The Chef: Mark Mendez (Uva)
The ingredient: Tomato leaves
Cooking at a restaurant that's still under construction can be challenging. Mark Mendez plans to open Uva, a Spanish wine bar and restaurant in the West Loop, in late October, but it was still a work in progress when we were there. "We're not in the kitchen because there's no gas," Mendez noted. "It hasn't been turned on yet. There's electricity, but I couldn't figure out the air-conditioning. So we're going to cook at the bar."
Mendez wasn't particularly excited about tomato leaves, which he said don't have a lot of taste. He considered making a Bloody Mary and putting crispy tomato leaves around the rim—"but we don't have any ice here." He fried them in olive oil, but all he could taste was the oil. The leaves don't have much taste, he said. "Then I ate it raw, and it just tasted like a weed."
What he's heard other people use the leaves for is tomato sauce, adding them early in the cooking process to brighten the tomato flavor. Mendez didn't want to make pasta, but figured the concept might work for something else. "You get that smell; it's a really intense tomatoey smell. Which is why I think it might work to infuse a sauce, but something about—I mean, I ate 'em. I tried putting salt on them, and just—nothing."
Mendez decided to make gazpacho, but not in a blender. "I don't want to go off, sound like some kind of cerebral freak, but I wanted the essence of the tomato—that's a big word. Sometimes when you puree everything together, there's so much flavor—toasted bread, extra-virgin, onions, and peppers—that the tomato gets a little bit lost."
After straining the juice from several fresh tomatoes, Mendez put a tomato stalk in the liquid and let it sit overnight. He said the infusion did bring out a little more "tomato intensity": "I tasted it last night, I tasted it this morning. I did notice a little difference—it wasn't huge, but it was a very subtle kind of thing."
Rather than blending other vegetables into the gazpacho, Mendez chopped them up and served them as a garnish: cucumber, onion, and radish (normally he'd use bell peppers too, but it was too early for them at the farmers' market). Other garnishes included olive oil and more tomato leaves.
The result was a light, vibrant red soup. "I love how it looks, and I think you get that really clean tomato essence," Mendez said. "It tastes really good to me. It's not going to fill you up, but it's really light and refreshing."
As for the tomato leaves, "I think you taste something. Like when you eat an herb and you get that herby sort of aftertaste on your tongue. It kind of tastes like a weed."
1 lb. roma tomatoes (or any that are ripe and sweet)
6 sungold tomatoes (or grape tomatoes)
1 small red onion
1 red bell pepper
stale crusty bread
5 T olive oil
2 T sherry vinegar
15 tomato leaves
First, roughly chop tomatoes and put in a fine strainer. Mash tomatoes with the back of a spoon and force as much of the tomato through the strainer as possible. Do this until no more liquid comes out of the tomatoes; allow them to drain further for two hours. Take the tomato puree and add the tomato leaves and let sit overnight in the refrigerator. The next day remove tomato mixture from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Dice cucumber, onion, and bell pepper into small cubes, slice sungold tomatoes in half and mix everything together. Season vegetables with salt and pepper. In a hot sauté pan place about 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Cut bread into crouton-size squares and place in the olive oil. Saute in the olive oil over medium heat until browned on all sides. Finely chop some tomato leaves and add to vegetable mixture. To serve, place diced vegetables in soup bowl, pour gazpacho over, place croutons on top and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
Rob Levitt of the Butcher & Larder, working with abalone. Mendez didn't think Levitt worked with seafood much, being a butcher, so he wanted to give him something relatively obscure. "I don't know if you can make sausage out of it, but if you can, Rob would figure out a way, I think," Mendez said.