What Makes a Quintessential Tomato Pie
Award-winning chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Hugh Acheson may have grown up in Canada, but he is every bit a Southern chef. He started cooking at 14, worked at restaurants across North America, andis currently chef/partner of five critically acclaimed restaurants in Athens, Savannah, and Atlanta, Georgia. His 2011 cookbook, A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, won a James Beard Foundation Award. Acheson has also competed in and judged Bravo’s Top Chef series. We asked him to share his tips for crafting the perfect tomato pie.
World Tomato Society: How would you describe your cooking style?
Hugh Acheson: Southern food has a storied history—you don’t find that type of culinary history in many parts of North America—so it’s fun to learn about. I’m kind of known for bringing a French technique to historical Southern recipes.
WTS: What is tomato pie and what makes it an iconic Southern dish?
HA: Southern food has the closest affinity to Italian food. There’s a reverence for skilled simplicity and purity, and really straightforward dishes. Tomato pie is a ubiquitous thing. Southerners are very good at figuring out how to use up the bounty of a crop that’s in season. They’re great at pickling and preserving, and using a bunch of one thing in something like tomato pie. You can motor through five pounds of tomatoes really easily making a tomato pie. Southerners like puddings and textural softness in their food, and tomato pie is rich: buttermilk, and a little bit of egg, and usually there’s cheese involved—often cream cheese—and bringing everything together. It’s kind of like a quiche with layers of properly seasoned tomatoes.
WTS: What kinds of tomatoes work well in tomato pie?
HA: I like bigger tomatoes. The skin-to-flesh ratio on a larger tomato is going to work much better for something like a pie because you don’t want it to be all skins. I wouldn’t use really tiny tomatoes because those are proportionally more skin to flesh. I may get a Brandywine or a Crimson tomato, but you could also use a Green Zebra. You want a good, naturally beautiful, sweet, plump, ripe tomato.
WTS: Can you use canned tomatoes?
HA: No! That would be heresy.
WTS: What’s the best way to prepare tomatoes for the pie?
HA: You want ripe tomatoes, but you don’t want them too soupy, so I slice them thickly, salt them, and let them juice out into a bowl. You can use that juice later in a vinaigrette or something else. Then, get them on a piece of parchment, drizzle a little olive oil over them, and put them into the oven for a couple hours at 250 F or at 400 F for 15 minutes to get some of the moisture off and to concentrate the flavor.
WTS: How can you make sure your tomato pie crust isn’t mushy?
HA: Blind baking the tart shell in advance is a really important step. It’s really difficult to get a nice, crisp tart shell in advance without that. Leeching off as much liquid as you can before piling [the tomatoes] into the pies is also critical.
WTS: What do you usually serve with your tomato pie?
HA: I like to serve it with sliced, poached local chicken with a gribiche sauce or an aioli, some crusty toasted bread, and a simple salad. That, to me, is a perfect summer dinner.