Every summer, Cedars-Sinai internist Dr. Cheryl Dunnett transforms her Larchmont Village backyard into a tomato-vine jungle. All it takes is 30 pots, 90 cubic feet of soil, and a trip to Tomatomania.
The festival happens every year in March, and it’s Dr. Dunnett’s favorite event—the week she chooses her seedlings for the coming season.
“I don’t make plans during Tomatomania. I don’t return phone calls. I’m off the grid,” she says, half-joking about the nature of her obsession.
Each year, she harvests more than 25 varieties: purples, yellows, reds, and greens of all shapes and sizes.
In her kitchen, she turns this bounty into omelets, rustic tarts, gazpacho, and a cheesy fresh tomato sauce that she spoons over steaming noodles for a signature dish she calls “Summer Pasta” (see recipe below).
Dr. Dunnett took up vegetable gardening in the mid-1990s when she was working hard as medical director of the growing Cedars-Sinai Medical Group. Communing with her tomato vines brought instant tranquility.
“I just loved going out there at the end of a busy day and tinkering,” Dr. Dunnett says. She’s especially vigilant in detecting bugs and caterpillars, the organic grower’s nemeses.
Dr. Dunnett is the kind of doctor who watches over her patients like the constant gardener she is.
“I love the continuity of seeing somebody year after year,” she says. “Over time, I build relationships. I take care of my patients physically, but I also know what’s going on with them emotionally and socially. I let them know they can trust me and talk to me.”
To Dr. Dunnett, it’s more than just a job.
“I try to advise my patients and to be a cheerleader,” she says. She prepares motivational handouts on topics like changing unhealthy habits through goal-setting and the healing power of meditation.
After so many years, her medical practice includes multigenerational families, from kids to their grandparents, and some of those relationships have grown very close. She’ll share her tomatoes with patients who reciprocate with gifts of their own homegrown produce or fresh eggs from backyard hens.
Tomatoes. And taking care of her patients. “These are the things that make me happy,” she says.
Dr. Dunnett’s Summer Pasta Recipe
|6–8 large ripe tomatoes, chopped into 1/2-inch cubes|
16 oz. fresh mozzarella, cut into small cubes
1 cup basil leaves, cut into fine strips
1 cup olive oil (mild extra virgin or regular)
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper (more to taste)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 lb. linguini pasta
10 oz. plain goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
|About 8 hours before serving (minimum of 2 hours), combine the first 6 ingredients in a large bowl and set aside at room temperature for the flavors to get "married."
Cook pasta al dente. (Use diluted chicken broth for the cooking liquid for more flavor, but not for vegetarian diners!)
While cooking pasta, crumble up the goat cheese and toast the pine nuts.
Drain the pasta and, while it's still very hot, immediately toss with the tomato mixture, which will mostly melt the mozzarella.
Put in warmed pasta bowls to serve, topping with a generous amount of crumbled goat cheese, pine nuts, and freshly ground pepper.
Let the cheese melt over the hot pasta. It's just so fresh and wonderful!