Sunday, September 20, 2009

Three Weeks of Tomato Pie

This summer, my husband and I discovered--at last!--the all-local all-natural and organic Farmer's Market. It's in a shed attached to one of our city's restored antique buildings and it has been painted a pale turquoise. Their motto is: "Yes, we have no bananas;" a pointed, if cheerful, reminder that everything inside is from our state if not the closest surrounding counties. And what a bounty our Southern state handed us this year!

We gave up buying our produce at the supermarket (only onions and garlic, thanks!) and have saved money, time and have gained a whole new appreciation for eating locally. I daresay Alice Waters would be proud. I, necessarily, started planning meals from what was available, not what I would just decide I felt like making. The loving tyranny of the seasons is really to our advantage since everything we ate was at the height of flavor.

Alas, that I did not blog the richness of the summer eatings! Life overwhelmed me, I confess. I will try to catch up, though, since we've finally reached the end of tomato season. But we saw its final glory and honored it by eating Lila's Tomato Pie three weeks in a row.

Lila was my mother's secretary many years ago and lived in the red clay county that produces famously luscious tomatoes. Her vines rioted up the entire front of her house, fruiting with increasing decadence as all good tomatoes vines do. By the end of the every summer, she would be desperate to get rid of them. But beyond giving away sacks of the heavy, fragrant fruits, she honed the art of the tomato pie and my mother was lucky enough to get not only a pie but also the recipe in that summer in the previous century. Put that way, this has a sort of fin-de-siecle charm, right? Old fashioned yet timeless.

What follows the recipe that I made three weeks running on a weekend night. Each time, it was better than the week before as the tomatoes got better and I perfected my technique - which, you'll be glad to know, is minimal. What you get is a savory pie with a cheesy topping that when cut yields to a creamy, cheesy layer before descending into layers of sweet, chewy and juicy tomato, redolent with garlic and fresh basil. Then you finish with a tender, crunchy pie crust that struggles to contain its filling. In short, this the final hurrah of hot summer days and sultry summer nights.

My husband and I ate the last of these pies two Saturday nights ago. We correctly assumed that next weekend, no one would have fresh local tomatoes. Yes, we have no tomatoes until next summer. (Back to pallid supermarket beefsteaks or those little hussies, the tasty but costly grape tomatoes.)

I made the pastry early in the day, and rolled it out while my husband played with our little son upstairs. Then we all went for a walk in the late afternoon sunlight. I baked and cooled the pie while my husband put our baby to bed after along hard day of crawling, stacking blocks and generally being wonderful. When he came out of the bedroom the pie was ready and waiting. I made a little salad with local lettuce, Danish blue cheese and Tony's Dressing. When we sat down, I watched the sky through the bay window deepen from blue to teal as the moon lifted herself above Om's chair. As the sky darkened, the terracotta walls of the kitchen glowed and the jade plant gleamed in the light of the lamps. The world is darkening, the Earth turning away from the sun. When the meal was over, summer seemed to be over.

Note: this is really a recipe you should read all the way through before you begin since you need to blind bake the crust and prepare the tomatoes a little ahead. Also, you must accept a painful wait of several minutes to allow the cooked pie to set. Have some goat cheese and good bread to keep you from committing a costly indiscretion.

This is the sort of thing you just can't do with pallid, crunchy store-bought tomatoes. You really need the dripping, tender vine-ripe tomato. You also must channel your inner Southerner and accept a deal of tasty fat. You will buy full-fat mayonnaise and excellent cheddar and you will appreciate it. You will also use some of that basil that's also bursting out of the pots in a last desperate bid for a perennial life. But you will eschew your pretensions to fresh garlic. You would think it would be perfect in a pie of such whole some provenance but, I assure you, you would end up with bitter hot GARLIC, instead of the musky, flirtatious undercurrent you achieve with garlic powder. Embrace it.

Lila's Tomato Pie

1 recipe pie dough (see notes below)

about 5 large very ripe tomatoes, thickly sliced and blotted or drained
fresh basil, torn into bite-sized pieces
garlic powder
salt & freshly ground pepper

3/4 c. good full fat mayo (Hellman's is great, homemade is better!)
1 1/2 c. grated best cheddar (use your favorite - both medium and sharp are good; follow your heart)

Make your favorite pie dough, or throw off the traces and buy Pillsbury's ready made pie crusts. If you hate and/or fear making dough, better to buy the dough than forgo the pie. But homemade will make the pie even more divine.

I used the Basic Flaky Pie Crust recipe from The Pie & Pastry Bible (hello! BIBLE indeed!). It was easy. If you have a food processor you can do it. I promise. Chill the dough until firm, then roll out to fit a 9 inch pie plate.

Heat oven to 375.

Prick bottom of shell all over with a fork and bake to dry a bit for about 10 minutes, If it swells at any point, puncture it with the fork. Remove from oven and allow to cool until no more than warm.

Lower oven to 350.

Prepare the tomatoes.

TECHNIQUE: You have two options. The quick and dirty method I employ happens as soon as the pie goes into the oven and takes until the pie comes out and is a bit cooled. Slice the tomatoes thickly )maybe 3/4s of an inch wide) and thoroughly blot the cut sides with many paper towels. Your carbon footprint may go up a size.

Alternately, a few hours before you plan to make the pie, slice the tomatoes and allow them to drain for several hours, for the same effect.

Drying the tomatoes is crucial - otherwise you will end up with a watery and diluted pie an dyour efforts and ingredients will be spoiled.

Put a single layer of dried tomatoes in the crust; they should be cheek-by-jowl. Sprinkle with a layer of garlic powder, a few healthy pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Tear up a few basil leaves and dot the slices with them. I would say about 3 leaves a layer, but as you will.

Repeat these layers until the pie shell is full and slightly rounded over the top. Finish the last layer with the garlic powder, salt and pepper, but no basil.

Mix together the mayo and the freshly grated cheese. Dab onto the top layer of tomatoes and spread to the edges.

Bake about 40 minutes until topping is golden brown the pie is bubbling. You may need to add some more time in 10 minute increments as needed.

Once the pie is out of the oven, allow to sit for 10 minutes. You must obey me! Otherwise, you'll have a sloppy mess that's no fun to serve or fork at. You may also make this a bit ahead and serve close to room temperature.

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