It all started with a tease.
“You’ve gotta just come out and see the stuff I have.” he said.
“Just come out and I’ll show you, it’ll blow your mind!” Rich Tomsu, owner of Rich Organic Gardens walked away.
He hooked me.”I’ll be out on Saturday at noon.” I muttered.
Luckily, I got an early start after ingesting a bucket full of java. I still hadn’t learned my lesson in Southeast Ohio, where using a GPS is futile. I got hopelessly lost. As I backtracked, I saw the sign for Shade, Ohio, which led me down the most beautiful road I’d seen in ages. Tall trees created a tunnel with primordial arm-thick vines hanging over Pratts Fork, a babbling stream and tributary of the Shade River. A quick left and I arrived at the farm. Rich came to the car and asked, “You didn’t use your GPS, did you?” All I could do is laugh. (That’s guy speak for ” Hell yeah.”)
I arrived at greens washing time. Lauren Mahaffy and Marin Bosely bathed these beautiful crunchy lettuce leaves and swish Chard by hand with spring water. Rich took me on a quick tour of the farm. Two dogs followed us up a long low hill above a small, sloping hollow. From up here, there is no hint of human existence as far as the eye can see, no sounds except the dogs rooting out some unfortunate ground dweller. Stretched out on our left are potato fields in long rows followed by squash and a field of garlic.
Rich and Anne are stalwarts of the Athens Farmers Market and have been there since 1989. I’ve known them for over seven years but more intimately for the past three. Anne is the president of the market and presides with fairness and caring strength that makes it one of the top ten markets in the country. She donates her time is always available for vendors and farmers alike in this busy market. Both Anne and Rich are uncompromising in their simple dedication to grow local products the way nature wanted and to help local farmers achieve local, organic certification.
Anne Fugate and Rich Tomsu (right) with Lauren Mahaffy and Marin Bosely.
Rich is dedicated to growing his produce in an all organic environment. I love his fanaticism about the ways to prepare vegetables that he has grown. He constantly trips my wires with comments that start with “John, you’re not gonna believe this” as he reaches behind his table for a new heirloom onion, potato or tomato. “If you pair this with…, your customers will be in heaven!” I am constantly amazed at his knowledge of food, which also helps sales of his products.
I now buy all my French Fingerling, Corrolla and Red Gold potatoes from Rich. My family is addicted to their greens and we cannot pass up their fresh eggs either. Also on my “must have” list from Rich is the heirloom cherry tomatoes in all different colors, shapes and sizes. From Bordeaux spinach with the red veins and light, crunchy texture to the giant green Ishikura onions and green garlic in the spring, the produce here is unsurpassed in its contribution to my breads and pizza.
We stood in a lush green grove of what looks like a pineapple field with the long sharp sword-leaves pointing at the sky. I am interested in the out-of-this-worldl look of the garlic flowers, but Rich seems embarrassed. “I should’ve cut all those off,” he says. It seems that if you cut the garlic tops, the bulb will grow better. He then showed me what I came for.
As Rich points out, it is not the Elephant garlic variety normally associated with huge garlic. This is German Hardy garlic at it’s best. I decide the taste will be perfect for my Bagna Caulda braised heart of romaine pizza.
I thank Anne, Rich, Lauren and Marin and beat-feet back to Athens to bake the Bagna Caulda pizzas.
Rich Tomsu and his farm and the Turkish Pide (Pee-DAY) I make with his garlic, spinach, Parmesan, locally-aged cheddar, tomato and ricotta.
Bagna Caulda (braised heart of romaine) Pizza
This pizza has the crunch and the wickedly decadent combination of garlic, anchovy, lemon, fennel and Manchego cheese (Spanish cheddar). I make it almost every week because I love the way the romaine stands up to the sauce, and how the tomato, the cheddar, roasted fennel lemon and olives enhance its flavor. The Bagna Caulda turns a normal day into a crunchy anchovy-garlic lovefest. Just bring a knife and fork.
Our 3-foot-long with romaine, fresh mozzarella and kalamatas.
Make the Easy Dough recipe 4 to 6 hours beforehand. Leave in dough ball until ready to top and cook.
1 fennel bulb
1 teaspoon olive oil + 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 to 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
12-18 anchovies preserved in olive oil, drained and chopped
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
Half a lemon
1 heart of romaine, bottom trimmed of brown and slit down the middle
For the toppings
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil for brushing the pizza dough
4 ounces Manchego cheese
1 Roma tomato
1/4 lemon for spritzing on pizza
2 tablespoons chopped kalamata olives or capers (optional)
3 anchovy filets (optional)
Preheat oven to 430 degrees. Place a heavy upturned retangular pan or pizza stone in the oven to preheat also.
Trim the stalks off the fennel bulb and wash thoroughly. Cut the bulb vertically, exposing the core. Using a V cut, take the bulb out. Turn on its side and slice thin pieces from half of the bulb. Place into a saute pan with a teaspoon of olive oil and saute for 3-4 minutes until tender. Reserve for pizza topping
In a small saute pan, cook the garlic in the olive oil over low heat. Add anchovies and cook and slowly cook for 10 to 20 minutes, stirring often to blend. The anchovies will start to disintegrate and you may help them disappear by crushing with a wooden spoon. After the garlic is soft, you will have an unblended brown pool. (Note: You may wish to put this in a blender or non reactive bowl and whisk with an immersion blender to further emulsify the blend.) Whisk in the butter, and as soon as it has melted, remove from the heat and give a few more beats of your whisk so that everything is creamy and blended.
Dip each half of the heart of romaine into the anchovy (Bagna Caulda) sauce, making sure to get it into every crevice. Once thoroughly drenched, place lettuce on a foot-long piece of foil and drizzle with all but 2 tablespoons of the sauce. Pull up the sides of the foil, creating a parcel or purse, and fold to seal as this will help steam the lettuce.
At Avalanche, we roast massive amounts of the romaine hearts for our Pizza al taglio.
Place parcel on an unheated tray in the middle rack of the oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Pull it out once and shake the parcel to move the sauce onto all of the lettuce. Pull from oven and let sit unopened for 5 to 10 minutes, as it continues to steam.
While you waiting, grate the Manchego, slice the tomato, and chop the kalamatas or capers, (if using for topping).
Form the dough ball into a small Schiacciata. Place on a cornmeal dusted back of a shallow pan, pizza screen, or a pizza peel so you can transfer the dough to a hot pizza stone or preheated bottom of pizza pan. Brush with olive oil.
Sprinkle with the Manchego and top with the tomato slices and sliced fennel.
Place bagna caulda braised romain on top of the pizza, fanning it out to cover the dough. Spritz with lemon.
Place in the oven until the crust is browned, the cheese has melted and the toppings are hot.
The thinner romain leaves carmelize but don’t burn. Before presentation, turn the leaves under or fan them a little more. Place garnishes such as capers, anchovies or kalamatas.