Tomatoes

Alabamians are passionate about their football, Chilton County peaches and the first non-commercially grown tomato of the season. (These passions are not necessarily listed in order of importance.)

In my circle of friends (you can tell we are old, dull folks), tomato talk in early summer rivals that of Alabama football in  early fall.

In recent days, tomato talk has become frenzied. Who has harvested their first tomato, best tomatoes, largest heirloom Cherokee Purple, and where is the best source for tomatoes if one does not grow their own?

Southern food publications add to the frenzy with enticing pictures and recipes for things like tomato-peach-corn salad. This is not a combination I would traditionally consider, but I did make it, aided and abetted by the heralded arrival of Ken Easterling, the Chilton County peach man, immortalized by the late Star columnist George Smith.

Not only did Ken bring delicious peaches on his first run to our area, but he also brought equally good tomatoes, which looked too perfect to taste like real tomatoes. Fortuitously, they were perfect for the season’s first filet of tomato sandwich and the first tomato pie.

Tomatoes are native to the Americas. It is believed the early Aztecs cultivated them around 700 AD. European explorers arriving in the New World in the 16th century discovered natives eating this mysterious fruit and subsequently carried plants and seeds back to the Old World, but the tomato was viewed with suspicion.

Historians speculate this suspicion grew from wealthier people, primarily in Northern Europe, being sickened after consuming  tomatoes using flatware and plates made from pewter containing high amounts of lead. It is likely these people were sickened by lead poisoning because foods high in acid — like tomatoes — could cause lead to leach from utensil to food.

Poor people who ate with wooden utensils were not sickened. This somewhat explains the popularity of the tomato in the peasant culture of southern Italy.

Though native to America, cultivated tomatoes were still viewed with suspicion well into early 19th-century America.

One apocryphal story has to do with the introduction of the tomato to New Jersey by Robert Gibbon Johnson, a farmer, horticulturalist, soldier and statesman who in 1820 decided he would single-handedly dispel the notion that tomatoes were poisonous.

Word went out that he would eat a tomato on the steps of the county courthouse to prove once and for all the non-toxicity of the tomato. This was done to great fanfare. Bands played, women fainted, babies cried — and Johnson survived eating his way through an entire basket of tomatoes.

Some credit Johnson as being the founder of the tomato industry in America. By 1850 and leading up to the Civil War, tomatoes were an established commodity on American tables.

Like wine grape varieties, there are infinitely many tomato varieties. Better Boys, Big Boys, Beef Steak and Cherokee Purples currently adorn local farmers markets, but alas their growing season is fleeting. One must seize the day because tomato season peaks too soon.

Do make tomato pie. My favorite recipe for this savory pastry was published originally in Southern Living magazine. Note that I use a bought crust.

Also, do make Southern Living’s tomato-peach-corn salad, a feast for both the palate and eyes.

If this is not enough tomato goodness, consider taking in the Tomato Taste on July 26 at Pursell Farms, an ever-expanding resort in Sylacauga. Spend a weekend at the resort and feast on a tomato-centric dinner prepared by critically acclaimed resort executive chef Andrea Griffith.

Dine on BLT tortellini, flatbread with roasted tomato pesto, roasted snapper, pickled tomato bruschetta, pickled shrimp with tomato confit, roasted tomato goat cheese strudel and other tomato offerings, all accompanied by Spanish wines.

For more information, call the resort at 256-208-7600 or visit the website pursellfarms.com.

Pat Kettles writes about food, wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at pkettles@annistonstar.com.


OLD-FASHIONED TOMATO PIE

For the pie crust:

  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour


¼ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
3 to 4 tablespoons ice-cold water

For the filling:

  • 2 ¼ pounds assorted heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced


1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 ¼ teaspoons freshly ground pepper, divided
1 tablespoon canola oil
½ cup assorted chopped fresh herbs (such as chives, parsley and basil)
½ cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¼ cup mayonnaise

Process first 4 ingredients in a food processor until mixture resembles coarse meal. With processor running, gradually add 3 tablespoons ice-cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and process until dough forms a ball and leaves sides of bowl, adding up to 1 tablespoon more water, if necessary. Shape dough into a disk, and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill 30 minutes.

Unwrap dough, and place on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle lightly with flour. Roll dough to ⅛-inch thickness.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Press dough into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim dough 1 inch larger than diameter of pie plate; fold overhanging dough under itself along rim of pie plate. Chill 30 minutes or until firm.

Line edge of piecrust with aluminum foil; fill with pie weights or dried beans. (This will keep the crust from bubbling up.) Place on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove weights and foil. Bake 5 minutes or until browned. Cool completely on baking sheet on a wire rack (about 30 minutes). Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Place tomatoes in a single layer on paper towels; sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Let stand 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute onion and ¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper in hot oil in a skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes, or until onion is tender.

Pat tomatoes dry with a paper towel. Layer tomatoes, onion and herbs in prepared crust, seasoning each layer with pepper (1 teaspoon total). Stir together cheeses and mayonnaise, then spread over pie.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until lightly browned, shielding edges with foil to prevent excessive browning. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

— Southern Living

TOMATO-PEACH-CORN SALAD

  • 2 beefsteak tomatoes, each cut into 8 wedges
  • 1 peach, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 cup fresh corn kernels (from 2 small ears or 1 large ear)
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ cup honey vinaigrette (recipe follows)
  • 2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about ½ cup)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
    Combine tomato wedges, diced peach and corn in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with salt. Drizzle with honey vinaigrette, and toss to coat. Divide salad among 4 plates, or serve on 1 large platter. Top with feta, and sprinkle with black pepper.

    HONEY VINAIGRETTE
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • ⅓ cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons minced red onion or shallot
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
    Combine all ingredients in a clean jar. Cover with lid, and shake until fully blended. Use immediately, or chill until ready to use.
    — Southern Living
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