Tarte à la tomate
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Stress is running high at my house. Teen is applying to college and freaking out about calculus. Self-employed spouse's phone has not rung since the March lockdown. 2020 has provided my roaming anxiety an A-train line of stops.
My favorite flavor of worry has been neutralized recently by a genius ditty composed by Neal Brennan. (Warning there is an F-bomb in it). This brilliant combination of words and music has been life-changing. I sing it to myself throughout my workday.
I am skeptical of claims about certain foods helping to reduce anxiety. While I am not proposing that carbo-loading solves any problems, there is something comforting about pie, French cuisine maison, and, in particular, French tomato pie, mainly because it is so easy to make and involves tomatoes.
The first French tarte à la tomate I ever tasted was made by the mother of my friend Anne, who lives in Carmaux, a town known for its coalmine and glassworks, so not a tourist destination, even though it is in a very beautiful part of the south of France. Tomatoes are of course excellent there, as is Anne's family's cooking. Her mom Monique's tarte à la tomate will forever remain for me the gold standard of this dish. Even the Decavore approved. I don't know if Monique's tomato pie has any proven psychotropic benefits, but there should be funding for a clinical study. I will volunteer as a test subject, so I can eat lots more.
Here is my version, which will be acceptable until such time a French grandmother makes you tarte à la tomate. Then you will have tasted the real thing for yourself and will tell me to buzz off.
For the pie crust:
2 1/2 cups of flour
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 sticks of cold butter, cut up in dice-sized pieces
1/2 cup of ice water
For the pie:
2 very large tomatoes (or 4 small ones)
1-2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
1/2 cup shredded cheese (something not too strong- gruyère or swiss)
herbs of your choice (thyme, oregano, etc)
salt and pepper
Pie crust: I used to get the yips making pie crust. It was alway too tough, or tasted dusty. Then one day I decided not to worry about it anymore and started making much better pie crust. Felonious equestrian Martha Stewart has a good recipe for paté brisée, which I have reproduced here. You could also use a pre-made crust, but that seems unnecessary since Martha's is so easy.
1. Add flour, sugar, and salt to a food processor, then add the butter cut up in small pieces. Butter should be cold.
2. Pulse processor until mixture resembles coarse meal. Running the processor, add cold water in a very thin, continuous stream until dough starts to hang together.
3. Immediately turn off processor and remove dough onto a floured work surface.
4. Push and smear the dough with the heel of your hand. This is what is known as fraisage, (which is not some BDSM practice administered by a chica in an Edwardian gym costume), the way to blend the butter into dough without overworking it. Do as little of this as you can get away with, just so dough comes together.
5. Separate the dough into two balls and the flatten the balls into disks. Put them wrapped in the fridge while you do the rest.
Tomatoes: 6. Peel the tomatoes. You can skip this step, but having tried pies with peeled and unpeeled tomatoes side by side, peeled is better. To peel the tomatoes, score the bottoms with a "x" and drop into a pot of boiling water for 1 minute. The skin around the "x" should be wrinkly and starting to peel back. Let tomatoes cool and the peel will come right off.
7. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
8. Slice the tomatoes into thin wheels. You can leave the slices intact, which makes for a pretty pie. I prefer to cut the slices in half or thirds because I like to pack my pie with more tomato.
9. Put tomatoes on a baking rack and salt both sides. Let them sit for 1/2 hour, so that the tomatoes release their juices. You can turn them over on their rack to get rid of the juices on both sides.
10. Blot the tomatoes with paper towels to get rid of the last of the juices.
11. Butter your pie pan. The French have these pretty fluted pie molds. I have a boring-ass pie pan that does not create that frilly decorative edge, so my pie crusts resemble brutalist modern architecture, but they get the job done.
12. Roll out one ball of your pie dough. Fit it in the pie pan and cut off excess dough around the edge. (You can add it to the other ball of pie dough and save it for another pie).
13. Spread a couple of tablespoons of Dijon mustard (as much as you typically like to put on a sandwich) on the bottom of the pie. French recipes usually call for whole-grain Dijon mustard, but I found that it overwhelms the tomatoes, so if you use it, apply sparingly.
14. Shred a ~1/2 cup of cheese on top of the mustard. (The people in my house will sometimes clamor for more cheese, but they are confused and want pizza).
15. Add the tomatoes! You can make a pretty design, or do as I do and pack every corner of that pie with as much tomato as possible.
16. Top with herbs of your choice. This one was made with fresh thyme and some dried oregano. I added pepper and not too much salt, since the tomatoes have already been salted.
17. Bake in the oven for ~1/2 hour, or until the pie crust gets a deep golden brown. Try to keep it in the oven as long as you can without burning the crust, so that the tomatoes can cook thoroughly.
I've seen a version with goat cheese on top, but why mess with a good thing?