The Best Thing You’ll Eat This Summer: Tomato Basil Pie

Tomato Pie is apparently a famous Southern dish, although nobody in my north Alabama family ever ate it, as far as I know. Perhaps it was more the province of men who went to work in offices and ladies who bathed a couple of times a day in the hottest weeks and ate their pimento cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off; my family worked in cotton mills and laid brick and their wives kept house and nobody considered wasting bread crusts. They ate their tomatoes green and fried or ripe and sliced on a plate along with their pinto beans and cornbread.

Anyway, my mom discovered tomato basil pie six or seven years ago and it immediately became the taste of late summer in this part of south-central Pennsylvania for at least a couple of families. We wait for enough ripe tomatoes to make this pie the way other people wait for the first corn-on-the-cob or the first watermelon. Waiting for delicious, fresh food is one of the purest, best kinds of waiting there is, don’t you think?

These tomatoes are NOT Tomato Basil Pie-worthy,  They are just the only photo I have of some of this year’s tomatoes. The little ones are Black Cherry tomatoes. Their flavor is pretty good, but the skins are kind of tough. I think next year I’ll go back to Sungolds.

Tomato Basil Pie sounds improbable to me because it has Italian ingredients — mozzarella, Parmesan cheese, garlic, and lots and lots of fresh basil — but then it is all bound together with mayonnaise, a decidedly French ingredient. Now, I understand Southerners have completely embraced mayonnaise and claimed it for their own for years and years — think banana sandwiches — but how did this dish come about? Southerners haven’t been big eaters of garlic or fresh herbs historically. Did some immigrant Italian nonna find herself dragged below the Mason Dixon line from New Jersey and figure out that basil grows beautifully in the Dixie heat? Did she watch her southern neighbors devouring their dripping tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder Bread and think, “Mama Mia, I could show you something better than that!”?

Maybe none of that is true. Maybe lots of Southerners have loved garlic and basil for the last few decades and I just didn’t know. You see, I am the worst kind of Southerner, the kind who considers herself to be one even though she was born just barely over the official line in Virginia and then grew up in the North. My memories of the South are all compressed into the weeks my brother and sister and I spent there most summers, first with one set of grandparents in Huntsville, AL and then with the other in Fayetteville, TN. Other visits with our parents usually centered around winter holidays, but somehow my strongest memories of the South are hot summer memories. Okra memories. Tomato sandwich memories. Grandmother-canning-pickles-in-the-un-air-conditioned-kitchen memories. Peach cobbler memories. No basil. No garlic. Plenty of bacon grease, however, so it was all good.

This is fried okra, for those of you not fortunate enough to have eaten it every summer of your life. My grandmothers drained theirs on paper towels, but I have learned that it “keeps its crispy” better if removed from the skillet to a colander, there to be salted generously and snatched at by the cook while the remainder is fried.

I know food traditions and tastes evolve. This meal consisted of Tomato Basil Tarts, which is a variation of Mom’s pie I have developed for a girls camp I am cooking for this week. I wanted to give the the taste of Tomato Basil Pie but needed to get by with a smaller amount of tomatoes and basil, so the tart was born. So I tested and tweaked my idea a few times. For this meal I served the tarts with fried okra and roasted carrots from our garden. I know for a fact that neither of my grandmothers ever roasted any vegetable other than potatoes, and if they called what they made roasted potatoes they would have meant what most of us know as baked potatoes.

But roasted vegetables are very, very good, and so we eat them often. Basil and garlic are very, very good, too, so probably Southerners have been eating them in droves forever and nobody told me, because since I grew up my visits back to that part of the country have been brief and widely-spaced. I wouldn’t blame them at all for not thinking to mention it.

So, this hybrid concoction of wonderfulness is a part of Southerners’ lives in the actual South and a part of the life of this would-be Southerner who lives near a Yankee town reviled for years by those folks as the scene of their high water mark and the beginning of the end of their bid for secession from these United States.

