Tomatoes are in season — who wants pie? Make it three ways with these recipes

For generations, Southerners have baked tomatoes, cheese and mayo in a crust and called it tomato pie. This Southern Tomato Pie nods to Italy with the addition of basil and Parmesan. Use whatever cheese and herbs you like, and if you end up with extra cheese, it never hurts to sprinkle a little more on top. STYLING BY WENDELL BROCK / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Mayo, cheese are defining pieces of Southern classic, but you can make a ‘pie’ with neither

Until recently, I’ve been rather dismissive of tomato pie.

Baking tomatoes in a crust with cheese and mayo sounded like a foolproof way to ruin one of the defining flavors of summer. Why waste precious tomatoes, and time, in pastry when you can enjoy their delicate acidity with nothing more than salt and pepper?

After my former AJC colleague John Kessler posted a nine-second YouTube sensation some years ago — a sneaky little film of a dish of Mary Mac's tomato pie tipped sideways, a trickle of orange oil spilling out onto a white plate — I became even more put off. Didn't seem like this kitschy old recipe was ready for its close-up.

What I discovered, after some research, is that tomato pies are as various as the fruit itself, which can be as petite as grapes and cherries or as beefy as a steak, and come in a sunburst palette of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, pinks, purples and innumerable combinations thereof.

Tomato pies are fun, fuss-free, free-form and very forgiving.

You can build a tomato pie in a flaky, hand-rolled traditional pie crust — or use anything from buttermilk biscuits to crusty bread to crushed crackers as a base. Cheddar is the Southern go-to, but you may select just about any kind of cheese you want: a dab of goat, a dollop of ricotta, a fat slab of mozzarella.

Cookbook author Alex Hitz, an Atlanta native who now lives in Los Angeles, bakes his Heirloom Tomato Pie with a mixture of Gruyere, sharp cheddar and Parmesan, in that order. Washington, D.C.-area food writer Cathy Barrow makes Fried Green Tomato Slab Pie with pimento cheese and a Ritz-cracker crust. Barrow's Southern-Style Tomato Slab Pie uses extra-sharp cheddar — in the filling and the crust. Ashley Christensen of Raleigh, North Carolina, who won this year's James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country, suggests buttermilk cheddar for her puffy, soufflelike tomato pies, which call for an egg-and-cream custard zipped up with horseradish and Dijon.

A tomato pie is perfect for the lazy days of summer: (from top) Ashley Christensen’s Homegrown Tomato Pie, Carla Hall’s Tomato Pie with Garlic Bread Crust, and Southern Tomato Pie. STYLING BY WENDELL BROCK / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

As I posted pictures of my various tomato-pie tests on Facebook, a friend from Italy commented: “I make these. We call them torta rustica. There are so many interesting variations. I’d often use whatever I had at hand, black olives, ham, spinach, any type of cheese.”

“What about mayo?” I asked.

“Hell, no,” he fired back.

Well, there you have it. More than others, perhaps, Southerners love their maters with mayo, be it on a sandwich or in a pie. Mayonnaise, it appears, is the defining ingredient of the Southern classic. In fact, Savannah food historian Damon Fowler believes that were it not for the invention of grocery-store mayo, there would be no tomato pie as we know it today.

“I suspect it’s the product of a home economist for one of the commercial mayo manufacturers in the 1940s, ‘50, or ’60s,” Fowler told me in a lively text exchange. “And there are no tomato pie recipes like that before commercial mayo became common.”

Now if only some genius scientist could come up with a way to dehydrate summer tomatoes, which tend to be as juicy as they are flavorful. In the name of avoiding a soggy crust, some cooks slice and bake the tomatoes first. Christensen puts them though a salad spinner. One of these days, I’ll try those methods. In the meantime, I’ve had fine luck with draining sliced and salted tomatoes on a wire rack, then dabbing them with paper towels.

After some testing, I came up with a Southern Tomato Pie that nods to Italy. It’s made with cheddar and mayo, with some Parmesan and basil mixed in. Made with a 100% organic store-bought crust I bought at Kroger (because, really, who wants to deal with chilling and baking pastry dough in this heat?), it will satisfy any tomato-pie purist’s fantasy.

If the idea of a fat-rich pastry strained of tomato essence still doesn’t appeal, I have just the recipe for you.

Carla Hall's Tomato Pie With Garlic Bread Crust isn't really a pie at all. It's basically tomatoes with garlic and snippets of fresh thyme, baked on crusty bread with lots of olive oil. Bite into a slice and let juices drip down your cheeks. This vegan "pie" contains no mayo or cheese and still tastes like a tomato.

So simple and so good. A killer way to have tomato pie and eat it, too.

RECIPES

Here are three simple ways to enjoy tomatoes baked in a pie: a classic Southern version with cheese and mayo; a fancier chef’s treatment with an egg-and-cream custard that borders on quiche; and a vegan recipe with no mayo or cheese. If making a traditional pie, feel free to bake your own crust. We had great luck, saved time and beat the heat with store-bought pie shells.

Cheese and mayo help put the “Southern” in Southern Tomato Pie. STYLING BY WENDELL BROCK / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Southern Tomato Pie

This classic is what Southerners mean when they say “tomato pie.” It has mayo in it! Use it as a template to come up with your own creation, with whatever tomatoes, cheese and herbs you prefer. If you end up with extra cheese, it never hurts to sprinkle a little more on top.

For Ashley Christensen’s Homegrown Tomato Pie, the much decorated chef and founder of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, N.C., came up with a tomato pie that calls for horseradish and buttermilk cheddar. Her use of an egg-and-cream custard gives the pie a nice lift and golden sheen. STYLING BY WENDELL BROCK / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Ashley Christensen’s Homegrown Tomato Pie

The much beloved, much decorated chef and founder of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina, must have had horseradish cheddar on the brain when she came up with this tomato pie, which calls for buttermilk cheddar and an egg-and-cream custard zipped up with horseradish and Dijon. I used a mixture of extra-sharp cheddar and Thomasville Tomme. Next time, I might skip the horseradish and add some Vidalia onion. But on the matter of crust, I agree with Christensen 100 percent. “I’ve made this recipe with store-bought frozen pie shells to great success,” she writes in her 2016 cookbook, “Poole’s: Recipes and Stories From a Modern Diner.” “When going that route, I use what is referred to as deep-dish 9-inch frozen shells.” Hear, hear.

Adapted from “Poole’s: Recipes and Stories From a Modern Diner” by Ashley Christensen (Ten Speed Press, $35).

Carla Hall’s Tomato Pie with Garlic Bread Crust: The celebrity chef calls this “pie” her variation of a classic Southern tomato pie. That may be a bit of a stretch: It’s basically tomatoes baked on sliced crusty bread with plenty of garlic, olive oil and thyme. Just be sure to use the best tomatoes you can find, preferably heirloom. STYLING BY WENDELL BROCK / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Carla Hall’s Tomato Pie with Garlic Bread Crust

Basically tomatoes baked on crusty bread, this “pie” doesn’t require you to try to remove the tomato water. Use the juiciest tomatoes you can find.

Adapted from “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration” by Carla Hall (Harper Wave, $29.99).

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