As the growing season winds down, I’m trying my best to savor some of the flavors of summer that I’ll soon be missing when the cold weather comes. Tomatoes are always quintessential to summer dining. Unfortunately it was a bad year around here for locally grown tomatoes with that nasty blight wiping them out, including those in my vegetable garden. My salvation has been the two potted tomatoes on my deck, which have been producing a bumper crop despite being confined to a container. With compost mixed into the potting soil and a weekly soaking with an organic solution of compost tea, they have been real troopers. I’m growing ‘Super Bush’ from Renee’s Garden Seeds because this variety has been bred to handle containers with gusto. While they can’t begin to compare to a juicy flavorful heirloom tomato, these Super Bush have surprised me with their longevity and the truly outstanding sauce they make.
So to celebrate this bumper crop of a summery favorite, I decided to make another local seasonal favorite – tomato pie. Now, I realize when some of you read “tomato pie” you’re expecting something like this that Elise made. As delicious as her recipe looks, tomato pie can only be one thing in my house: a version of pizza topped simply with fresh homemade tomato sauce. Around Philadelphia, this Sicilian-inspired pizza pie is a staple in any respectable pizzeria or Italian bakery. It’s always prepared in a rectangular shape and usually served cold or at room temperature with a light dusting of grated parmesan just before it’s boxed up or dished out.
Since there are no gooey cheeses or droves of toppings, the seasoning of the sauce is crucial to a good tomato pie. I put heaps of basil and oregano in mine, along with plenty of garlic. I also like to use a red onion instead of yellow because it tempers the acidity of the tomatoes, adding greater complexity to the flavors. And finally, my secret ingredient is a carrot! By adding a chopped up carrot to the sauce as it simmers, a hint of sweetness comes into its undertones that is a perfect complement to the yeasty sweetness of the crunchy crust.
As with any pizza, working with the dough can be intimidating for anyone just getting started with homemade tomato pie. I try to take a very relaxed and zen approach to it. I never aim for perfection when rolling it and shaping it, though getting it as thin as possible is always the goal. Over many years of failures and successes, I’ve learned that the real trick to a good crust is the oven. You don’t need a fancy wood-fired oven (though if you have one can I be your new best friend?), but you do need a hot regular old oven. Make sure you pre-heat your oven at its hottest possible temperature and also pre-heat your pan or stone at the same time. When the dough hits that hot surface in that hot chamber, it has no choice but to puff up and get airy and crisp. Just be sure to watch your pizza/pie closely as it will go from “perfect golden and crunchy” to “charred inedible slab” in just a few minutes.
Oh, and when cutting a tomato pie, you must make square slices. It’s the rule. Don’t know why. It just is. While my personal preference is to snack on cold slices in the afternoon, it’s fun to serve tomato pie at parties or for dinner with other types of pizza. One of my Italian-American friends loves to grill slices at his big summer picnic, and it’s very tasty with just the bottom of the crust warmed up and a little bit charred. Mmmmmmm.
A Straight from the Farm Original
1 batch of pizza dough
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic. finely minced
1 large red onion, diced
6-8 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large bunch of fresh basil, chopped (about 2 T.)
1 T. minced fresh oregano
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large deep skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, add the garlic and sautee for a minute (do not allow it to brown) before adding the diced onion. Stir and season with a pinch of salt. Cook onions until they are soft. Add the chopped tomatoes and carrot and bring the sauce to a boil before lowering the heat to its lowest setting. Stir and season with another pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Stir every 10 minutes or so and allow sauce to simmer until it thickens, about 30 minutes, depending on the moisture content of the tomatoes.
When the sauce has thickened, either use a potato masher or a stick blender to smooth it out a bit if desired (I leave mine fairly chunky) . Add the basil and oregano, stirring and simmering for another minute before turning off the heat. Taste the sauce and add more salt and pepper as desired. Allow sauce to sit for at least 15 minutes to let the flavors merge. At this point you can put the sauce in jars or tupperware and store it in the fridge for up to a week, though it tastes best if eaten within 24 hours.
Adjust the oven rack to the lowest position and put in the baking stone or tray you’ll be using. Preheat oven at highest temperature possible while you prepare the pie.
To make the tomato pie, generously dust the surface of a pizza peel (or try a sturdy piece of heavy cardboard) with flour. On a floured countertop, roll out the dough as thinly as possible into a large rectangle and place it on the pizza peel or other board. Give the peel/board a little wiggle to make sure the dough can slide freely. If it doesn’t, lift it gently and toss a little more flour under it.
Spoon tomato sauce onto the center of the dough and use the back of the spoon to spread it out, leaving a one inch rim around the edges. Don’t skimp on the sauce – remember its all you’ll have on this crust. Pull out your oven rack and carefully slide the pie directly onto the baking stone or tray in the hot oven. Turn heat down to 450 F. Bake for 8-10 minutes, checking after a few minutes to rotate if one side is browning faster than the other.
When the crust is golden, remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Slice into squares, dust with grated parmesan cheese and serve. It’s good cold out of the fridge, at room temperature or hot off a grill.