Theme and variations.

Let’s start in a silly place and take it from there:

Remember that scene in the movie Forrest Gump where (when?) Bubba talks about shrimp?

“Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. [There’s] shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich…”

the character Bubba Blue in the movie Forrest Gump

So: Tomatoes.

There’s cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, plum tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, hybrid tomatoes. You’ve got your Green Zebra, Black Krim, Brandywine, Azoychka, Cherokee Purple, Sun Gold, San Marzano, and too many more to list here.

AND THEN,

You’ve got all the things you can do with those fresh tomatoes. There’s a BLT, gazpacho, panzanella, caprese salad, stuffed tomatoes, pico de gallo, salsa, plain sliced and salted tomatoes eaten right off a plate, or cut, uncooked tomatoes tossed into one of a hundred different dishes not listed here, from tabbouleh to a Denver omelette. Get through all of that and you can start making stewed tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, pickled tomatoes, tomato jam, or plain oven-roasted tomatoes (with a bit of garlic, for good measure? Yes.). Condiments and sauces? Well, sure; though many tomato-based sauces begin with tomatoes that have already been through the process of canning, stewing, or roasting.

And, of course, there’s tomato pie.

The conversations, on- and offline, that followed last week’s post about tomato pie have been great. Friends shared stories and recipes. Other friends were mystified (some even mortified) by the very idea of defiling tomatoes in such a way. As my mother often said: That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla, Jennifer, because not everyone likes the same thing.

Did I make a tomato pie? Well, yes. Two, actually. More about that, and the heirloom recipe I used, in the recipe notes at the end. Short version: Delicious, and a chance to try some new things.

And since writing that post, I’ve done a little more research (because, of course I have), and what I think might be true is that tomato pie, like shrimp and grits (which wasn’t even on Bubba Blue’s list), has a long, behind-the-scenes home-cooking legacy and a more recent (last 20-30 years) catapult into wider popularity.

While I still haven’t found quite as good a background piece on tomato pie as this Serious Eats story on shrimp and grits (a good story, which I hope you’ll read), “The Secret History of Tomato Pie” is close. An interesting connection between the two dishes? Low Country (or Lowcountry) origin, and the suggestion that both shrimp and grits and tomato pie were originally inventions born from a practical need to minimize waste during the abundant harvest season.

Which leads, perhaps inelegantly, to two things I’ve been thinking about, both in general and particularly in the past week. I’ll start with the easy one:

So much of our cooking is just theme and variations. It’s tomatoes (or shrimp, or anything) prepared in a wide variety of ways, with each preparation then having its own theme-and-variation legacy as it passes from one cook’s hands to those of another, or as one cook develops her (or his) own techniques over time. And each cook’s signature is as unique as her (or his) fingerprint, even when a recipe is followed to the letter.

I have, for example, my friend’s cheese grits recipe, copied down in detail, having taken great care to be precise. But, as my children will attest, my grits never taste like hers. Never. And they never will, nor should they. Does the Emperor concerto (which is what I’m listening to as I write) sound exactly the same when performed by different orchestras? Of course not, even though the written music from which they play is identical. Why should food preparation be any different? (And if that “Emperor” reference is too far afield, think about any song or piece of music that was originally performed by one artist and later covered by another.)

There are innumerable ways to interpret the theme of, say, fresh summer tomatoes. And then there are innumerable ways to interpret each one of those specific preparations, whether it’s panzanella or tomato pie. (To be clear, though, there is only ONE way to make a proper tomato sandwich: Tomato+Mayo+Bread. Do not fight me on this one.)

Instead of being overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities, maybe that infinity can bring a dose of grace. Your tomato-cucumber salad didn’t look just like Samin Nosrat’s or Martha Stewart’s? Well, OK. Did it taste good anyway? Did you enjoy making, eating, and perhaps sharing it? Excellent. Did you sample straight from the bowl before serving and then add a pinch of this or that to adjust to your own palate? Fantastic. Theme and variations – YOUR variations. Make them, tinker with them, and enjoy. Play with your food, because life is short.

The second thing I’m thinking about is a bit trickier: Food waste.

A tomato pie (to keep with the central element going here) is, at heart, a creative way to use ripe tomatoes that won’t last much longer. And tomatoes that are stored appropriately (meaning not in the refrigerator, because cold storage helps no tomato, ever), last only a few days. Carefully slicing and draining them (a critically important step), then baking them in a pastry shell, extends their usefulness for a few more days – longer if that baked pie is wrapped and frozen. The pie’s secret virtue (other than tasting delicious) is its ability to put to good use something that might not otherwise get used.

Inspired by a preparation note in the recipe I was given, I bought both pretty heirloom tomatoes and a bag of “scratch and dent” from the box in the truck that the farmer didn’t (never does) put on display. Those would-be discards are the underlayer tomatoes of a tomato pie – not as pretty but just as good. Those are also the tomatoes for roasting and stewing, to freeze and save for a dark, cold January night (ah! a new story, next week).

