I am seeing red! I don’t mean because of worldly triggers — anti-vaxers, Texas, or extreme climate events. The red I’m seeing right now is the cornucopia of tomatoes on my kitchen counter.
At tomato time, I’m like a kid at Christmas. I want to fit every expression of this sweet, tart, juicy, vibrant, plump fruit on my plate. I love them all, from the teeny yellow cherries of August to the funky heirlooms that hang on until the frost.
Fueled with BLTs, I can loads of the plum varieties like some kind of Nona Tik Tok. Charred tomatoes get smushed into spicy salsas, and stir-fried tomatoes with eggs provide quick comfort. There are simple pastas tossed with grated tomatoes and garden basil. Chunked heirlooms with ripe peaches get drizzled with olive oil and scattered over ribbons of prosciutto. Gazpacho, pan con tomate, bruschetta, shakshuka, arroz de tomate — they’re all in my marathon. When the season wanes, at least there will still be fried green tomatoes.
My sister, Lyn, on the other hand, asks for just one thing: my summer tomato pie. It’s her favorite from Rage Baking, the book I wrote with Kathy Gunst. It came out last year, to raise funds for EMILY’s List and support women running in the 2020 election. It brought together cooks, activists, and recipes from across the country.
Like other Southern tomato pies, my recipe differs from quiche by using a very American mix of mayonnaise and cheese instead of a custard to hold things together. It reminds me of the delicious mayo and tomato sandwiches we ate as children. My version is sort of Tennessee meets Tuscany, with the addition of fennel and a mix of Italian cheeses.
Your kitchen will smell like the best old school pizzeria while this pie bakes. Making it involves several steps; embrace them as a tomato celebration. And if you prebake the crust, salt the tomatoes (essential to avoid a soggy pie), and caramelize the fennel and onion ahead of time, the pie comes together easily.
One pie, serves 6-8
For the crust:
1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1½ tsp. minced fresh thyme (optional)
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
½ tsp. fine salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 to 3 Tbsp. ice water
1 Tbsp. vodka
For the filling:
1¾ lbs. ripe heirloom tomatoes, mixed color and sizes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 medium bulb fennel, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup mayonnaise (olive oil-based ones are great for this)
1/3 cup shredded fresh mozzarella (about 2 oz.)
1/3 cup shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1 oz.)
1/3 cup shredded pecorino Romano (about 1 oz.)
¼ cup lightly packed basil leaves, minced, plus sprigs for topping
Make the crust: Pulse the flour, thyme if using, sugar, and salt in a food processor to combine. Add about a quarter of the butter; process until it disappears into the flour, about 30 seconds. Add the remaining butter and pulse until the mixture looks like cornmeal with bean-size bits of butter. Combine 2 tablespoons water and the vodka and drizzle over the flour mixture. Pulse until the dough just starts coming together but stop before it gathers into a ball. To see if the dough is moist enough, grab a handful of it and squeeze; if it’s still dry and crumbly, add 1 to 3 teaspoons of the remaining water. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap and use the wrap to form and press the dough together. Press into a flat disc, wrap tightly, and refrigerate until firm, at least an hour or up to 2 days.
Meanwhile, slice the tomatoes crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick pieces. Lay on a rack set over a paper towel-lined pan and season both sides with salt. This both seasons the tomatoes and concentrates the juices. Let the tomatoes drain while you prepare the onions and fennel.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and fennel and season with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and some pepper. Cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables wilt, about 15 minutes. Uncover, stir in the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until the vegetables are reduced by more than half, about 20 minutes more. If the vegetables begin to stick, add a tablespoon or two of water. Cool.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface into a 13-inch round. Ease it into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate; crimp the edges as desired. Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes. Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400°F.
Line the crust with a piece of parchment or foil and fill with about 1½ cups dried beans, rice, or pie weights. Bake until the edges are just set and golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove the parchment and weights and return the crust to the oven so the bottom of the crust sets and gets a little color, about 7 minutes more. Remove the crust and reduce the oven temperature to 375°F.
Whisk the mayonnaise, cheeses, and basil in a bowl, then evenly mix in the cooled onion-fennel mixture. Spread the mixture in the prepared pie shell. Layer the tomatoes on top, overlapping as needed, drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and season with some pepper. Bake the pie until the tomatoes are slightly brown and the pie sets, about 45 minutes. Top with basil sprigs; serve warm or at room temperature.
Recipe from Rage Baking: The Transformative Power of Flour, Fury, and Women’s Voices by Katherine Alford and Kathy Gunst.