The Transatlantic Tomato Chase

Slow-Roasted Tomato Tart

It would be an exaggeration to say we moved halfway around the world for tomatoes, but it actually isn’t as farfetched as you might think. You see, although tomatoes – on the surface – may not seem nearly as important to quality of life as, say, annual sunshine hours or the affordability of healthcare, I challenge you to live without any good ones for seven years and tell me how the quality of your life fares.

There were many things that endeared me to Scotland – the whisky, the haggis, the quirky new vocabulary – but Scottish tomatoes were definitely not on that list. Simply put, they sucked. Well, I should say that the tomatoes Scotland imported sucked, since I never did actually run across a Scottish-grown specimen. I could never understand why the ones they imported were so bad, though, since Scotland doesn’t have a climate for growing nectarines and figs and eggplant either, yet each summertime the greengrocers’ shelves were bursting with ripe, reasonably tasty imports from places like Turkey, Spain, Italy, and France. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for those exporters to just toss a few bushels of tomatoes on top too, would you?

Well, for whatever reason, they don’t, and apart from a few insipid, watery batches trucked up from southern England, all the tomatoes I ever bought in Scotland came from Holland, another country not known for its tomato-growing climate. How the Dutch finagled the exclusive contract for supplying northern Europe with tomatoes I may never know, but unfortunately they did; I’ll go so far as to say you’d be hard-pressed to find a tomato north of Brussels that didn’t come from their massive greenhouses, where they grow them year-round and ship them off to even grayer, chillier places where people are apparently ready to buy anything that brings a bit of color to their sandwiches. Because that’s the thing – they look fine, all the picture-perfect deep red beefsteaks, plump little cherries and heavy, smooth-skinned ‘on the vine’ clusters, but all it takes is one bite to realize how no amount of plastic sheeting can make up for the one thing you need to grow a really good tomato: sun, and plenty of it.

Still, I know what you’re thinking. If tomatoes were really that important to me I probably should have moved somewhere sunny like southern Italy, or maybe Mexico, and not to a place that has as much reputation for rain as the country I just left. Well, maybe someday I will, but for now, at least the Pacific Northwest offers something that Scotland doesn’t – real summers, which, though brief, are just long and warm enough to coax out of the ground some of the sweetest, meatiest, most delicious tomatoes around. The kind of tomatoes that slice like butter and drip crimson juices down your fingers. The kind of tomatoes you can eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert and still be hungry for more. The kind of tomatoes that, when slow roasted to a toothsome, caramelly sweetness and layered in a crisp tart shell with thick cream and fresh basil, are good enough to make me wonder why on earth I didn’t move here just for them.

Slow-Roasted Tomato Tart

There’s nothing revolutionary about this tart – it’s just really, really good, and a perfect illustration of how good tomatoes become even better when left to their own devices for a while in a hot oven. I found the recipe in one of my very favorite cookbooks, The Art of the Tart, a charming treatise on tarts both sweet and savory by Irish food writer Tamasin Day-Lewis, sister of the far more famous Daniel. I don’t often find myself attracted to single-subject cookbooks, but this one is an exception – the recipes in this one are so imaginative, and the writing so confident and unpretentious (and the photos so beautiful!), that I never open it without wanting to rush into the kitchen and start mixing up a crust. Although many of you should still have some good late-season tomatoes to work with, if you don’t, by all means go ahead and substitute an equal weight of high-quality canned plum tomatoes, drained. Just skip the soaking and peeling step, obviously. Trust me, it’ll be much better than any tart made with fresh, not-so-good tomatoes. p.s. The recipe makes a 9-inch (23cm) tart, but seeing as I’m apparently unable to read I grabbed my 11-inch (28cm) pan and didn’t realize the mistake until it was done. In any case, apart from being a bit thin it came out perfectly delicious, so feel free to upsize if all you happen to have is a larger pan.
Adapted from Tamasin Day-Lewis’ The Art of the Tart
Serves: 6

For tart crust:
1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick/90g) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch (1cm) cubes
2 tablespoons ice-cold water
1 tablespoon cold whipping cream

For filling:
3 lbs (1.5 kg) ripe plum/roma tomatoes
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
salt and black pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
4 egg yolks
1 cup (250ml) crème fraîche (or, in a pinch, sour cream)
two handfuls fresh basil leaves, plus a few small ones for garnish

For the tart crust, blend flour and salt in a food processor. Add the butter; using on/off turns, cut in until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the ice water and cream. Process just until moist clumps form, adding a little more cream if the dough is too dry to stick together. Gather the dough into a ball and flatten it into a disk. Wrap it in plastic and chill at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Roll out the pastry and fit it into a 9-inch (23cm) tart pan, leaving the excess draping over the edge. Line the bottom of the crust with foil or parchment and fill with dry beans or pie weights. Place the pan on a baking sheet and bake blind for 15 minutes. Remove the weights and bake for an additional 5 minutes. With a sharp knife, trim the crust flush with the top of the pan (trimming after baking prevents shrinkage).

Reduce the oven to 300F/150C.

