BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Summer afternoons: for me, those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. —Henry James
A more contemporary addition to James’s list? Just three little words: Farm to Table. And where better to experience such blissful bounty than at former Chicago resident and reformed urbanite Marie Krane’s Lotus Flower Farm in nearby Galien, Michigan? It is here she grows heirloom tomatoes in the rich clay soil for her marvelous Tomato Bliss products on sale at Chicago’s Green City Market in Lincoln Park and specialty grocers including Local Foods and the Green Grocer in Chicago, Sugar Beet Food Co-op in Oak Park, and at Falatic’s in Sawyer, Michigan.
Just 75 miles from Chicago, 60-acre Lotus Flower Farm is in the heart of Michigan’s fertile fruit belt. Perennial gardens beloved and tended by Krane provide a feast for the eyes, and three acres of vegetables yield the tastiest vegetables we have encountered. With husband Bob Bergman, a creator of exquisite wooden furniture and boxes, Krane has not only nurtured a paradise of a place but also produced a sustainable farm dedicated to best practices for soil regeneration.
The vibrantly healthy farmer, who spends her days outdoors in her garden, is the best testimonial for farm-to-table living.
Although her parents, the much admired, definitely urban Marie Campbell and Howard Krane, wonder how their daughter, also a highly regarded artist who created Cream Co, a Chicago-based studio and interactive laboratory, became a farmer, they proudly visit the Green City Market booth Wednesdays and Saturdays. On our own Saturday visit, we found an enthusiastic line of shoppers waiting to chat with Krane and Bergman.
She shared some tomato facts with Alix Earle and myself when we recently visited Lotus Flower Farm on the sunniest of days and toured her gardens and the farm where many varieties of heirloom tomatoes are picked at maximum freshness then jarred into four delicious products: oven roasted heirloom tomatoes, a salsa verde with a delicious jalapeno bite, tomato soup, and a clarified tomato broth.
All Lotus Flower Farm tomatoes are grown from seeds and differ from hybrid tomatoes often found in grocery stores, which are cross-bred to achieve such qualities as longevity and early maturity, often to the sacrifice of taste. Krane reported that there used to be 15,000 heirloom tomato seeds in cultivation but that today heirloom tomato seeds are at risk of extinction. (For more information, visit this link.)
Before our tour, Krane presented a bouquet of vegetables picked from the farm that had been prepared by The Storehouse, a new company using vegetables from Lotus Flower Farm, featuring delicious products such as sorrel hummus and romesco sauce for vegetable dipping and an ancient grains salad that’s fabulous. Headed by Penny Duff and Michael Slaboch, who are passionate about local and seasonal produce, The Storehouse specializes in drop-off catering and private chef services.
We asked Krane to tell us why heirloom tomatoes are not only the most delicious tomatoes around but also among the most healthy. She shared, “According to the World Wildlife Fund, heirloom tomatoes are one of ‘Fifty future foods’ for healthier people and a healthier planet. A present study supports the fact that a low intake of carotenoids from tomato products improves cell antioxidant protection.
“A recent trial study of Seventh Day Adventist women who consumed tomatoes at least 3 or 4 times a week showed that they reduced their chance of getting ovarian cancer by 70 percent over those who ate tomatoes less often,” she continued. “Eating a lot of tomatoes also seemed to have an effect on reducing prostate cancer for men. It is also thought that eating tomatoes may help reduce risk of liver cancer.”
The couple began as urban farmers in 2010, growing their first heirloom tomatoes in buckets in Hyde Park. They soon found that growing tomatoes is easy: “you don’t have to water them all the time—you wait for them to strive to survive.”
Marie related, “You might compare our first steps to starting a holiday cookie exchange! We launched a community-building project called General Economy, Exquisite Exchange (G.E.E.E.), using heirloom tomato seedlings to spark exchanges around Chicago. By 2014 we were sharing over 5,000 heirloom tomato seedlings with Chicagoans all over the city. Everyone loved the tomatoes, so we decided to take this creative idea and see if we could make it into a project that could make a difference in the agricultural community.”
They began farming at Lotus Flower Farm in 2016. That first year, they harvested 8,000 pounds of heirloom tomatoes and had to obtain a wholesale food-processing license. Krane went back to school to complete the necessary classes, and they found a community kitchen where they began preparing Tomato Bliss products.
“Bob and I did all the harvesting, chopping, and preparing at first. In 2017 we found a processing plant in nearby Paw Paw where I oversee production. This year the farm hired Brendan Sinclair to manage production and direct strategic farm development. A native Michigander who holds a masters in sustainable food systems, Brendan has over a decade of experience working with sustainable agriculture education and best farm practices,” explains Krane.
The Lotus Flower Farm mission is a dedication to sustainable approaches to land preservation and food production. Their essential goal is to create an integrated farm that is self-sustaining and good for the soil: “We believe that by practicing seed diversity and finding consumer support for flavorful and nutrient-dense colorful tomatoes we can find a new way to farm that will regenerate soil.”
Krane and Bergman practice sustainable soil regenerative practices, and the farm is Certified Naturally Grown, which supports peer-to-peer inspection and helps farmers get to know other farmers and share ideas with people who are ecologically-minded and practicing sustainable farming in the same climate.
