Carina Cavagnaro, head chef at La Rana Bistro, in Decorah, shares her love of tomatoes in this month’s Field to Fork feature. INSET- Heirloom Tomato Galette with Herbed Pastry. (submitted)
Carina Cavagnaro, head chef at La Rana Bistro, in Decorah, shares her love of tomatoes in this month’s Field to Fork feature. INSET- Heirloom Tomato Galette with Herbed Pastry. (submitted)

By Carina Cavagnaro

For me, the true peak of Iowa’s summer is a perfectly ripe, juicy tomato picked off the vine and eaten right then, still warm from the sun. Tomatoes are one of the many joys of late summer as the garden’s bounty rolls in along with sweet corn, green beans and trunk-loads of zucchini. The anticipation of these locally grown beauties in particular is palpable and thrilling, especially after months of sad, flavorless grocery store specimens. They may not be everyone’s favorite, but I would wager that any tomato-hater could be turned if offered a plate of sliced, flavor-packed, locally-grown delights dressed with nothing more than flaky sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
Here in the Driftless we are fortunate to have many local farmers growing a wide array of tomato varieties — not just the familiar red slicers and beefsteaks, but also the rainbow of heirlooms that have been made available to farmers and gardeners alike through seed saving organizations like Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. Heirloom varieties - meaning open pollinated by wind, insects or birds - are seeds that have been passed down among families or communities for at least 50 years and not crossed or hybridized with other varieties, come in all sizes, colors, shapes, flavor characteristics and have many specific culinary uses. 
My personal favorites include the large-fruited Gold Medal, a bicolored yellow tomato with red-streaked flesh, and Cherokee Purple, a medium, dusty-brown sweet fruit. Both are perfect for slicing and eating fresh or in a classic BLT or caprese salad with fresh mozzarella and basil. Amish Paste is a fantastic go-to for canning or sauce making due to its dense, meaty flesh, giving us a way of saving the summer in a jar for the long cold Midwestern winter. Green Zebra, Nebraska Wedding, Ukrainian Purple, Wapsipinicon Peach — all have names hinting at the varieties’ histories, origins, or wild color characteristics. The list goes on and on. Many hybrid varieties have their place in my garden and on my plate as well, such as the prolific Sun Gold Cherry with its perfectly-sized, bright orange, super-sweet fruits that are addictively snack-able.
As a head chef, I crave local tomato season. I can’t wait to order the first gems directly from the farmers themselves and to have the opportunity to put them on your plate. At home, tomatoes are the number one priority in my garden, along with fresh basil — a match made in heaven. Food is such a driving force in my life that even when I’m cooking at work I’m thinking ahead to what I will make when I get home that night, or on my next day off. 
One of my favorite and most versatile recipes is the simple, rustic galette: an open-faced pie which can trend either sweet or savory. 
This savory version is a perfect way to celebrate the colorful tomatoes we have at our fingertips at this time of year. It can be served any time of day either as an appetizer, light lunch or dinner main alongside a big beautiful green salad. And once you’ve mastered the basic pastry dough, you will be able to feature practically any seasonal fruit or vegetable in the most visually striking and delicious way. Just visit your local farmer’s market to select your tomatoes and happy baking! 

Heirloom Tomato Galette with Herbed Pastry   

Serves 4-6 
1¼ cup all-purpose flour 
8T cold unsalted butter, cubed 
¼ c ice water 
¼ t salt 
Fresh thyme, chopped (optional) 

2 to 4 ounces cheese (grated white cheddar, fontina, havarti, or a soft goat cheese would all be delicious.) 
3-4 large fresh tomatoes, sliced
Olive oil
Salt, basil, herbs as desired

In a medium mixing bowl, combine all pastry ingredients and work quickly to incorporate the butter with your hands, pressing between your fingers along with the flour until the mixture has a sandy consistency. 
Drizzle in cold water and hand-toss to combine, just until dough comes together and can be pressed into a disc shape on the countertop. Be careful not to overwork the dough or let the butter become greasy. Do not knead. 
Wrap the dough disc in wax paper or plastic and chill for at least 30 minutes (can also be done the day before).

To cook the Galette:
Preheat oven to 400 F, line a large baking sheet with parchment. 
Roll out dough into a circle on a floured surface to roughly ¼ inch thickness and place on baking sheet. 
Line the bottom with cheese of your choice, leaving a 1½ inch border of dough. 
Layer on top slices of tomato in a circular, overlapping pattern until you have filled in the circle. 
Drizzle with olive oil and season with sea salt. 
Fold over the remaining outside edges of dough, overlapping as you go around the circle and pressing the edges to seal the overlaps. 
Brush top of dough with milk and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for about 45 minutes or until crust is golden and cheese is melted. Let cool for 10 minutes before cutting into the galette.
Top with fresh basil or other tender herbs just before serving.