Place the tomatoes in a large heatproof bowl and cover them with boiling water. Spike each one with the point of a sharp knife and let sit for about a minute. Drain, then cover briefly with cold water; drain again. Slip the tomatoes out of their skins, slice them in half lengthwise, and scrape out as many of the seeds as you can. Place them cut side up in a single layer in a large roasting pan. Tuck the garlic cloves inside the tomato halves; drizzle with the oil and vinegar and sprinkle with the salt, pepper and sugar. Roast in the oven for about an hour and a half to two hours, or until they’re looking somewhat wrinkly and caramelized around the edges.

Arrange the roasted tomatoes in the crust, adding any juices from the roasting pan. Mix together the egg yolks and crème fraîche and roughly tear in the basil leaves. Season lightly with salt and pepper and pour the mixture around the tomatoes. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the cream is firm and golden. Let stand for at least ten minutes before serving, then sprinkle with a few fresh basil leaves.

I like this tart best with a fresh green salad and a glass of red wine.



Moonrise over the Seattle skyline, from our patio

The first sentence is always the hardest to write, isn’t it? I’ve been sitting here for two days trying to figure out how I should open this post – should I offer up excuses for being absent far longer than intended, or should I just pick up where I left off nearly three months ago? I know I just about vanished off the face of the earth after putting up that last post, and I wouldn’t blame you for wondering if our plane from Scotland crashed or if Seattle simply swallowed us whole. In fact, there aren’t really any excuses to give other than moving countries is one crazy business, and settling in has taken far longer than either of us expected. But then again, we weren’t exactly rushing things either; between visiting various branches of my family, taking care of all the logistical things that accompany a big move and trying to actually enjoy the summer a little bit, we were here for six weeks before I even opened up craigslist and looked at the rental listings for the first time.

Can you spot the Space Needle? 😉

The good news is, though, that after several nightmarish weeks of house-hunting (and sleepless nights spent wondering if any landlord in Seattle would be willing to overlook our lack of verifiable income and local rental history), we’ve not only found a place, signed a lease, moved in, and stocked it with furniture, but it’s a place so wonderful that I still pinch myself every now and then just to make sure it isn’t all a dream. It’s by no means what we pictured months ago when we started wondering what our new life would look like, but life always has a way of surprising you, doesn’t it? The biggest surprise, I guess, is that it’s not actually in Seattle at all; when push came to shove during our search, we realized that despite our initial plan, we would much prefer to be outside the city than in, in a place where we might be woken up by birds instead of car alarms, and where trees would far outnumber people. And that’s what we found, a thirty-five minute ferry ride to the west of Seattle, on a bucolic strip of green in Puget Sound called Bainbridge Island. Our home is a little cottage that was built as a guest house to a 100-year-old farmhouse; both buildings sit on an acre of waterfront land, with uninterrupted views east to Seattle and the spine of the Cascades, and south to snow-covered Mount Rainier. Our cottage is small, but it is light-filled and cozy, and has views of either gardens or sea from every window. We have plum and cherry trees out the back, and a lovely patio out front that has hosted a barbecue nearly every night since we moved in. We’re located a mere twenty minute walk from the Seattle ferry, and from the almost-too-quaint-for-words town of Winslow, which offers plenty of shops, restaurants and cafés when we don’t feel like braving the big city. And our landlords, who share our property, are the icing on the cake, being just about the nicest people we’ve ever met – in particular, they’ve graciously offered themselves up for any kind of recipe evaluation or surplus baked-good disposal I might require. 🙂

Our very own plums!

So physically, we’re all settled in; mentally, though, it’s probably going to take a while longer. I still often find myself feeling like a foreigner here, stupefied at certain cultural things I don’t seem to have noticed before – like for example the amount of choice on offer for everything. Whenever I go shopping I end up spending twice as much time as I should because I have to decide things like, say, which laundry detergent to buy. Do I want powder or liquid, the scent of spring rains or mountain breezes; regular strength or double concentrate; added fabric softener, deodorant or baking soda; bleach or bleach alternative; normal or enhanced sudsing power? And then there’s the shock of realizing that so many things I relied on as staples of my European diet are going to be occasional, expensive treats here: sheep’s-milk feta, good-quality ricotta, piquillo peppers and Spanish chorizo…

Overall, though, we haven’t woken up a single morning regretting that we made this move, and particularly on the food front, any inconvenience is small potatoes compared to the rewards. After all, we can buy yard-long bunches of rainbow chard, purple carrots and heirloom tomatoes as big as melons at our island farmer’s market; Mexican food and sushi are cheap and plentiful again; and on the pantry shelf are enough jars of homemade peach and berry jams – made with fruit we picked ourselves! – to last us half a lifetime. Most exciting, though, is that we have one of the western hemisphere’s greatest food cities on our doorstep, with enough markets and restaurants and bakeries to keep us busy tasting and exploring for a very, very long time. It’s a half-hour boat ride away, to be sure, but the way I see it, that just gives us a little more time to work up an appetite.

Welcome back, everyone, and thanks so much for your patience. It’s good to be home.