For several months, Miriam Rubin lived a life of cruel irony. The author of Tomatoes, a volume in the Savor the South series by UNC Press, had been receiving positive feedback since its March release. As late as June, however, she was suffering tomato envy in her chilly southwestern corner of Pennsylvania while Southern friends were standing over sinks slurping juicy sandwiches.
"I have always been a tomato fiend and really missed ripe ones," says Rubin, longtime food columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and colleague of UNC culinary historian Marcie Cohen Ferris. "There's just nothing like it. It's the taste of summer. Holding a fresh-picked tomato makes me want to carry it off to the kitchen and have my way with it."
Rubin tasted countless varieties in preparation for Tomatoes, which includes nearly 50 ways to enjoy them. Recipes are organized in eight categories, ranging from starters and soups to tomato salads, main dishes (including pies and cobblers) and sides, sauces and gravies, and preserves and juices.
While she ardently urges consumers to choose locally grown tomatoes, the former chef admits a particular passion for those raised under Southern sunshine. The practice of growing tomatoes in the South began in the late 17th century, but the once dubious member of the nightshade family did not commonly appear in regional cookbooks for another 100 years. Rubin's research identified no particular variety that is original to the region but notes that Alex and Betsy Hitt, legendary growers at the Carrboro Farmers Market, favor the sturdy Cherokee Purple.
"They're especially good for growing in your area," Rubin says. "Because of the heat and humidity, tomatoes crack. There's no scientific evidence, but I believe it's true that the purple skin helps to keep them intact."
Rubin suggests that fresh tomatoes of nearly any pedigree gain instant Southern provenance, however, when tucked between soft white bread and coated with a slather of mayonnaise. The same goes for tomatoes stewed with okra and onions or, if still green, pressed into cornmeal and fried to a golden crisp in an old iron skillet.
Rubin is keen on the Zebra, which is green when ripe, and she is among the many devotees of the Sungold, the tiny orange orbs some consider tomato candy. "My newspaper editor's son loves them. He'll eat the whole plant's worth, like he's a deer," she says.
As that child has already figured out, tomatoes are best, and should be enjoyed in abundance, at peak season. Minimize handling picked tomatoes until they are ready to use to avoid bruising, which hastens rot. And for the love of all things Southern, do not refrigerate them or expose their innards to the elements unless you are ready to dine.
"They are are very sensitive—or maybe I am," Rubin says. "A chilled tomato, or one sliced hours before, is just not worth eating."
Rubin has about 30 tomato plants in her garden of 21 varieties. She is one of those people likely to leave a box of tomatoes on your doorstep without a note or clue. "But not in my own neighborhood," she says. "Everyone grows them here. I have a hard time with the idea of 'too many tomatoes,' but it does happen."
When fresh varieties are unavailable, Rubin suggests options for using those canned at peak flavor. Avoid the "bad old cardboard supermarket tomato, shipped green, gassed with ethylene so it 'pinks up.'"
While reluctant to pick a favorite among Tomatoes' recipes, Rubin says she often makes the Open-Face Tomato Pie as soon as she can harvest juicy orbs from her own garden.
"I'm always grateful to have leftovers for lunch," she says. "Problem is, it's usually gone in one sitting."
Open-Face Tomato Pie
Makes 4 main-dish servings
Pastry for a 9-inch single-crust pie (can be store-bought)
4-5 medium, firm-but-ripe tomatoes (1 1/2 pounds)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 1/4 cups shredded sharp white cheddar cheese, divided
1/2 cup plain panko crumbs
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup chopped basil
2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Fit the pastry into a 9-inch pie plate and form a high, fluted edge. Prick all over with a fork. Pit a sheet of foil inside the pastry and fill the foil with dried beans or rice. Bake until the pastry is set and white at the edges, 10-12 minutes. Remove the foil and beans or rice, return the pastry to the oven, and bake until it's brown in spots, 8-10 more minutes. If it starts to slip down, press it back in place with a spoon. Cool on a wire rack.
Halve and core the tomatoes and cut them crosswise into 1/4-inch thick half-moon slices, discarding the ends. (You should have a heaping 3 cups.) Place the tomatoes lives on a double layer of paper towels and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Let stand for about 5 minutes.
Toss 1/2 cup of the cheddar with the panko crumbs in a small bowl. Sprinkle half of this evenly over the bottom of the cooled crust. Arrange half of the tomato in an overlapping circle on top of the crumbs, filling the center with more slices. Sprinkle with half of the red onion and 1/4 cup of the cheddar. Arrange the remaining tomatoes in the same manner of top; sprinkle with the remaining red onion.
Mix the mayonnaise, basil, chives, remaining 1/2 cup cheddar, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Spread of tomatoes with a rubber spatula, cover them completely, using your fingers to help since the mixture is thick. Sprinkle with the remaining crumb-cheese mixture.
Bake the pie until the top is browned and the filling has started to bubble at the edges, 45-50 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let stand for at least 30 minutes for easiest cutting. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.
Reprinted with permission of Miriam Rubin from Tomatoes, UNC Press (© 2013).
This article appeared in print with the headline "50 shades of tomatoes."