Yes, Poole’s Mac and Cheese Is Great. But Don’t Forget the Tomato Pie, a Summer Staple and Foodie Favorite. | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Yes, Poole’s Mac and Cheese Is Great. But Don’t Forget the Tomato Pie, a Summer Staple and Foodie Favorite. 

Christensen's Homegrown Tomato Pie in Poole's: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner

Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House

Christensen's Homegrown Tomato Pie in Poole's: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner

When I moved here and asked people what I should eat, everyone extolled chef Ashley Christensen's mac 'n' cheese as the must-try dish. When I snagged a stool at the double-horseshoe bar of Poole's, the Macaroni Au Gratin lived up to the hype—a bubbling gratin with an ample gooey stretch, heaped with noodles and sealed inside a crisp, cheesy crust. But I think Christensen's tomato pie should also be a rite of passage for Triangle newbies and natives alike.

A modest wedge garnished with a tangle of sherry-vinegar-dressed watercress, Poole's tomato pie doesn't have the head-turning looks of the mac. But after you've sunk your fork tines through its layers—baked cheddar, a custard filling lined with slices of tangy-sweet tomatoes and oozing cheese, buttery pie shell—you understand why the seemingly humble tomato pie is the star of summer.

Christensen developed her Homegrown Tomato Pie recipe while working on her cookbook, Poole's: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner, and loved it so much that she added it to her menu. "It's become a harbinger of the season that people look forward to," she says. "We have a few dishes like that; they create lots of excitement and anticipation among our guests."

Sara Foster, owner of Foster's Market in Durham and author of the forthcoming Pie: A Savor the South Cookbook (UNC Press), agrees that it's a Southern summer classic.

"I think it was a ladies' luncheon dish," says Foster. "Tomato pie as we know it today, with cheese and mayo, that comes from the fifties and sixties, when people were looking for what I call 'a can of this and a box of that' recipes."

Indeed, many early tomato pie recipes called for Bisquick, whereas modern recipes like Foster's and Christensen's favor short-crust, though allegiances to mayo brands and dalliances with cheese are common.

The tomatoes are the constant, summer-sun-ripened and just off the vine. Tomatoes enjoy a long growing season in North Carolina, and the variety is dizzying. Miriam Rubin, author of Tomatoes, another Savor the South volume, describes the classic German Johnson variety as "the tomato-sandwich tomato." Its large size, juiciness, and sweet-tart flavors are perfect for sliced slabs on white bread slicked with mayo (Duke's, please). Another favorite is the Cherokee Purple, known for its purple-tinged flesh and complex flavors.

Christensen's recipe calls for Beefsteak or heirloom varietals, but she says it's a forgiving recipe, so you can use pretty much any kind. The key is seasoning them well with salt and removing as much excess liquid as possible, which keeps the pie from becoming soggy. (Her trick is to dry the sliced tomatoes in a salad spinner.) She uses buttermilk cheddar and makes a cider-vinegar-based aioli (at home, she's been known to use Duke's mayo), spiked with horseradish and Dijon. And because the recipe for the crust is labor-intensive, she's not afraid to recommend that home cooks go store-bought.

Christensen prizes tomatoes for their balanced acidity and the way they complement all kinds of ingredients and dishes. You'll find them everywhere on Poole's menu, in roasted-tomato aioli with crab doughnuts; Purple Cherokees with garlic bread, basil, and stracciatella; and cornmeal-fried green tomatoes.

"My father grew tomatoes, so I've eaten them in every form since I was a kid," Christensen says. "I have visceral memories of eating tomatoes that were still the same temperature as the earth."

She's hosting a five-course tomato-themed dinner on June 28 at Bridge Club, her private event space, where dishes like Tomato-Cured Porchetta will be paired with the beverage of the moment, rosé. But we recommend building your own tomato dinner around Christensen's Homegrown Tomato Pie. We've got the recipe—and a link to the tomato dinner tickets—on our website.


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