Close your eyes and feel the summer heat. Think about the flavor of summer and see what comes immediately to mind. Watermelon, perhaps. Or fire-grilled chicken. Or basil. Or lemonade. Did I hear anyone say tomato?
Ahhhh … the luscious drip of juice that exudes from a ripe tomato, fresh-picked from the vine on a summer day. Does anything say “summer” more than this one delectable fruit?
The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is believed to be native to the Americas, specifically to the Aztecs, dating at least as far back as A.D. 700. Around the 16th century, European explorers brought it back to their own lands, and despite a period of suspicion when the fruit was believed to be poisonous, it quickly gained favor. It wasn’t until the late 1800s or the early 1900s that tomatoes became prized in the U.S., when Italian immigrants forever changed our eating habits by introducing pizza.
A bit of trivia: The Tariff of 1883, commissioned by President Chester A. Arthur, reclassified the tomato from a fruit to a vegetable for taxation purposes. But botanically it remains a fruit, in the company of peppers, eggplants, squash and cucumbers. Business Insider‘s Mark Abadi quotes journalist Miles Kington as saying, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Tomato varieties abound, and their names sing out to us like a siren’s song: Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Lucky Cross, Speckled Roman, Mountain Glory, Black Krim, Nature’s Riddle. And the things you can do with them — oh, my! Tomato sandwiches, tomato pie, fried green tomatoes, pasta sauce, salsa, gazpacho, tomato bisque, tomato chutney, green tomato marmalade, ratatouille: The list goes on and on and on.
The very best way to enjoy a tomato is out in the field. Take a salt shaker or a little smattering of sugar if you like extra sweetness (it’s a Southern thing), step into the garden and look for the ripest specimen you can find. Feel the gentlest tug of reluctance as the tomato leaves the vine. Its spherical shape gives the effect of holding the whole world right there in your cupped palm: sunshine and water, color and light, minerals and miracles, all ready to explode in your mouth.
Now is the moment you can pull out your pocketknife or a kitchen knife, if you brought one with you, and cut into the ripe flesh, releasing a flow of juices and savory sweetness that, if it could be bottled in that form, could be sold for a fortune as the quintessential taste of summer. Add a touch of salt or sugar, or if you happen to have a basil plant growing right next to your tomato vines, reach down for a green, peppery leaf and add that to the collection of textures running across your tongue. Heaven on earth? You betcha!
In my own kitchen, which is a hybrid of France and Appalachia (or what I like to refer to as “Frappalachia”), my go-to recipe is a spinoff on the classic Southern tomato pie, a savory tart, often served as an appetizer to begin a family meal or brought to a gathering of friends to share at an extended table. In contrast to the heavier pie of the South, this tart is light, almost ethereal, laced with the touch of thyme, tantalizing your taste buds to dive into the dishes that follow, not sated, but gently seduced.
The crust for this French-style, one-layer confection was imparted to me by a 90-year-old French countrywoman, who, like the old woman in the shoe, had so many children she didn’t know what to do. So she made endless pies. Her simple two-minute crust recipe, using a spoon, a fork, a bowl and fingers, completely transformed my life and has made pies (both sweet and savory), tarts and pizzas an easy, any-day occurrence in my household.
The method for this summer delight is easy: Start with a savory crust, add a dollop of mustard for bite, layer your tomatoes and herbs and garlic onto the mustard spread and top with freshly grated cheese. Et voilà!
Savory Summer Tomato Tart
Ingredients for one 10-inch piecrust:
10 rounded soup spoons all-purpose flour
5 soup spoons olive oil
5 soup spoons water
1 teaspoon large-grain salt
1 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary
For the topping:
Four to six ripe tomatoes
Four to six cloves garlic
1 teaspoon French Dijon mustard (preferably Trader Joe’s variety)
½ cup grated Gruyère cheese
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all piecrust ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir quickly with a fork until ingredients adhere easily in a ball. (If crust is too dry, add more liquid; if it’s too wet, throw in a bit more flour.) Pat out into your pie plate, making sure all is of an even thickness, particularly in the corners. Using a pastry brush or the back of a spoon, spread a thin layer of mustard over the crust. Slice your tomatoes about a quarter-inch thick, and remove excess seeds and juice (set this excess yumminess aside for adding to a pasta sauce). Place tomatoes one layer thick on top of the crust. Cut a few rounds into small pieces to fill in any gaps. Slice garlic into thin slivers and spread over the tomato slices. Salt, pepper and sprinkle with the grated cheese, finishing with a generous sprinkling of thyme leaves. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes or until bubbly and golden. Serve with a simple green salad and a glass of dry rosé.
Chef, musician and author, Susi Gott Séguret orchestrates a variety of culinary experiences, including her flagship Seasonal School of Culinary Arts, with sessions in Asheville, Ithaca, N.Y., Sonoma, Calif., and Paris. For more information, see schoolofculinaryarts.org.