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.