Tuesday, September 22, 2020

On Cooking Southern: Tomato Pie

cold-tompie-DSCN4940

Get it while you can, and get it right.

By Laurie Triplette

ldtriplette@aol.com

SOUTHERNISM OF THE WEEK

Big dog: The leader of the pack, like the lead sled dog in the Iditerod races, or the alpha hound on the trail of that elusive fox. As in if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch… or in golf terms, time to let the big dog eat (the driver needs to be used to hit the ball) …In Southern culture, just one of an entire dictionary of dog-themed terms. Phrase hit the mainstream when referring to that former Southern president from Arkansas.

EAT ‘EM WHILE YOU CAN. FRESH TOMATOES ARE STILL PLENTIFUL

We still have a good month or so to enjoy locally grown, garden-ripened tomatoes, and we need to make the most of the opportunity. I always say, “So little time, so many ways to use those heavenly red (or yellow or pink or purple or green) orbs.”

A few weeks ago, Chef Virginia Willis, one of my favorite food writers, penned an ode to tomatoes for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) that ran on HottyToddy.com. She covered tomato-growing history, and included instructions for constructing and consuming the perfect tomato sandwich.

I do declare, Virginia, you must have been channeling The Old Bride … and every other Daughter of the Old South.

My ONLY point(s) of departure from Virginia’s sandwich instructions would be (1) to specify Wonder Bread as the cheap white sandwich bread (I’m holding out for the new owners to resurrect Wonder); and (2) to encourage the diner to gobble said tomato sandwich while leaning over a large plate, NOT while holding the sandwich over the kitchen sink. Proper tomato sandwich consumption, like fried egg sandwich consumption, is by its very nature messy and gauche — best accomplished in privacy. Consumption of the sandwich, furthermore, should occur over a plate in order to capture the drippings. How else would one be able to sop up those juices with the last broken pieces of bread crust? (Heaven forbid allowing those deliciously comingled mayo-white bread-tomato juices to circle the drain.)

Now that I’ve expounded on the tomato sandwich, it’s time to discuss another venerable Southern favorite, the Tomato Pie.

The best loved Tomato Pie recipe includes an inch of mayonnaise “frosting” on top of the tomatoes. It just kills me to do this. Don’t get me wrong, go ahead and slather away if you prefer; after all, this combination is truly Southern. However, even though The Old Bride is a 6th generation Methodist, and we Methodists love our mayo, cheese, and canned soup combinations, I prefer omitting the mayo from the cheese frosting in my tomato pies. The vine-ripened tomato flavor should explode on the tongue as we bite into that piece of pie.

tom-pie-prep-DSCN4893Let’s review Tomato Pie fundamentals: The pie must include a great piecrust, sun-kissed sliced or chopped tomatoes, good cheese, onions, salt, and ground pepper. It’s what we do to those ingredients that can transform enjoyment into ecstasy. For example, carefully select the appropriate savory onions for your version of the pie recipe: Ordinary white onions, or shallots, or sweet Vidalias, or diced green onions, or combinations of several types mixed into the pie and sprinkled on top.

Carefully pair your cheese(s) with the onions, tomatoes, and other flavorings. Experiment with Gruyere, Havarti, Irish dilled soft cheese, Parmesan, mozzarella, or other exotic cheeses in combination with sharp Cheddar.

Add an Italian twist by including chiffonades of fresh basil and a sprinkle of oregano. Enhance the pie for breakfast by adding crisp-cooked pieces of bacon or crumbled chorizo sausage and fresh cilantro. Go cocktail-hour Provence, a la Dijon mustard and a tart crust, and serve the pie with a buttery white wine and prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe slices.

NOTE: There is no preferred time to eat tomato pie. It’s good hot out of the oven for a formal brunch or dinner, or as a cold leftover for lunch or breakfast … if you have any leftovers.

SIMPLE PIE CRUST

piecrust-DSCN49582-1/4 c flour

1 tsp salt

1 T granulated sugar

3/4 c shortening

1 egg yolk

1 T lemon juice

1/4 c cold whole milk

Sift dry ingredients into mixing bowl. Cut in shortening with pastry blender and blend until mixture forms beads. In a small mixing bowl, beat the egg yolk and quickly whisk in the lemon juice and cold milk. Beat egg mixture into the dry mix. Form a ball and roll out between two sheets of floured waxed paper. Press into 9-inch pie pan and form the crust edges.

The piecrust may be frozen or refrigerated at this point. To prepare for the tomato pie, dock it by pricking at regular intervals with a fork to allow air bubbles to escape during baking. OR, line it with pie weights or beans to hold down the crust during baking. Loosely line the piecrust with aluminum foil and pre-bake for 20 minutes in a preheated oven set at 350˚F. Remove foil lining and bake additional 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

NOTE: Purpose of pre-baking is to prevent crust from becoming soggy from the tomato juices. If the tomatoes being used for the pie are extremely juicy, take extra precaution by brushing beaten egg over the pre-baked crust bottom before filling it.

CLASSIC SOUTHERN TOMATO PIE

9-inch deep-dish pre-baked piecrust

1 T Dijon mustard

3 to 4 medium tomatoes

1/2 tsp salt

2 T extra light olive oil

1 to 2 c of chopped onion

6 large basil leaves, chopped

3/4 c mayonnaise*

1 tsp kosher or sea salt, to taste

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

2 c grated mixture of three cheeses such as sharp Cheddar cheese, fresh mozzarella, and Gruyere or Monterrey Jack

Dash of cayenne pepper or hot sauce

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Prepare the pre-baked pie shell by brushing the Dijon mustard evenly across the bottom of the crust. Slice the tomatoes, or cut into wedges. Remove largest seeds, sprinkle with 1/2 tsp salt, and drain in a colander. (Roma tomatoes are less juicy and work well as wedged or chopped filling.)

Cooled tomato pie.
Cooled tomato pie.

Heat olive oil in skillet and sauté the chopped onion until caramelized. Drain and spread the caramelized onions across bottom of mustard-brushed piecrust.

Layer the tomatoes, overlapping, over the onions. Sprinkle the basil over the tomato layer. (For a breakfast tomato pie option, omit the basil and sprinkle crumbled pieces from 8 crisp-cooked bacon slices.)

Combine the mayo, cheeses, salt, pepper, and cayenne or hot sauce until they form a gooey ball. (I usually omit the mayo, except when making the bacon version.) Spread cheese mixture over the tomato layer, using hands and a silicone spatula. Bake 45 to 60 minutes, until top of pie is completely browned. Remove from oven to set up about 15 minutes before slicing. Refrigerate unused pie, which reheats beautifully if covered loosely with foil.

*VARIATION 1: Substitute well blended ricotta and cream cheese for the mayo; spread 1 T fresh pesto over the prebaked pie instead of Dijon mustard; sprinkle 1/4 tsp oregano and optional 1/4 c browned Italian sweet sausage over the tomato layer. Add chopped stuffed green olives if desired.

*VARIATION 2: Substitute crème fraiche or sour cream for the mayo and reduce amount to 1/2 c; substitute queso blanco for the mozzarella.

*VARIATION 3: Intersperse thin-sliced zucchini or yellow squash with the tomatoes.

Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA)  and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site: www.tripleheartpress.com and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).