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While tomatoes are the central ingredient in this dish, the best thing about the Tomato Pie Contest is that whatever cheeses, herbs or peppers can be added to a recipe to suit your tastes.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
While tomatoes are the central ingredient in this dish, the best thing about the Tomato Pie Contest is that whatever cheeses, herbs or peppers can be added to a recipe to suit your tastes.

Tomato tomahto
3rd annual tasting contest gets competitive at Willis Gray Gallery

By Patrice Stewart
pstewart@decaturdaily.com · 340-2446

Fresh garden tomatoes may be hard to find because of the drought, but there was no shortage of tomato pies at the third annual Tomato Pie Contest on Thursday.

An elbow-to-elbow crowd sampled an amazing variety of pies and mini-tarts at this popular summertime event at Decatur's Willis Gray Gallery and then voted for their favorites.

In between tasting creations such as Roasted Corn and Tomato Pie, Leek and Tomato Tart and other delicacies from 20 kitchen artists, the gallery crowd talked with featured artist Robert Belcher of Birmingham. He grew up in Decatur and said that like the tomato pies, his mixed-media work often resulted from experimenting.

It was hard for those sampling to try everything, but they passed the word quickly about favorites: "No. 13 is delightful," "Be sure to try No. 8," and "No. 16 is great."

When the ballots were counted, first place went to Byron Haynes for his Tomato Tart. Knox Wilder, one of the youngest contestants who also placed last year, took second place for his creation. Third place went to Penny Wood, who was the first-place finisher last year.

The winners, all from Decatur, received paintings of tomatoes by Patsy Roby.

Where did they get their tomatoes, since the weather has kept supplies to a minimum at farmers' markets and produce stands?

Some raided friends' tomato gardens or found fresh ones from other growers. Wood decided to use Roma tomatoes from the grocery store. Artist Scott Smith of Huntsville said he picked Green Zebra and Granny Smith Green heirloom tomatoes from his garden that morning and made his first-ever tomato pie.

Cheeses play a big part in these pies, and you can use whatever type you prefer. The winner said his secret was going to Huntsville to get fresh Mozzarella cheese at the new Fresh Market store at Airport Road and Whitesburg Drive. Haynes also used caramelized onions and Dijon mustard for his original creation.

Some pies included ingredients such as bacon, ham, mushrooms, bell peppers and even salsa. Tomatoes were combined with items such as fresh yellow squash, leeks, roasted corn and more. Several were accented with fresh basil and other herbs.

For his first-place dish — and first-ever tomato pie — Haynes said he used fresh pizza dough for his crust. Here are his general ingredients and directions:

Tomato Tart

Pizza dough

Dijon mustard

Mozzarella cheese

Caramelized onions

Quartered tomatoes

Fresh basil

After making his pizza dough and lining a deep pan with it, he quartered tomatoes and caramelized some onions (see note). He covered the crust with Dijon mustard and added the fresh Mozzarella, tomatoes and caramelized onions. He baked it at 375 degrees for 45 minutes and then, after it cooled a bit, added fresh basil on top.

"The pizza crust comes up and laps over the top," Haynes said.

Note: Here are TV chef Rachael Ray's instructions for making 2 cups of caramelized onions. In a large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons butter in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil over medium-high heat. Add 21/2 pounds onions (thinly sliced) and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, until the onions begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in 2 teaspoons sugar and cook, scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pan frequently, until the onions are golden brown (about 20 minutes).

Third-place cook Penny Wood said found her recipe, Summer Garden Pie (a version of tomato pie), online from a 2002 issue of Southern Living magazine.

"I think it's very important to salt the tomato slices first. The recipe recommends that so the pie won't turn out soggy," she said.

She used a store-bought frozen pie shell and Roma tomatoes and later sprinkled dried basil on top.

Summer Garden Pie

3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and sliced
1 teaspoon salt, divided
Half a 15-ounce package refrigerated pie crusts
4 bacon slices
3 medium-size sweet onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons fine, dry breadcrumbs

Salt the tomato slices and let them stand for 30 minutes Place tomato slices on paper towels and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let stand 30 minutes to draw out to draw out any excess moisture that could make the pie soggy.

Unfold piecrust and fit it into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate. Fold edges of crust under and crimp. Line with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans.

Bake at 425 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove pie weights and foil.

Cook bacon in a large skillet until crisp; remove bacon and drain on paper towels, reserving 1 teaspoon drippings in skillet. Crumble bacon and set aside.

Sauté onion in hot drippings in skillet over medium-high heat 8 to 10 minutes or until tender. Spoon onion over prepared piecrust and top with tomato slices.

Stir together Cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, pepper and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Spread mixture over tomato slices. Combine Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs; sprinkle over top.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with bacon. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

When talking with tomato-pie artists, you find that adding whatever you like to create your own dish usually works well.

Smith said he made his green-tomato pie the same way he handles his art created with "found objects" such as metal and wood. After looking at some recipes online for topping ideas, he checked his pantry and his garden to see what he could find. He decided to use salsa for one of the two pies he made.

Here's what he came up with after picking some of his heirloom green tomatoes:

Green Tomato Pie

Unbaked pie shell

Sliced green tomatoes

Serrano peppers

Onion

Herbs such as basil and cilantro

Celery Salt

Pepper

Topping:

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup Mozzarella

1 cup Cheddar cheese

Slice the tomatoes and put them in the pie shell; add any remaining bits of tomato. Add the peppers, onion, herbs and seasonings. Mix together the grated cheeses and mayonnaise to create the topping. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.

Recipe

Some Decatur cooks have been making Tomato Pies for years, but they didn't enter the Tomato Pie contest last week.

This recipe from Anne Fowler and Virginia Jones was published in the First Presbyterian Church of Decatur's 2003 mission cookbook. It gives you a choice of cheeses and calls for chopped green onions.

Tomato Pie

One 9-inch baked pie crust

5 tomatoes, sliced

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup Mozzarella cheese (or 1/2 cup Mozzarella cheese and 1/2 cup Swiss cheese)

1 bunch green onions, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Peel and slice tomatoes, Blot to remove excess juice. Add tomatoes to baked pie crust. Mix mayonnaise, cheese, green onions, salt and pepper. Spoon mixture on top of tomatoes. Bake for 30 minutes or until cooked all the way through at 350 degrees. Serves 6.

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