Many food professionals would have you, the home cook, believe that the culinary tricks they perform and the dishes they create in the kitchen are difficult. And it is true that some...
When you write about food for a living, you find yourself scraping the bottom of the barrel sometimes. You'll have twenty good ideas, then a few duds, and you start to doubt your ability to think about food coherently. You forget recipes you memorized years ago, you burn things inexplicably, you lose interest and find yourself standing in the pantry, for the third day in a row, eating peanut butter out of a jar for lunch.
Part of the problem involves being inspired. Food writers can develop a creeping disinterest in the very topic they are passionate about. It isn't as if we can forget about food. We eat, most of us, three times a day. We must consume something. Food is never out of sight, so how can it be out of mind?
The problem, for me, is supersaturation. Between looking at food blogs, food magazines, cookbooks, and then working at my other job as a baker, it can be really hard to see the forest for the trees. All I can say is, thank heavens I don't have television so I don't have to watch food shows. I get bogged down with new videos that have gone viral, with popular recipes, with the culinary zeitgeist that feels more like a blitzkrieg than a gentle spirit.
The momentum gets me down. I often feel that if I close my eyes for one moment, the world has blown past me and on to better, newer things. There is a strong part of me, though, that just wants to read a book that isn't a cookbook, to write a story that isn't about food, to escape the fondue pot and run for the hills.
This is especially true during the summer months, when vegetables rule the earth. Today I took one look at the single cucumber vine I planted, and two gigantic cucumbers stared back at me. "Really?," I thought, and added them to the growing pile of cucumbers on my kitchen counter (fridge space? forget it.) next to the growing pile of tomatoes next to the vase stuffed with basil sprigs. Then, there are the bags of baby squash, the eggplants, the fingerling potatoes and heads of garlic. I don't even want to talk about the butternut squash. It's a good problem to have, admittedly, but there comes a point, a threshold, if you will, when you are no longer capable of keeping up with the onslaught, and all you can manage is damage control.
I find myself judging recipes based on how many pounds of tomatoes they use. Only two pounds? That's not enough. And then, of course, there's the peanut butter problem I mentioned earlier. Sometimes when I'm overwhelmed, I can't think beyond peanut butter. It's a personal albatross. And in tomato season, eating peanut butter is reprehensible at best. What can I say? It's a coping mechanism.
All that aside, I do occasionally have bursts of optimism and recognition during these times of overwhelming plenty. This time it was due, in large part, to a round of dough I found in the back of my fridge. I think it had been there for more than a week, and even then it was just a slightly compressed mound of scraps from making tarts. It didn't look promising, but I couldn't bring myself to chuck it in the trash. It would have been a personal failing in a time when I badly needed to pull off something successful.
I have found that (pastry people, cover your eyes), while fresh pastry dough is preferable, dough can sit around for a goodly amount of time before it becomes worthless. Of course, this is provided that you wrap it tightly. If not, there will be nothing for you but a sad, grey stone that crumbles at your gaze. My point is that you should never throw away pastry scraps. They can be very useful in times of duress.
Today, the duress was personified by a row of tomatoes that were going soft. I found the pie dough lurking alongside some hapless-looking ears of corn, and it all came together in my mind. Tomato Pie.
This tomato pie was made from a motley assortment of tomatoes, although I'm sure you could stick to one variety and end up with an equally delicious pie. I would also recommend that you play with the recipe to suit yourself. Add bell or hot peppers, cubed eggplant, or even chunks of potatoes. The tomatoes exude quite a bit of liquid, so perhaps choose companion veggies that aren't as watery. I added fresh basil, but you could add thyme, parsley, savory, or another summer herb. Tomatoes seem to play well with a variety of herbs. I also think that rather than having the cheese on top of the crust, what would be ideal is to incorporate it into the dough when you make it. However, as I was using dough that I made previously for another purpose, I couldn't do this. You still have a chance, though!
Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Have ready a 9x13" baking pan and a rolled pie crust, homemade (see recipe below) or store-bought (thawed if frozen).
In a large skillet, heat over medium to medium-high heat:
3 tablespoons olive oil
Add and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes:
1 large onion, chopped
Add and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes:
4 cloves garlic, minced
Corn kernels from 3 ears of corn
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, chopped
Cook until the tomatoes exude quite a bit of juice and the mixture is at a simmer, about 10 minutes.
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Stir until the mixture is slightly thickened (it will not be very thick, but it will thicken just a bit).
6 large basil leaves, torn
Pour the tomato mixture into the baking dish. Top with the rolled out dough, and poke several holes in the dough. Bake until bubbly and the crust is brown, about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle over the crust:
2 ounces sharp cheese such as parmesan or romano
Return to the oven for about 5 more minutes, or until the cheese is melted.
All-Butter Pie Dough
Makes enough for a double-crust pie
Combine in a large bowl:
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Cut in using a pastry blender or your hands until the pieces of butter are the size of small peas:
2 sticks cold butter, cut into small pieces
Add slowly, about a teaspoon at a time, until the dough just comes together in a shaggy ball:
About 1/2 cup ice water
Gather the dough in a ball, without kneading it, and flatten it into a disc. Wrap the disc tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or up to three days. You can also freeze the dough for up to a month, letting the dough thaw in the refrigerator before using.
When ready to use, simply divide the dough in half for a double-crust pie or, for the recipe above, use a little more than half the dough to cover the pie. Roll out the dough on a floured surface, rotating it between passes of the rolling pin to be sure it isn't sticking. Continue rolling and rotating until the dough is about 1/8-inch thick. Roll the dough around your rolling pin to transfer it to the pie dish and gently unroll it over the pie. Continue with the recipe as directed above.