The handmade sign in front of Pole Green Produce along Pole Green Road in Hanover County was large and rustic but made its point. The popular produce stand did, indeed, have Hanover tomatoes as it advertised, and if the circus that was the parking lot on that day was any indication, you would have thought they were giving away money with those juicy ’maters.
Hanover tomato craze is in high gear and just in time, as the 39th Hanover Tomato Festival is Saturday, July 8, at Pole Green Park. But it’s not just the high-traffic produce stands where you can find these ruby riches. Travel the winding back roads throughout the entire county and you’ll likely drive past makeshift carts parked along the road near small private farms, beckoning passers-by to stop and grab a handful of the robust, ripe summer fruit. Don’t leave without paying for them, of course.
“A lot of local farmers will put out honor carts,” said Marcy Durrer, recreation program manager for Hanover’s Parks and Recreation department, and because of that, “the Hanover tomatoes are available in every corner (of the county) — you just have to know where to look.”
But no matter where you get your stash, be it a roadside cart or the lone humble tomato plant you’ve nurtured all spring on the back porch, tomatoes are like a welcome mat for the summer palate. Their arrival means tomato-mayo sandwiches, cheesy tomato pies, elegant caprese salads and mile-high BLTs with smoky bacon and thick tomato slices, and so much more.
So armed with a heavy brown bag filled with Hanover tomatoes last week — big ones and really big ones and little ones and red and yellow cherry tomatoes, too — I created a masterpiece of a weeknight meal that incorporates two — no, three — of my favorite things: buttermilk cornbread, blistered and roasted tomatoes, and sharp cheddar cheese.
The best part about this meal is its ease. It takes only one skillet if you happen to have a cast-iron version, because it goes right into the oven when you’re done on the stovetop. Sautéed sweet onion cooks with chopped tomatoes and whole cherry tomatoes, which burst delightfully when cooked, plus sprigs of fresh thyme. Then that mixture is set aside so you can wipe the skillet clean and start again, this time with a quick cornbread mix you can make right in the skillet. I prefer buttermilk in my cornbread, and once combined, this serves as the base for the bed of roasted veggies.
The whole thing is baked, and what emerges is a thin, crispy-around-the-edges cornbread studded with bright, plump tomatoes. Hints of cheddar and thyme are sublime, and while it smells amazing right out of the oven, wait just a bit if you can before eating. This stuff is best when it’s room-temperature. If you do have leftovers (it’s highly unlikely), you’ll be wishing all leftovers could be of this caliber.
Classic Panzanella came next. The simple tomato-bread salad is created with a variety of fresh chopped vegetables, topped with some sort of vinegar to give it a kick of acidity and then mixed with extra-crunchy homemade croutons that couldn’t be easier to make.
For this one I grabbed a large tomato — nearly a 1-pounder, and I’m not even exaggerating — and chopped it with fresh yellow and red bell peppers and red onion. White wine vinegar and a quick douse of balsamic vinegar were all I preferred, because you want the freshness of the ingredients to come through, not the vinegar.
The croutons were just chunks of bite-sized French bread that I tore off the loaf, tossed with olive oil, garlic powder and dried oregano, and baked. When you’re ready to eat, combine the baked croutons with the salad and enjoy it as the liquid soaks into the croutons, creating a lovely contrast of crunchy and chewy bread and crisp vegetables.
It’s a satisfying summer lunch or light dinner, and ready in a pinch. (For added texture and interest, consider adding white beans to this salad, too, and when serving, perhaps a sprinkling of goat cheese or feta.)
Of course, if you’re heading to the Hanover Tomato Festival, you’re probably going (mostly) to eat. And eat you will, as dozens of vendors will be there offering fried green tomatoes, tomato pies, crabcakes with tomato remoulade sauce, tomato and cucumber salads, plus plain-old tomatoes by the bushel. So whether you’re a Hanover native or just visiting the festival for the day, as the saying goes, when in Rome ... buy a bushel of tomatoes or three and let summer shine on your plate.