Consider the tomato. Is it a fruit or a vegetable? Okay, yes I realize that it’s a fruit, but would you put it in a fruit salad? You know, with melon and berries and… tomato? I’m much happier to see a thick slice of tomato on a sandwich or stewed tomatoes in a pasta sauce.
But living in China has opened my eyes to a whole separate culinary tradition wherein people don’t consider the tomato a vegetable. To them, it’s sweet, and it goes with sweet things. In that fruit salad for example.
When in the Beijing summers I would sit around our courtyard with our dear neighbors playing a slightly more sophisticated, Chinese version of connect 4 (It’s essentially just “connect 5” – wu zi qi), Ayi would bring out chrysanthemum tea and a plate of tomatoes that she had sprinkled with sugar.
The first time I saw it, I assumed it would be like a caprese – salty or even with vinegar, and as I took a bite expecting savory flavors, I was instead met with an overwhelming sweetness that shocked me. Even though it wasn’t the flavor combination I had been expecting, it was hardly the oh-no-I’ve-mixed-up-the-salt-and-sugar disaster I would have imagined (I mean really, I put salt on my watermelon. Who am I to judge?). There was still a respect for the texture and the flavor tomato itself, but she just chose to play up the sweet flavors instead of the savory ones.
On the other hand, when I think of pies, my mind goes straight to apple or cherry or some other wonderfully sweet fruit wherein the texture and the simple flavors of the ingredients combine to be more than the sum of their parts. Well, in the spirit of celebrating the beautiful tomatoes I found at the market, and acknowledging that they are in fact a fruit, I turned them into a pie – albeit a savory one, that’s closer to a caprese than sugar sprinkled slices of tomato. Though the tart is simple, it really does play up the natural beauty of the tomatoes.
Rustic Tomato Tart
from David Lebowitz
One unbaked tart dough (see recipe, below)
Dijon or whole-grain mustard
2-3 large ripe tomatoes, or an assortment of your choice
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
two generous tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
8 ounces (250 g) fresh or slightly aged goat cheese, sliced
for the crust
1 1/2 cups (210 g) flour
4 1/2 ounces (125 g) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into cubes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
2-3 tablespoons cold water
1. Make the dough by mixing the flour and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and use your (cold) hands, or a pastry blender, to cut the into the flour mixture until you’re left with a has a crumbly texture.
2. Mix the egg with 2 tablespoons of the water and stir into the dry ingredients until the dough holds together. If it’s not coming together easily, add the additional tablespoon of cold water.
3. Gather the dough into a ball and roll the dough on a lightly floured surface, adding additional flour only as necessary to keep the dough from sticking to the counter.
4. Once the dough is large enough so that it will cover the bottom of the pan and go up the sides, fold the dough into quarters, first up, and then over. Lay the folded dough across one quarter of the tart pan, and unfold gently so that the dough folds down softly over the edges. Press the dough slightly into the corners and crevasses, and then, applying slight pressure roll a rolling pin across the top of the tart pan. This will remove the excess dough in a nice clean sweep without having to fuss over the edges.
5. Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190º C).
6. Spread an even layer of mustard over the bottom of the tart dough and let it sit a few minutes to dry out.
7. Slice the tomatoes and arrange them over the mustard in a single, even layer (I followed this to the letter when I made mine, but in the future, I’ll pay no heed. I’d have preferred more tomatoes, though don’t stack up more than two layers or you’ll have tomatoes slip sliding about when you’re trying to slice your tart).
8. Sprinkle with some fresh thyme, then arrange the slices of goat cheese on top. Add a sprinkle of sea salt, drizzle with olive oil, and top with a little more thyme.
9. Bake the tart for 30 to 45 minutes, until the dough is cooked, the tomatoes are tender, and the cheese on top is nicely browned. If the crust looks like it’s about to turn from perfect and flakey to crispy and burnt but your cheese still hasn’t reached the beautiful brown stage, pass it under the broiler, keeping a close eye. It will brown quickly.
10. Serve warm or at room temperature for best results.
As Walker saw me preparing this his immediate reaction was “Oh it’s a quiche! Are you going to add eggs?” Well no… “So it’s a pizza. Should we add other toppings?” Um sweet for trying to help but… no. And in the end, even he admitted that eggs or pizza toppings would have ruined this delicate and tasty tart.
“It was amazing that such simple ingredients came together as a really complete dish. It wasn’t a pizza, and I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad it wasn’t. I still might add more cheese though.”
Always with the more cheese. It’s not like I’m light handed on the cheese here either. I think if I left a block of cheese in the fridge and he knew it were there, he’d make himself a stack of grilled cheeses or just slice and eat the whole block in under 15 minutes… I have a feeling if I’d covered the whole tart in cheese that would still be my feedback so take it with a grain of salt. Or a slice of cheese. Your call.