The challenge for me, and possibly for you, is making this mentality the default. It’s easy to take the prettiest fresh produce in its prime and showcase it on a plate or table. It’s harder to devise a creative way of using that half-wilted cucumber (cold soup!), the sad-looking leeks (roast them!), and the peach that’s mushy and brown on one side (freeze for smoothies!).

Taking that beautiful bounty from the weekly market (so many temptations there…) and committing to using it all in some way, letting nothing go to waste, would be good theme indeed, and with countless good variations to follow.


Food | July 15, 2021

Corn, Plum, and Farro Salad with Nuoc Cham Dressing (bon appétit)

Field Peas | Tomato-Cucumber Salad | Green Goddess Chicken Thighs

Baja Tacos (see note*)

Cod Cakes (NYT Cooking) | Salt and Vinegar Potato Salad (Gourmet)

Tomato Tart** | Green Salad

NOTES

* I bought a very pretty piece of cod at Costco and will use it for both the tacos (new recipe, for me) and the cod cakes (a well-established favorite)

** In my old(er) years I’ve developed a habit: When someone shares a recipe, I follow the recipe to the letter the first time I make it. When/if I make it a second time, I’ll tinker and play around and make it my own. But the first time it’s all business. Last week a friend shared a generations-old (and delicious) recipe for tomato pie that was written in precise detail (“1 1/2 tsp. black pepper” – I can’t remember the last time I measured pepper before adding it!). Since the recipe is not mine to share (and I long ago pledged not to post anything that did not belong to me), I’ll instead share the recipe for my variation. Fair enough? Here we go.

Jennifer’s Tomato Tart
(with a nod to all story-telling, art-, food-, and music-loving friends who allow dogs and children in their kitchens)

Let’s be clear on the front end: This is not quick work. It’s not hard, by any means; but it needs not to be rushed. The dough needs some refrigerator time, and the tomatoes need draining/drying time (critically important step), so all of the work can start at the same time and be continued, off and on, for an afternoon, but you can’t be in a hurry about it. The dough is a quick puff pastry from David Tanis’s recipe for Wild Mushroom Tart. I’ve made this dough several times now, for different things, and I’ve never been disappointed (it’s butter held together with a bit of flour – how could it not be good??). Could you also use store-bought pie crust or puff pastry? Certainly. You do you.

Ingredients

for the dough (if making)

  • 2 cups flour
  • a good pinch of salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1/4 squares (if using salted butter, then eliminate the added salt)
  • 1/2 cup ice water

for the filling

  • 2 good-sized tomatoes that don’t have to be pretty (can come from the scratch and dent bin, as long as they’re real summer tomatoes, from a garden or local grower)
  • 2 good-sized tomatoes that are pretty (also real summer tomatoes, from a garden or local grower)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • A bit of oil (canola or olive) to cook the onions
  • Heaping 1/2 cup of mixed fresh herbs (I used basil and chives), finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup Duke’s mayonnaise (or make your own)
  • 1/2 cup each: finely grated Gruyère, finely grated Parmesan
  • Salt (I used Morton kosher salt because that’s what I usually use; you can use whatever you like, but pay attention to how salty your salt is)

Instructions

1. Make the dough, if making dough: Combine flour, salt and half of the butter, mixing with a paddle attachment (or by hand) until it looks like coarse sand. Add the remaining butter and water, and stir/mix just until the dough comes together. Divide into two balls, flatten each ball into a 1″ thick disk, wrap the disks and put them in the refrigerator. (You’ll be using only one of the two, so the other can be saved for later use (within 2-3 days)).

2. While the dough chills, prepare the tomatoes: Spread a cotton dishtowel on the counter. Slice the tomatoes about 1/4″ – 1/3″ thick (not so thin that they’re fragile, but definitely less than 1/2″), lay the slices on the towel in a single layer (if you’re worried about the tomato juice staining the towel, then you might not be my people…), and sprinkle liberally with salt (though not so liberally as to render them inedible – you won’t be rinsing, so sprinkle wisely).

3. Cook the onions, just to soften them, and just set them aside in a bowl, so you’ll have this task done. If you forget to cook the onions, then you can use raw.

4. Read a book, or work a puzzle, or take a cat nap for about 30 minutes.

5. Pull yourself away from your book to roll out the dough: Unwrap one disk, dust with flour, roll it into a long rectangle, fold it over itself in thirds, and repeat twice. You should end up with a rectangle of butter-flecked dough that’s about 8-10″ wide and 18-20″ long. (If you get out a ruler to measure the dough, then you are definitely not my people. So sorry.) Transfer the sheet of dough to a foil-lined baking sheet and put it back in the refrigerator.

6. Return to your book (or whatever) for another 30 minutes, or a little longer.

7. Check on your tomatoes. Has the liquid seeped into the towel, leaving the tomatoes looking a bit parched? Excellent; then they’re ready. Not quite to that point? Then back to your book you go.

8. When the tomatoes look dry enough, mix together the herbs, mayonnaise, and cheeses. The end result should be green and creamy and definitely spreadable, but not runny.

