I love fresh tomato pie. The fact that there’s about as much agreement on the correct way to make it, as there is on which of the sixteen (and counting) Republican presidential hopefuls is best qualified for the job, doesn’t bother me in the least.
Nor should it bother you. I’ve been experimenting with tomato pies this week – as a prelude to the 4th – with the goal of achieving a crowd pleasing, can’t-miss Independence Day pie. I’ve come up with a winner, and I think you’ll be pleased.
There are many points of contention swirling around tomato pie, among them the handling of its marquee ingredient. Should the tomato skins be removed or left on? Is it better to slice the tomatoes thickly, thinly, or cut them into chunks? Leave them juicy, or get the juice out? And that’s just the tomatoes.
It all depends on the pie, but this time we’ll take skins off. Cooked tomato skins have a way of curling up into papery-chewy wads that almost nobody finds charming, even after a couple of July 4th margaritas. So off they go.
The simplest way to remove the skins is to first make a very shallow X in the skin with a serrated knife. Then – using tongs – lower the tomatoes, one or two at a time, into a large saucepan of boiling water. Wait about 15 or 20 seconds, then remove the tomatoes and set them aside in a large bowl. Cool for several minutes, at which point the skins will look loose and shriveling like they do in the photo above. Slip off the skins.
Now core the tomatoes, halve them crosswise and squeeze the seeds and “jelly” out of each half. Cut the tomato halves into good size chunks, place them in a colander, and salt well. Let drain for 30 to 60 minutes, to remove much of the juice. Note that you’re not trying to get the tomatoes bone dry; a little juice is fine. But removing excess moisture will help prevent your filling from becoming soupy, not an uncommon complaint in the annals of tomato pie literature.
One hedge we deploy against an overly moist filling is Italian style bread crumbs, to sponge up some of the juice. We scatter a tablespoon in the shell and half as much on top of the tomatoes, which should do the trick. I’ve also used cornmeal, but I like the way Italian style breadcrumbs add a little extra flavor.
It’s best to pile everything into a partially prebaked pie shell. Prebaking the crust involves an extra step that you probably don’t relish, but your steadfastness will be rewarded. Prebaking often means the difference between a soggy crust, and a sensational one. You’re building nothing short of a summertime masterpiece here, something people will talk about in superlatives for years to come. Taking a shortcut is not in your best interest, nor that of your guests.
A layer of caramelized onions goes over the tomatoes, followed by dollops of pesto or chopped fresh basil. (I say OR, but my extreme preference is the pesto.) A rich mayo-and-cheese topping is scattered over the filling. You bake the whole production until it’s a deep golden brown, bubblyish, and just plain irresistibly yummy looking. Cool long enough for the filling to firm up a bit – 30 to 60 minutes – then dig in.
I’ll confess to adding a generous coating of crumbled, crisp-cooked bacon on top of the tomatoes on more than one occasion. It’s an upgrade worthy of your serious consideration.
Even though this is a moist pie, it does firm up as it sits and it’s great the next day if you refrigerate the leftovers. Reheat it right in the pan in a low oven. You can also reheat slices in the microwave, though I’m generally not a fan of nuking any sort of pie.
They’ll be a host of traditional favorites at your July 4th gatherings, you can be sure of that. But we can always find some space, amidst the hot dogs, burgers and sides to share some new favorites. I say make a little room for tomato pie.