By Marcia Pilgeram
Last June, from my quarantine fortress, I made one of my rare, early-COVID outings. Circumspect but determined, I donned a mask and gloves and made a quick trip to the abridged Farmer’s Market to pick up a variety of heirloom tomato plants. I’m not known for my green thumb, but I can usually produce a few, token edibles from my yard (fortunately my thriving, perennial herbs practically raise themselves). With great determination and anticipation, I planted and fertilized and watered my little treasures. Then along came fall, and it was time to harvest my heirloom tomatoes (both of them). That day, I decided I was tossing in my trowel for good.
It was not a decision easily made. There is a lot of self-imposed pressure where I live, bordered by green-thumbed, master-gardener-type neighbors. Over a picket fence, I watch my next-door grower, Eric, literally fill bushel baskets of bright red, ripe Roma tomatoes waiting to be sauced. Right across from my driveway, once they’ll have their fill of harvest, my neighbors, the Shays, will invite me to glean their still jungle-like patch of Italian basil. There’s always enough for me to whip up at least a year’s batch of pesto. I’m so grateful for their generosity because my basil never lasts past a (teensy-small) Caprese salad or two.
I’m also envious of the fruitful garden my daughter Ryanne tends all summer long down in Moscow. A spring highlight for her is hauling in Alpaca manure by the truckload and then spending days spreading this coveted byproduct. Once her seedlings come to life, she’s content to sit among her brood of clucking hens, picking handfuls of weeds in the summer sun. She says these are some of her happiest days. Truth be known, I’d rather make a tiered wedding cake than whack a weed.
Last fall I came to terms with my plan to let someone else tend to the gardening. I was going to hang up my hoe, hand the starters over to professionals and hang out at the Saturday market, or subscribe to one of our local CSAs.
Then, a month or so ago, for some reason, my algorithm inspired Facebook to lure me back to this world in which I’ve spent little time in the past 30 years (I used to grow some mean green beans back in my ranching days). Since I still don’t see myself doing much global trekking for another year, maybe Facebook was onto something. Luring me in with lush gardens on Pinterest and Instagram, sponsored by countless companies like Burpees and Bentleys and Dutch Gardens, I decided to give it another go. With all my heart, I’m hoping that Miracle-Gro will live up to its name.
I’m going to give it my all this season. I mean, I already know the vernacular: peat, pots, moss, compost, stakes, manure, fertilizer, straw, bedding (frost, flood, blight and bugs). Ryanne says if I really embrace this, endorphins will be released and not only will I be eating nature’s best, I will be experiencing a natural high. I can hardly wait.
Now, surrounded by seed catalogs, I’m making some real decisions, like heirloom or hybrid? Do I need open-pollinated or non-GMO seeds? Buy soil by the bag or truckload? Raised beds or flat? Should I have a greenhouse built, or see how this first season goes (grows)?
Though I plan on growing an assortment of food stuffs, tomatoes, with all their different varieties, sizes and colors, have a special allure. And though they’re yet but a twinkle in my Jiffy Pots, I have great visions of big, red, plump and juicy tomatoes, falling ripe from their vines.
Tomatoes seem to appeal to everyone’s palate. I once had a wealthy client from the South, and her favorite appetizer was a tomato pie. She would instruct me to buy the best and most beautiful hybrids I could get my hands on for this dinner-party go-to. When she first gave me her recipe to follow, I was surprised to learn that store-bought mayonnaise was a key ingredient. Though It was a delicious dish, the purist in me really wanted to find a substitute for the mayonnaise. I tried eggs, Greek yogurt and ricotta, but it turned out that the marriage of tomatoes and mayo are key to the success of this savory pie. Though I have modified it with bits of bacon and fresh, fragrant basil, I’ll never again consider mayonnaise to be an unworthy partner of my garden fresh, red, plump, juicy tomatoes.
Meanwhile, until summer, you’ll find me picking the best of the pie-worthy tomatoes in the produce section at Yoke’s.
• 1 pie crust to fit 9” pie pan
• 4 best quality tomatoes, sliced thin
• 1 cup shredded mozzarella or Monterey Jack
• 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
• ½ cup finely grated Parmesan Reggiano
• ½ cup Best Foods mayonnaise
• 1 tsp each, salt and pepper
• ½ cup finely shredded basil leaves (chiffonade), reserve 4 large basil leaves
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
Line pie pan with favorite crust
Peel and slice tomatoes, place in colander and sprinkle with salt. Allow to drain for at least 30 minutes.
Stir together mayonnaise, the first two cheeses and salt and pepper. Pat thin layer of cheese mixture on bottom of pie shell. Next layer tomatoes and basil. And remaining cheese mixture on top. Sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake 20 minutes on bottom rack, reduce heat to 350 F, and move to top shelf. Cook another 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned and cheese is melted.
Remove from oven. Cool slightly. Serve warm, garnished with basil leaves.
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