vivian howard's tomato pie
Tomato pie is from the new old school of Southern cooking, likely the brainchild of twentieth-century magazine editors—this at least according to Nancie McDermott, the North Carolina-based author of Southern Pies. “My guess is that it's a creation of Junior League cookbook people and Southern Living magazine readers and ‘women's pages’ newspaper food editors, coming up with tasty ways to make use of the summer's abundance,” she writes. Damon Lee Fowler, author of Classical Southern Cooking, believes the pie became popularized in the 1970s and offers an alternative origin story: promotional recipes from Big Mayo. (Spoiler: the pie contains mayo.)
In any case, tomato pie is most popular in the Carolinas, especially the flat coastal Lowcountry. This particular recipe comes from Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer and PBS’s “A Chef’s Life.” Her 2016 cookbook Deep Run Roots is a rich and thoughtful exploration of Eastern North Carolina food, tradition, and history. This recipe from that book is one of my favorites.
The traditional recipe is a savory pie of summer tomatoes and herbs topped with a mixture of cheese and mayo (preferably Duke’s). That may sound off-putting to some, but trust me: Even people who think they hate mayo love this pie. The reason why is three and half pounds of tomatoes. See, the French counterpart to this pie—tomato quiche—is mostly a few slices of tomatoes suspended in an eggy custard. This is not that. This recipe calls for a glut of the best peak-season tomatoes. Half of them are used fresh and the other half are roasted to draw out water and concentrate flavor. Both the fresh and roasted tomatoes are tossed with basil and caramelized onions, piled high in a pie shell, and topped with a thin layer of equal parts fontina, parm, and mayo—just enough to seal in the pie and turn melty and golden when baked.
So to me, this pie owes far less to Big Mayo than to Big Tomato. There are a lot of things you can do with peak tomatoes at the end of August, like eat them with nothing more than salt. But they fit better in pies than you might imagine—they're a summer fruit too, after all.
Vivian Howard’s Tomato Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie.
I use my pie dough recipe here (see link below). Other than that, no changes. The recipe in the cookbook doesn’t finish the pie with sliced tomatoes, but the Saveur adaptation does; I’ve used that adaptation below. Look for the very best tomatoes you can find. (Vivian uses local Cherokee Purples and German Johnsons.) The tomatoes should feel heavy and have a deep color. For a nice visual touch, you can also use two different colors—one for the roasted part and the other for the fresh. Finally, a note on timing: the diced fresh tomatoes need to sit for 1 hour (to drain excess water), the onions take about 45 minutes to caramelize, the roasted tomatoes bake for 30 minutes, and the assembled pie bakes for another 30 minutes. Make the pie dough the day before if possible, par-baking the day of.
THE BUTTER LAB’S PIE DOUGH (1/2 RECIPE FOR A SINGLE-CRUST PIE, PAR-BAKED AND COOLED)
3 1⁄2 lb. vine-ripe tomatoes (about 12), cored, seeded, and cut into 1⁄2-inch dice, divided
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon sugar, divided
1 tablespoon butter
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced with the grain
1 teaspoon picked thyme
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon (10 turns) freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup packed whole basil leaves
TOPPING AND ASSEMBLY
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup grated fontina
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 large Roma or heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced and blotted dry with paper towels
MAKE THE FILLING:
Toss half of the diced tomatoes with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Set them over a colander to drain while you get everything else ready, at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 375°F.
In a medium sauté pan or skillet, melt the butter and then add the onion and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. Cook over medium-low heat until deeply caramelized. This will take about 45 minutes. If the onion gets away from you and burns a little, add 1⁄4 cup of water to the pan, scrape up the overbrowned bits, and keep going. In the end, you’ll have a scant 2/3 cup of caramelized onion.
While the onions are caramelizing, toss the remaining diced tomatoes with 1/2 teaspoon salt, thyme, and olive oil. Spread in a single layer on a sheet tray with as much room separating the individual pieces as possible. Slide the tray onto the middle rack of your oven and roast for 30-35 minutes. You're looking for the tomatoes to dry out and brown slightly.
Once all the individual components are done, stir together the onion, the fresh and roasted diced tomatoes, the remaining salt, sugar, black pepper, and basil.
MAKE THE TOPPING AND ASSEMBLE THE PIE:
In a separate, smaller bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, fontina, and Parmigiano. Spoon the filling into your par-baked crust. Top with the cheese mixture and tomato slices. Bake in the middle of your oven for 30 minutes. You can serve this warm or at room temperature. Both have their virtues.