I was going to make panzanella, and I wanted plump, voluptuous, vine-ripe tomatoes, warm from the sun, with winey juices and the sweet-tart flavors that only good soil, careful tending and hours of sunlight can create. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2002, local produce wasn’t easy to find in Southeast Texas. I wanted my restaurant to be Beaumont’s answer to Chez Panisse. It sounds funny, but I really wanted it. I was convinced that we had terroir in Southeast Texas too. Everyone I knew had grown up eating catfish and gulf shrimp from our local waters, tomatoes, cucuzza squash, and figs from backyard gardens, dewberries and blackberries from early summer picking expeditions, pears and citrus from neighborhood trees. You have to stop things from growing in Southeast Texas. Now, I wanted homegrown tomatoes for my restaurant, but the only two options for produce suppliers sold trucked-in goods from far away. Driving 90 miles each way to Houston was not a viable option. The larger-scale local farmers I could find only grew rice, rice, and more rice. Those tomatoes were out there, I knew it. I started driving past houses on the edge of town slowly, looking for rows of tomatoes–I had the idea that I could find a home gardener with enough bounty to sell. I became desperate, almost willing to sneak over fences in the dead of night to steal tomatoes like a possum, when I hit paydirt.
Behind the Cracker Barrel on I10 was a modest ranch house with junky cars and yapping weenie dogs in the driveway, and . . . row after row after row of tomatoes. I squealed into the driveway, kicking up gravel and dust in my haste to beat out any other buyers (which of course, there were none). An old fella came out to meet me, legs of his jumpsuit hastily stuffed into rubber boots, dogs roiling around his ankles. “Shut up, Princess, shut up, Tiny,” he snapped. He came towards me with an outstretched arm, tomato in hand, and shoved it under my nose. His eyes gleamed with the zeal of a crusader. “Try it! Take a bite right out of it, like an apple!” I’m not even sure I was completely out of my car, but I did as I was told. Tomato juice ran down my chin and my eyes closed in rapture. I opened them to see him staring at me intently. “See?” he said, as though we had been in the midst of an argument and there was no refuting him. “Yes,” I said. “You’re right.”
Every time I came, the routine was the same. Before I was even out of the car, he stomped my way, and shoved something in my face, slicing okra with a rusty old pocketknife, “Bet you haven’t had this heirloom okra–good enough to eat raw, crunchy! Here, eat it!” Before long, I started sneaking away from the restaurant between lunch and dinner to visit the little farm. He’d sold the portion of his land that bordered the freeway, and now he was rich, but you’d never know it. I’m not even sure he knew it, or remembered who I was between visits. He was consumed with love for his vegetables, though, and referred to his plants and their produce as “she.” Parting the leaves of a squash vine, he’d say, “She got a little too much water early on, see how these leaves are yella? But she’s coming around and see these little bitty squash here? They’re gonna be real, real purty.” We stood between the rows, shoes caked with mud, heat and humidity bearing down on us, and I realized here was a kindred spirit, someone maybe even crazier than I was about food and flavor, and where it comes from, and I couldn’t get enough. Now, years later, the rows at Rain Lily are heavy with tomatoes, and Stephanie is just as consumed with love for everything growing, and I still can’t get enough.
1 loaf ciabatta, cut into cubes
tomatoes, a mixture of sizes, shapes and colors
1 small red onion, slivered
1 bunch basil
1 clove garlic, minced
4 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1/3-1/2 c. olive oil
Preheat oven to 400. Place ciabatta cubes in a large bowl and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss until bread cubes are evenly coated. Place in a single layer on a large baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden but still partially soft and chewy. While bread is baking, Cut tomatoes into various shapes and place in bowl used for tossing bread. Add slivered red onion. In a small bowl, whisk vinegar, garlic and olive oil until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper if desired. Pour over tomatoes and onions. When bread cubes are ready, remove from oven and while still hot, pour on top of tomatoes. Let sit for 15 minutes without stirring so tomatoes release their juices. Add torn basil leaves, drizzle with vinaigrette and toss everything together.