With summer come the perennial favorites of Ohio's short-lived growing season: sweet corn, crisp beans and bright, tangy tomatoes. Nothing from the store compares to fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes, and Cleveland's scratch kitchens are making use of these ephemeral beauties while they last — perhaps none more so than Chris DiLisi, owner and chef of the Willeyville (1051 West 10th St., 216-862-6422, thewilleyville.com) in the Flats East Bank.
"I look at a tomato and say, 'Okay, well, what can we do with it?'" DiLisi says.
This month, he's using heirloom tomatoes — Mortgage Lifters, Green Zebras, White Wonders and Brandywines — in as many incarnations as a chef's mind can think up. There's tomato salad, of course, but also tomato consommé, smoked tomatoes and tomato powder.
"Our kitchen is based on utilization, first and foremost," says DiLisi. "Scratch kitchen to me doesn't mean that you're opening up a jar of mayonnaise and pulverizing some basil and now you have pesto mayo. Making aioli, making cheese, making tofu, making buttermilk, making crème fraiche: Those are things we do daily," he says.
The inspiration for his more unusual incarnations of heirloom tomatoes comes from his aversion to waste combined with his passion for creating good food. "We don't throw anything away," DiLisi says again and again.
For instance, on the current Willeyville menu is cod with corn succotash and smoked tomato coulis (playfully dubbed, "Gettin' corny with cod and tomato").
"There's always those weird end cuts that you have that don't present well in the salad," DiLisi says. So rather than toss them in the trash, he smokes them and pulverizes them into a flavorful, pulpy sauce.
As far as the tomatoes themselves, they're coming straight out of DiLisi's own garden — he'd have one on the grounds of the restaurant if it weren't entrenched in a "concrete jungle" — and he's chosen the four varieties carefully.
"I like a good mix of colors and textures," he explains. "I always think how will they look on a plate, and then also when they're going to be able to get on that plate," from the first crop of White Wonders (which actually are a pale yellow) to the last harvest of stripy Green Zebras.
For the best texture and flavor, DiLisi says to keep heirloom tomatoes at room temperature, and to never fully cook them. Stick to canned tomatoes for high-heat recipes like marinara sauce, which needs the additional acidity that the canning process creates.
"A fresh tomato is going to have more water content," DiLisi explains. "Obviously, for me, that makes a lot of sense for consommé [a strongly flavored, clear broth] because it's going to separate easier than canned tomatoes."
The skins from those tomatoes then go into the kitchen's dehydrators, where they're dried and ground into tomato powder, then kneaded into fresh pasta dough for the restaurant's house-made tomato noodles.
"It doesn't work for everybody, I understand that," DiLisi says of all the work he and his staff put into each dish. "But it's the only way I really know how to do things. I'm pretty proud of it. And honestly, at the end of the day, it's not worth a hill of beans if we don't truly think it makes a difference in the plate."