Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summertime Is The Right Time For Tomatoes

As everyone knows, Summer is the season for fresh fruit and for me, ripe juicy tomatoes are one of the best.  As someone whose nickname as a child was Tomatohead, I try to keep it real with tomatoes.  By this I mean treating a tomato as it should be treated, eating them when in season and eating them in abundance (this does not include canned tomatoes that can and should feed any tomato addiction year-round).  I am serious about the quality of the tomatoes I eat.  I never order sandwiches with tomato in the winter because I know they won't be any good.  Until recently I did this out of snobbery, rejecting the green or mealy winter tomato because I could not tolerate the texture and flavor (nor should I).  Along with the knowledge I've gained working in restaurants, a book that my dear Mama turned me on to has gotten me thinking about this seemingly docile fruit.  Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook has captivated me, and I'm only a few pages past the introduction.  Apparently everything we know about the tomato is in trouble.  It gets me all fired up even thinking about the loads of information I've digested after reading only the first few pages.  Basically, you need to read it.  I may never buy a tomato out of season at the grocery store ever again.  The way tomatoes are produced, not for taste, but for looks in some areas of the country is just plain wrong.  Did you know that some producers gas their green tomatoes with ethylene, to make them turn color before ripened?  Granted ethylene is produced by the fruit naturally as the final step of the maturation process, but if the tomato isn't ripe, it's not ripe.  Don't gas my tomatoes!  Here's a tidbit from the book that is particularly shocking: "According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s.  But the modern tomato does shame its counterpart in one area: It contains fourteen times as much sodium."  Can you believe that?!?  I guess my snobbery about eating fresh tomatoes in season wasn't unfounded, even if I was oblivious to the really important reasons as to why we should respect the 'mater a lotta bit more.

Tomatoland aside, I have been loving my tomatoes this summer, especially any heirloom tomatoes I can get my hands on.  The man friend and I attempted to grow our own, but some nasty squirrels ate our crop!  In spite of our setbacks, we have been enjoying beautiful Connecticut tomatoes all summer in every way possible.  The perennial favorite, the Caprese salad, raw vegetable and tomato salad, BLTs- I've embraced them all.  But one creation perked up my ears... the tomato pie.  Not pizza, a pie.  Believe it or not, I've never had this dish. Being Southern, this seems wrong.  So I made it right.  I researched traditional tomato pie recipes and found out that many incorporate mayo.  Hmm.  And mmm.  Most mayo haters cringe at this, but the way my Nana got me to eat tomatoes as a kid was to take big slices of fresh tomato and slather a thin layer of Bama brand mayo over the top with salt and pepper.  I can't express how good that is.  Garlic aioli is even better.  So when I saw that many pies either include mayo in the filling of the pie or slather a layer on top, it made sense.  After looking at a bunch of recipes I created my own bastardization of this Southern Living recipe that I found on Southern Tomato Vegetable Pie.  The changes I made are simple, just combining this recipe with some others I saw.  It was so good, I can't even describe the happiness.  Also, I used heirloom tomatoes and they were perfect.
3 Large Heirloom Tomatoes
1 pkg Thick Cut Bacon (applewood smoked)
1 10oz. Package of Frozen Chopped Spinach or fresh equivalent
1/2 Cup each of Cheddar and Mozzarella, shredded
12 oz. Part Skim Ricotta
1/2 Cup Fresh Basil, chopped
4 Green Onions, Chopped
1 Garlic clove, minced or chopped, I use my Microplane
1/2 tsp. Crushed Red Pepper
1 Frozen Pie Crust or fresh if you want!

Heat oven to 375.  I baked my bacon, you can fry it, but it tastes the same and a lot less mess.  I also bought thick cut, applewood smoked bacon for this.  Bake for 30-40 minutes until the bacon is to your desired crispiness- I like mine crispy.  When it's done, pat off the fat and chop it up.  Put aside.

Slice about 3 large heirloom tomatoes to be 1/2 inch thick.  Place in a colander and layer with paper towels so that you soak up the excess moisture.  Let stand 20 minutes, changing paper towels if you need to.

Drain Spinach well.  Combine with bacon, all cheeses, green onions, garlic, and red pepper.  NOTE: if you have time, drain the ricotta a bit.  The crust will not stand up to the moisture.  When serving right out of the oven, it works, but for leftovers, it crumbles.  It still tastes mighty good, though.

Spread most of the mixture into the pie crust- I had some leftover, about a cup or so.  Leave enough room for your tomatoes on top!  Place the drained tomatoes over the spinach filling, stacking if necessary.

Now here's the mayo haters dilemma: to mayo or not to mayo.  The man friend hates mayo and I did it anyways telling him, "It traditional, so this is how we're gonna make it."  And he loved it.  If you have a mayo hater, make sure to make the mayo layer thin.  If you love it, go wild, but not too wild, then it's just messy.

Top with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and pop it in the oven for 35-40 minutes.  I didn't have any aluminum foil, so i just baked it right out in the open of the oven until the top was golden brown.  Compare with the Southern Living recipe and see what you'd rather do.

The above picture was my result.  Garnish with a little more parm and basil.  Enjoy!

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