There is no harbinger of great eating more iconic than a fresh homegrown tomato.
One taste of a rich red tomato straight off the vine and most of us want only one thing—more. The sweet, slightly acidic tang is a flavor that just screams summer and brings to mind all kinds of food memories for those of us lucky enough to have grown up close to a garden. Most of us love a luscious, juicy tomato served simply with just a sprinkle of onions and herbs.
People love a good tomato in their salad. But in our neck of the woods, everyone grew up with one or two classic recipes that call for perfect summer tomatoes and have become required guests at every gathering. These recipes have likely been handed down for a few generations and most of them have slight variations that mark them as family heirlooms of their own.
Much depends on the tastes and opinions of the family cook who introduced the original recipe to the family. Often, for instance, a recipe will call for a particular tomato variety. I have one friend who grows a special variety of Beefsteak tomato just for his favorite recipe—tomato sandwiches.
The tomato sandwich is a timeless Southern classic, made with simple sturdy white bread, a little salt and pepper and mayonnaise. This for me is similar to the traditional lobster roll in Maine; you can make minor adjustments, but don’t mess with the basics. People may argue about which mayonnaise is the right one. Duke’s, Hellman’s or Kraft are all contenders. I have actually heard arguments for each brand.
Some folks will carefully craft their white bread at home, using a time honored family bread recipe. Others swear by Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse white bread. Some may get their bread from a hometown bakery. But no one I know would ever change from white to whole wheat or any other variation of bread.
The sandwich is simply prepared by slathering the bread with mayonnaise, slicing tomatoes warm from a sunny garden and placing them on top of the mayonnaise. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, then top the tomatoes with a second slice of bread. For a garden party, you might cut the sandwiches into pretty shapes or even just quarter them. One thing is sure, though, they will get gobbled up!
Another Southern favorite is tomato pie. This can be served as a starter, a picnic entrée or even as a Sunday supper side. Unlike the tomato sandwich, however, there are as many variations on the tomato pie as there are gardens and gardeners.
Some people make a tomato pie with a dough crust, essentially creating a deep dish pizza with fresh tomatoes as the core ingredient. Others will make a regular style pie crust but with bits of cheese incorporated into the crust. Some folks go with just fresh tomatoes and a few fresh herbs. Others swear by adding a touch of sugar.
Many more seem to favor using cheese layered between the tomatoes. Some let their tomatoes drain before adding them to the pie. Others load up on fresh basil and mozzarella. You get the idea.
If you have a pile of luscious tomatoes, you can make a tomato pie. It can be as simple as you like and the results can be as amazing as that first ripe tomato of summer. Here is my favorite recipe, which can be assembled in a few minutes and adjusted to fit what is in your pantry pretty easily.
Fresh Tomato Pie
(If you have some pesto available, you can substitute that for the basil and garlic and save some time.)
1 pre-made refrigerated pie crust
3-4 fresh ripe garden tomatoes (don’t make these with those pink things they sell in big stores—it won’t work!)
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped finely
1-2 teaspoons minced garlic or
1-2 cups grated sharp hard cheese (you can use Parmesan, Gouda, or Cheddar—it is about what you have and what you like!)
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Remove your pie crust from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. Meanwhile, slice your tomatoes into half inch thick slices and lay them in a single layer in a large colander, letting them drain into the sink. (Some people will even lay their tomato slices between paper towels to get rid of excess moisture.) Unroll the pie dough and fit it into a pie pan or tarte pan.
Pierce the crust a few times and place it in the oven. Turn the heat down to 350 degrees and bake the crust for 10 minutes. Remove the crust and let it cool a bit. Sprinkle the crust with enough cheese to dust the bottom.
Lay a layer of drained tomatoes in the crust. Sprinkle a layer of cheese on the tomatoes and then dot with some of the garlic and basil. Add another layer of tomatoes, then another layer of cheese, garlic and basil. Repeat until you have filled your pie pan. Sprinkle a bit of cheese over the top. Bake the pie for 30 minutes. Let it set for five minutes on the counter. You can serve this pie hot or at room temperature.