9. Turn on the oven (350 degrees if it’s an average oven, 325 if it runs hot or if you’re using a convection setting)

10. Retrieve the dough from the refrigerator. Using your lovely fingers, pinch the edges to form sides that are somewhere between 1/2″ and 1″ high, then fold the sides of the foil up to snug it in.

11. Arrange the not-as-pretty tomato slices and onion slices (cooked or uncooked, if you skipped that step) on top of the dough, letting the pieces overlap at the edges but with the aim of having just one single layer.

12. Spread the herb-mayonnaise-cheese mixture on top of the tomatoes and onions, covering them entirely. It should not be a thick layer, and you might wonder if you’ve made enough. If you’re really nervous about that, then make and add some more, but don’t let things get goopy.

13. Arrange the pretty tomato slices on top of the not-goopy mayonnaise-cheese layer.

14. Pop your lovely creation in the oven, pour a glass of wine, and have a sip or two – but don’t get lost in a book (or any other endeavor), because you’ll need to check on things in about 15-20 minutes and will most likely want to fold those tall foil edges down over the rim of your tart so the dough doesn’t burn unattractively (also, burnt dough is not tasty).

15. Do a breathing exercise, take the dogs out, or set the table – but do just one of these things, because in another 15 minutes (ish) the tart will be done. You’ll whisk it out of the oven and let it cool for a bit, right there on the baking sheet, on your counter. And then you’ll transfer it to a cutting board and cut it into pieces, and it might look something like this (only, of course, more attractive in your own photograph of your own work):

The structure will get sturdier as the tart cools and will be at its sturdiest after some time in the refrigerator, because that dough is just butter held together with flour, and the refrigerator will firm up that butter very nicely.

That’s it; a tomato tart variation of an heirloom tomato pie recipe (for which I’m grateful). Give it a try, and If you do, then I hope you’ll let me know how things go. I know you will, because you are my people, even if you measure your pastry dough and worry about staining your dish towels.

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Just for fun: Here’s what I was writing 8 years ago next week (you’ll notice a theme…), and here was the food plan, exactly as it appeared (only without the photos):


FoodWeek of July 22| 2013
Blackberry Crisp Wash 3-4 cups fresh blackberries and let them dry a bit on paper towels. Toss with about 1 Tbsp. flour and 2-3 Tbsp. white sugar. Place in a round or square Pyrex dish. Mix ½ c. flour and 6 Tbsp. brown sugar (I’ve used white by accident, and it turned out fine). Add a pinch of cinnamon if desired. Cut in ½ stick cold butter. Sprinkle crumble mix over blackberries. Bake at 375° for about 30 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream and fresh mint.
Tomato Salad Cut 3-4 large tomatoes into wedges, or halve some cherry tomatoes (about a quart). Thinly slice a fist-size white onion. Cut a good sized cucumber into half moons (if you get a fresh, unwaxed cucumber you may not have to peel – taste it first). Cut 3-4 ounces sharp white cheddar into cubes (can also use feta). Combine all ingredients in large glass bowl. Whisk together ½ c olive oil and ¼ cup red wine vinegar; pour over tomato mix and let stand for about 30 minutes. Spoon onto platter or shallow, wide serving bowl; sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper to taste.
Oven Roasted Zucchini Slice zucchini vertically, about ¼ inch thick. Toss with good olive oil and kosher salt and place in single layer on a baking sheet. Preheat oven to 450°. Place zucchini in oven and immediately turn heat down to 375°. Roast for about 20 minutes, until it is slightly browned.
Corn Salad Cut corn off cob (4-6 ears). Toss in a hot cast iron skillet until slightly browned. Place in a large glass bowl. Dice 1-2 red bell peppers, a fist-sized red onion, and a cucumber (seeded and peeled, if peel is bitter). Wash and chop a bunch of cilantro (or mix of herbs in season). Whisk together juice from 1-2 limes and about ½ c. olive oil, stir in cilantro and toss vegetables to coat. Salt to taste. Can add black beans to salad and serve with green salad and bread as dinner meal. This is probably our one dinner table meal of the week, and we’ll celebrate by cutting some flowers and using a real table cloth.
Eggplant Caponata Stem, slice and salt 2-3 fresh eggplant. While eggplant are draining, slice 1-2 red onions into thin half rounds, dice 3-4 stalks celery, and dice 4-6 large tomatoes. Heat some olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan. Cook onions until wilted, add celery then a few minutes later add tomatoes. Stir in a handful golden raisins, a half a jar of capers, and coarsely chopped olives; let simmer while you dry and cube the eggplant. Cook eggplant separately in olive oil for about 10 minutes then stir into tomato mix. Add a couple of shakes of red wine vinegar, a good pinch of sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer until liquid is reduced. Let cool to room temp and serve with bread.

8 thoughts on “Theme and variations.

  1. Oh my. I have a tomato pie recipe from a little tea shop in Lakeville, CT… some recipes are just too special. I’m allergic to dairy now (so much cheese in that recipe) but oh, what memories. Thank you for sharing.

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