored cream, for example.

Or what's listed as "Tomato, buttermilk, bacon, dill" on the menu at Landmark, 1633 N. Halsted - thick slices of tomato, stacked with bacon and dill, crowned with crispy shallots and drizzled with buttermilk dressing.

For the main course, Province chef Randy Zweiban offers a recipe for gratin. At the restaurant, it's served as a supporting player (to grilled skirt steak), but at home, it's hearty enough to stand on its own.

And it makes beautiful use of corn and squash, equally abundant right now.

Dessert

How to end this day- Sarah Kosikowski, pastry chef at Sixteen, 401 N. Wabash, offers this idea: a berry tart with vanilla-poached cherry tomatoes, which makes perfect sense as tomatoes are "technically a berry," she says.

At a farmers market, Swap Shop columnist Sandy Thorn Clark picked up a recipe card for a one-bowl tomato cake that she says is delicious.

It also is easy: Stir together 1 box yellow cake mix with pudding; 4 eggs; ¼ cup oil; 2 cups chopped, unpeeled tomatoes; and a pinch of salt and cinnamon. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. Done.

And then there's Kristine Subido's preserved tomatoes. The chef at Wave has taken her mom's recipe and run with it. One day, she adds peppercorns; the next, a pinch of saffron or cloves.

I will eat these, as Subido does, over ice cream. Tomorrow, I might eat them, as she does, with yogurt for breakfast . . . or with grilled chicken at dinner . . . or with cheese and bread as a snack . . .

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