This is Tomato Basil Tart, made with puff pastry and yellow and red tomatoes. The photo can never do it the justice it deserves.

I’m awfully glad we are still one country, by the way, and I’m awfully glad we can all eat Tomato Basil Pie wherever we find ourselves with fresh basil and garden tomatoes.

Carolyn Legg’s Famous Tomato Basil Pie
as re-interpreted by Lori
Serves 6 as a side dish
Serves 4 as a main dish
Serves just 2 if you are Lori’s Mom and Dad, although I hear they are trying to be better behaved this summer
Now, don’t even bother to make this if you aren’t going to use fresh garden tomatoes and basil.
1 nine or ten inch pie crust, baked – Carolyn makes her own crust because she is the best crust-maker on the planet; Lori usually uses one of the rolled-up kind from the grocery store because she is not the best crust-maker on the planet.
1 ½ c. mozzarella cheese, shredded, divided
a good-ish amount of Roma (plum) tomatoes, maybe 5-10 – or use regular tomatoes grown by you or someone you know and love – did I say do NOT use supermarket tomatoes? I did.
1 c. loosely packed fresh basil leaves (a right smart handful or two)
4 large cloves of garlic (Carolyn’s cheater-but-fast tip: 1 heaping tablespoon jarred, chopped garlic)
½ c. good quality mayonnaise (Hellman’s Light works well and gives the illusion of a healthy dish)
¼ c. parmesan cheese (cheater green can version is fine or be wonderful and grate your own)
1/8 t. ground pepper
1. Sprinkle ½ c. mozzarella on the bottom of the BAKED pie crust – it’s fine if the crust is hot out of the oven.
2. Prep the tomatoes: cut into quarters and schloop out the seeds and pulp. Let drain on layers of paper towels to remove as much moisture as is reasonable.
3. Arrange the tomatoes in the pie crust. No need to be fancy, because you’re gonna cover it up with…
4. …the goo: Process the basil leaves and garlic in the food processor (make sure leaves are dry) until very finely chopped, scraping down the sides of the workbowl a time or two. Or, put leaves in a Pyrex measuring cup and use kitchen shears to “chop” them inside the cup + mince the garlic.
5. Add remaining 1 c. mozz, mayo, parmesan, and pepper to the processor and buzz to blend. Or, just mix all the basil, garlic, and above ingredients together. Makes about 1 c. goo
6. Put blobs of the goo all over the top of the tomatoes and use your finger to smoosh into a fairly even layer. You probably don’t really need to smoosh, but I can never resist an opportunity to smoosh.
7. Bake at 375 degrees for 35-40 minutes. Don’t serve it screamin’ hot; wait until it is warm. You might as well go ahead and eat the whole thing, because it doesn’t reheat that well. I (Lori) serve this with sautéed or grilled chicken or leftover cold roast meat because I need plenty of protein, but Mom and Dad scarf it up as a main dish and have a token salad with it to assuage their consciences…
Note #1: if you don’t like mayo, don’t be put off. The Husband begs for this and he hates mayo on a sandwich.
Note #2: if you don’t like either tomatoes or basil, give this one a miss, although your life will be empty in ways you will never fully grasp.

Look here for a version of this recipe that transforms pie into individual tarts.

What single food or dish screams “summer” for you? I am out of town and away from the internet this week, but you all can talk among yourselves. Summer is fleeting, so we need to grab these tastes while we can.
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  1. Posted August 13, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    You finally posted it. Thank you.


  2. Posted August 14, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Lori, I have even had a couple of “non-tomato” fans (that’s hard to even think about and even harder to type!)who loved the Tomato Basil Pie!

    Your Dad and I (in the interest of trying to eat more healthily) had it “crustless” last night. I just sprayed my pie plate, put in a nice amount of shredded mozzarella cheese to cover the bottom of the pie plate, added the tomatoes and the topping mix and baked until the topping was golden (it took about the same amount of time to bake as the pie with crust). Even crustless, it was still very good!

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