From Norwich, Vermont, to Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, to Ashland, Oregon, the annual Tomato Competition is in full swing.
“How big are your tomatoes?”
“Oh, well, they're coming along pretty good. How big are your tomatoes?”
Frankly, I'm a newbie tomato grower. I basically have no clue about tomatoes. I know there are big tomatoes, and little tomatoes (cherry? grape? Don't confuse me here!). And there are tomatoes that are kind of oval shaped and bland, and tomatoes that are big and juicy and full of seeds. After that, I'm lost.
But, thanks to my Tomato Success Kit from our fellow Vermonters up at Gardener's Supply, for the past two years I've grown really good tomatoes.
And, like any timid newcomer to gardening, once I've found success growing one particular thing one particular way, I'm terrified of change.
I can grow Sweet Millions tomatoes in my Tomato Success Kit. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it.
Except this year, I waited too long to buy my Sweet Millions. Well, heck, we were still having frost just before Memorial Day. So when I finally got around to planting, the first weekend in June - no more Sweet Millions. Sold out.
Panic. Uhhhh.... now what?
"Oh, just get some big tomatoes. I like them better anyway," said my husband, the guy who grew up on a farm and started weeding and hoeing and being sprayed with DDT at the age of 7.
I ventured to the farm stand. “Big Beef.” Well, that sounds... robust. OK - sold!
In the meantime, my friend Kathy, up at Gardener's, gifted me with some Sungold cherry tomato plants. "You'll love these," she reassured me. "They're my favorite.”
Well, who am I to argue with the Director of Gardening at Gardener's Supply? It would be like telling Julia Child I didn't think I'd try her recipe for duckling à l'orange, thanks just the same.
So the tomatoes have been growing for about 5 weeks. They're nice and tall. Lots of leaves. They look great.
But where are the tomatoes?
I see a couple of discouraged-looking yellow blossoms. And a total of TWO – count ’em, two – tomatoes on my SIX tomato plants.
Now granted, up here in New England, it's rained every day since who knows when. Pretty soon I expect to see the animals, two by two, filing down the street in search of Noah.
My pansies are frowning. My morning glories are far from glorious. My baskets aren't hanging, they're drooping.
And tomatoes? Zilch, zip, zero, nada, nothing.
So I've been asking people around the office, “How are your tomatoes?”
And the answer?
Well... let's just say no one is growing any prize-winners this year.
The competition is off. A draw has been declared. We're all in the same boat... er, Ark.
If, by some happy chance, the sun finally starts to shine and round about September I can finally pick some tomatoes, I know just what I'll do with them:
We'll make the crust first. I like to use buttermilk powder in my pie or tart crust; maybe it's just my imagination, but I think the acid tempers the gluten, yielding a more tender crust. Also, it brightens the flavor just a tad.
This particular crust recipe also uses cream cheese. Again, it adds flavor. Low-fat cream cheese works fine.
First, mix 2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, 1/2 cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons buttermilk powder, till the mixture is thoroughly combined and evenly crumbly. Can you leave out the buttermilk powder if you don't have it? Yes, you may; you have my permission.
Add 10 tablespoons cold butter, cut in pats.
Work the butter in till the mixture is crumbly, but leave some of the butter in larger, visible pieces.
Next, add 3 to 4 tablespoons ice water, enough to bring the dough together.
You should be able to grab the dough easily, without it falling apart. It shouldn't look dry.
Decide how many tarts you want to make. This recipe will make four small (4 1/2”) tarts, plus one large (9”) tart. Or two large tarts. Or eight small tarts. Or wrap and freeze half for another time. Lots of options.
Divide the dough however you choose, flatten each piece into a rough disk, and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, to make it easier to roll out. Can you refrigerate it longer? Sure. Just let it warm at room temperature till it's pliable; if you try to roll it out and it cracks, it's too cold; wait 15 minutes or so, then try again.
Let's make small tarts first. Get out four small tart pans. Removable bottoms are a nice touch. Place one piece of dough on a lightly floured work surface.
For small tarts, you're going to roll the dough into a circle about 6” in diameter. That's because the tart is 4 1/2” across the bottom, and 3/4” up each side - so 4 1/2” + 3/4” + 3/4” = 6”. Don't worry if you don't get it exactly right; better to roll a tiny bit larger...
...so that there's a bit of overlap.
That way, you can roll the rolling pin across the top of the tart pan...
...and cut off any excess. Take these trimmings and bake them along with the tarts; they're a delicious, flaky snack. Baker's treat!
Prick the bottom of the tart shell.
Repeat with the remaining shells.
Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 10 minutes.
The bottoms of the shells will puff up, and the sides will probably sliiiiiiide down the edges of the pans a bit. Don't worry; all will be well in the end.
Take about 8 cherry tomatoes, halve them across their equators, and place them in a tart shell. Repeat with the remaining shells. Sprinkle each with 2 tablespoons of shredded or crumbled cheese. Here I've used 1 tablespoon of blue cheese...
...and 1 tablespoon of cheddar.
Bake in a preheated 425°F oven for about 20 minutes, till the crusts are brown and the cheese is melted.
Serve warm, or at room temperature. These make a delicious first course, or a nice summer lunch, served with a salad.
Now, for the larger tart, select a 9” x 1” tart pan. For nicest presentation, a removable-bottom pan is best. Can you use a 9” pie pan? Sure. Just the look will change.
Roll the dough to about 12" in diameter.
Run the rolling pin over the top to cut off any excess. No need to prick the bottom of the crust.
We'll make a cheese-scented custard filling for this tart. For each 9” tart, combine 3 large eggs, 3/4 cup milk, 1/2 cup shredded cheese (again, cheddar or blue are good choices), 1/8 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/8 teaspoon dried thyme, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Whisk till thoroughly combined.
Pour the custard into the crust.
Slice a tomato into 1/4” slices; one 6- to 7-ounce tomato should be sufficient. Lay the tomato slices atop the custard.
Bake the tart in a preheated 425°F oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350°F and bake for an additional 10 minutes, till the crust is golden and the filling appears set. Remove from the oven, and wait about 15 minutes before serving.
Got tomatoes? You're lucky! Now you know what to do with ’em.
Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for Fresh Tomato Tarts.
Buy vs. Bake
Buy: Hanover Coop Food Store, Hanover, NH: Asparagus and red pepper quiche, 9”, $10.99; $7.33/lb.
Bake at home: Fresh Tomato Tart, 9”; $4.54, $1.82/lb.