By making delicious food from them, Krane aims to create a demand for heirloom tomatoes sustainably grown by independent farmers. Combined with the output from other farmers, this year they hope to use 35,000 pounds of heirloom tomatoes, working closely with the Michigan Department of Agriculture.
“There are less than 25 varieties of seeds in almost all of commercial tomato production in this country and, I think, none of them are true heirloom varieties. Together with our neighbor farmers, Tomato Bliss uses over 100 heirloom varieties—in a rainbow of colors—in our products,” Krane shares. “We begin planting our seeds in March and April in our greenhouses: long door tunnels called hoop houses. We grow the plants 16 inches apart and have about 600 plants in each of our three hoop houses. We have different batches that come out throughout the season.”
“We are still a small-scale operation and sell on a small scale at farmers markets,” she explains. “We were delighted to become one of the Green Market’s newest vendors. I staff our booth on Saturdays and Sasha Earle is there on Wednesdays.”
Earle and Krane have worked together for 18 years—Earle serves as creative director of Cream Co. Krane says, “She’s really well-organized and knows how to get things done. Tomato Bliss grew directly out of our creative exchange practices at Cream Co. and my passion for seeing life in the colors and lives of plants and tomatoes.”
Our last stop on our Lotus Flower Farm tour was the large facility for washing the vegetables that are unbelievably fresh and clean due to the big tubs and constant attention Brendan Sinclair gives.
We asked Krane her favorite tomato and were delighted with her show, tell, and taste response: she quartered a small orange Jaune Flamme for us—its sweet, fruity flavor couldn’t be beat.
Krane shares that Tomato Bliss is simply hand-cut heirloom tomatoes roasted with a bit of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a recipe that she has made for 20 years. She keeps it in her freezer to add to veggie chili, roasted vegetables, pizza, and other dishes. We tried it on top of salmon recently and received compliments from our guests.
Krane graciously revealed some of her own recipes using Tomato Bliss, including variations with sausage, cauliflower and the perfect bruschetta. Bon appetit!
Tomato Bliss Bruschetta
1 cup Tomato Bliss Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes
2 cloves minced garlic
8 shredded basil leaves
Baguette or crusty bread
4 oz buffalo mozzarella, chopped or torn into small pieces or 1 avocado, chopped (optional)
Mix Tomato Bliss Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes, garlic, and basil and cover. Let marinade for 30 minutes and up to two hours. Right before serving, toss with cheese or avocado if using. Cut baguette or bread into diagonal slices and toast in 350-degree oven for 5-8 minutes. To serve, spoon tomato bliss mixture over toast.
Tomato Bliss and Sausage Bake
Tomato Bliss makes a snappy one-dish meal out of a pack of sausages. Serve with pasta, bread, or rice.
1 16 oz jar Tomato Bliss Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes
½ tspn dried thyme
1 tspn dried oregano
1 clove garlic sliced or chopped
4 Italian sausages, spicy or sweet, or combo
salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place bliss on bottom of 8” x 8” glass pan. Combine sausages, herbs, and garlic. Toss together, season with a little bit of salt and pepper, then place the sausages on top of the Bliss. Swirl sausages in sauce to coat and roast for 30 minutes. Turn the sausages over and roast for additional 15 minutes.
Tomato Bliss and White Beans
A simple can of beans becomes a one-dish wonder with a jar of Tomato Bliss.
1 cup Tomato Bliss Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes
2 slices of country or ciabatta bread (optional)
1 cup of white beans, drained and rinsed
Garlic clove, halved
Few fresh basil leaves, slivered
Parmesan cheese, optional
Toast bread slices at 350 for 5-8 minutes. Rub toast with a halved garlic clove. Arrange toasts in one layer on a serving platter. Mix Tomato Bliss Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes and beans. Spoon mixture on toast. Sprinkle with basil and parmesan, if using, and serve.
This is my weekly go-to recipe. I make a batch on Sunday and enjoy this savory and healthy dish all week.
4 cups cauliflower florets (available already prepared in the produce section)
1 small can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained, optional
2 tbsps olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 16 oz jar Tomato Bliss Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes
Parmesan cheese, grated, optional
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread cauliflower florets on baking sheet, garbanzo beans if using, and sprinkle with olive oil, a bit of salt and pepper. Roast cauliflower and beans for 20-25 minutes. Toss with Tomato Bliss Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes and parmesan cheese, if using, and serve.
Blissfully Easy One-Pan Pasta
Make an elegant dinner in a snap with this blissful take on a popular one-pot pasta recipe. Updated from Tejal Rao’s New York Times adaptation from A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones (Ten Speed, 2016).
3 tbsp of sea salt, plus more for seasoning
1 pound spaghetti
1 16 oz jar Tomato Bliss Roasted Tomatoes
1 bunch kale or spinach, leaves only, washed and chopped
Pepper and crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Crumbled goat or feta cheese and basil, optional, for serving
Bring a quart of water to a boil. Put spaghetti, kale, and Tomato Bliss in saucepan so that spaghetti can lie flat. Add hot water to the pan, cover, bring to a boil, and remove lid. Simmer for about 6 minutes, stirring. Add kale or spinach and continue cooking until the liquid is saucy and the pasta is cooked through. Top with crumbled goat or feta cheese, if using, and basil, and serve.
For further information about Storehouse Catering in Galien, Michigan, visit thestorehousegalien.com.