A few things just remind us of childhood summers.
Sweet dew in the evenings
Playing tag until darkness takes over, (or after).
The sound of friends laughing on the porch, (swatting at mosquitoes).
Shucking corn, roasting it, and trying to find every last kernel before tossing it aside for the next ear one can make room for.
Barbecues, pig pickin’s, and watermelons.
Sweet, juicy, heady, husky tomatoes. We ate them in salads, on sandwiches, with cucumber and vinegar, or just by themselves, sometimes right off the vine, perfectly ripe, and musky with a sprinkle of sugar, like the fruit that they are…
The only thing that could possibly be more pleasant to eat than a fresh tomato is basil and tomato. Today I stopped by a local farmers market and tomatoes were everywhere. Big fat ones, little sungolds, Cherokee purples, all sorts of heirloom fruits… and out of nowhere came the heady scent of Thai basil. I had to have it. The man took pity on me and gave me a virtual bouquet of basil. Flowers would not have made me happier!
On the way home the thoughts of tomatoes swam around, and up bobbed some sweet memories. Coming up, my folks went through different seasons of growing them, and we had them every way they could possibly envision. Just when I thought we’d exhausted every possible method I learned one more, and this one would teach me about my family history.
My parents were sitting around the table reminiscing as usual. Laughing and telling jokes until the wee hours of the morning, they were. Of course, during a nightly trip I overheard them and was dying to find out what was so funny. So I stuck my head in the kitchen with my footie pajamas, wiggled my little self into a seat, and asked them precisely that.
They were still giggling and in between gasps my mom explained the legend of the Tomato Casserole. Apparently she grew up hating it. Now here I must digress; they were calling it tomato cobbler. Which is fine. But therein lied the rub. It wasn’t cobbler, and that nasty little trick is what started her down the road to tomato casserole perdition. In hindsight, it was a very unfunny situation.
Ask any Southerner what a cobbler is, or anyone who’s been here, and they will likely begin salivating and find the need to clear their throats slightly before really beginning a respectable description. It is sweet, succulent and fruity. Most cobblers are even a tad spicy, and frankly they are hard to screwup, but it happens. Still, a good cobbler can intimate alot about the maker’s personality. Anyone with an innate sense of balance will refrain from “over-doughing it”. Basically, one should get the impression that there is just as much fruit as crusty, slightly crisp and sweet buttery breading, even if there is a bottom crust. But one wouldn’t call it a cobbler if it wasn’t sweet. Ask anybody. A savory cobbler isn’t a cobbler. It’s a casserole. I have had and made sweet tomato cobbler and it can be delicious.
Hence one could understand my mother’s consternation! You didn’t hear it from me, but the relative who made it didn’t put a whiff of sugar in it, and there was almost no dough to speak of! To make a bad situation even worse, it was more water than anything else, and someone stuck sweet spices in it. This of course led any well-tuned nose to believe there was dessert in the oven. Having a wait of epic magnitude, only to discover a soupy non-cobbler as the object of one’s desires must have been exquisitely painful. I could only sympathize, both hands supporting my shaking head enraptured at this tale of sorrow. It was an abominable thing to do!
The only saving grace one can attribute to the situation, is that they were cooking it for someone else, and apparently that was the way they liked it. I’m not sure that is good enough an excuse for pulling a stunt like that on someone at home. But nevertheless, that was the comical situation my parents were discussing, and it got funnier, and worse, the more they discussed it. I looked from one parent to the other, as they were playing verbal tennis:
“It was watery!”
“Say it isn’t so!”
“The dough on the top was soggy!”
“What?! What about the dough on the bottom?”
“There wasn’t any.”
“… and they put cinnamon in it!”
For a man who survived the Great Depression and a World War, “Wow” was something he reserved for special occasions… like somebody died. That we knew. Well. I’d heard him on the phone getting the news.
Shortly, we would learn from him, that a Tomato Casserole was indeed something to be savored. Note the savory allusion… Cautiously, he endeavored to divest my mother of her degustatory traumas and heal the wound over as patiently and delicately as possible. My feet started swinging and I gathered my little house robe around me, because I knew this was gonna be good. He was going to sell her on it. I listened as if my life depended on it, because I had apparently tripped in on “a Grownup Conversation” that I might need to use later… He described it in perfect detail:
“Well, sweetheart, the first problem is they called it the wrong thing. Now a real tomato casserole isn’t watery. It’s juicy, but layered with just the right amount of herbs and breading and seasoning, so it isn’t dry either. If the tomatoes are ripe they will already have alot of flavor, and a few onions, a ‘lil bit of garlic, and some butter take it to another level. You don’t have to add a bunch of water though. They have plenty of juice on their own.”
“I know it!” she cried out truculently, and sulked and laughed. By this time my feet were swinging a bit slower, and we were laughed out. I was sent back to bed yawning widely and rubbing my eyes, filled with visions of what a tomato casserole must really look, smell, and taste like.
Not long after, he treated us to precisely what he described, and I must say, it was worth remembering. The luscious aromas and the casserole dish laden with bubbling, crusty brown goodness…
It was definitely worth staying up late and watching my parents giggle over.
Now living without wheat flour is interesting. I won’t say bad, but it sends one back to the drawing board.
So here is my take on my Dad’s old classic. After one bite, I giggled. I hope you do too.
Gluten Free Tomato Casserole
Yields 1-9inch pie pan or square baking dish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
1 TB Extra virgin olive oil
4-5 oz gluten-free breadcrumbs or very fine cornbread crumbs mixed with 1-2 TB honey
2 oz sorghum flour, 1 oz tapioca starch, and 1/2 oz potato starch
2 tsp chipotle powder
1 tsp cayenne
1 tsp ground sage
2 tsp salt
1 tsp white pepper
10-12 oz sliced ripe tomatoes, about 3 large tomatoes. (Buy them and stick them in a paper bag or on a sunny window a day or two.)
1-2 oz mixed chopped vegetables or sweet peas and summer corn kernels
2 oz butter, sliced individually to spread evenly
3-4 oz yellow onion, medium diced or sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, minced fine (1 TB)
2-3 TB milk (gasp!) to pour on top
Chopped basil and oregano to taste
Split the breadcrumbs in half for the bottom and top “crust”. Oil the pan with the olive oil. Pour or pack in the crumbs. If you’d like it good and crusty, blind bake it for 5-7 minutes. I prefer mine more like a dressing so I left it plain and started layering.
Place the tomato slices on top of the bottom crumbs. Spread 2 oz onion and 1/2 TB garlic mince over the tomatoes. Combine the flour mix with the seasonings, reserving some of the fresh herbs for garnish. Dust it with 2 TB of the flour mix and place pats of butter around the pan evenly.
There will be roughly 2 layers. Add the final half of the crumbs and pour all of the milk over it evenly. Bake 20-25 minutes, until the crust is solidifying and browning on top, and the filling is bubbly. It won’t be solid, but it will be yummy! Dust a few herbs over it and a bit of the chipotle powder. Do what pleases. One might even toss some cheese over it when it comes out of the oven – baker’s choice.
Now. Giggle. Laugh. Chuckle. Or just grin.