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How my garden does grow
September 8, 2004

            Eureka!  I’d found the perfect Christmas gift.  It was last November.  I was on the plane headed toward home after Thanksgiving in Houston, and there in the flight magazine was the perfect Christmas gift for our house. 

            A tomato planter—with a twist.  A 180 degree twist. In this tall planter, the tomatoes go in upside down and grow out the bottom.  In the top, the rest of the salad flourishes. 

            Quickly, I dropped the Delta-provided catalogue into my carryon.  The next morning, I was on the phone.  Three days later, I intercepted the UPS man, slid the box under the guest room bed and was ready for my Christmas morning surprise.

            What fun.  We showed it off the whole holiday season—even used it as a soft drink cooler one evening.

            That may be the best use it’s going to get.  Mid-March we hauled it into the yard, put two bags of sand on the base, jammed the tomato plants through the bottom of the planter, filled it with expensive potting soil and ornamented the top with basil and marigolds.

            The basil and the marigolds are going bonkers—except on these hot days, they demand several servings of water.  The basil punishes me if I’m not quick enough—it lies down on its side and pouts.  Meanwhile underneath the tomatoes are in a tumble—they are growing all right, but seems like to make lots of fruit they need sun.  It’s a struggle between the law of gravity and reaching for the sun.  So far, we’ve harvested about three tiny tomatoes.  At this rate, I figure by  my crop has cost me about $60 a pound.  I can’t afford this much fun.

            But it’s still a pleasure  to eat the jewel-tinted vegetables.  (And they are vegetables, not fruit—in 1893, the United States Supreme Court said so.)  Someone—I wonder who—said all it takes to be happy in a southern summer is a sliced tomato, white bread, mayonnaise and a sink.  Every Southerner (including the publisher of this paper) has a cherished tomato sandwich recipe.  I would never say one or the other was a classic.  But here’s a candidate.

A classic tomato sandwich

1 large or 2 small very ripe tomatoes, sliced

2 slices white bread (must be white bread)

salt and pepper

mayonnaise (should be real, not low calorie)

            Chill the tomatoes.  Cover each slice of bread with a thick coat of mayo—some folks say Miracle Whip—and top one slice with a layer of tomatoes.  Add salt and pepper.  Add another layer of tomatoes.  Salt and pepper again.  Top with the other slice of bread.  Eat immediately, and do it over the sink.

            There are variations and refinements.  You could put cheese between the tomato layers.  Or, add chopped basil with the salt and pepper.  Or use (this is heretical) wheat bread.  Some folks might toast the sandwich or put in a sandwich press.  You could even leave it open-faced, top it with cheese and run it under the broiler.

            But then you’re coming mighty near tomato pie which is a whole ‘nother controversy.

Here’s the Bainbridge standard for that dish.  It’s appeared in these pages before.  To my way of thinking, it can’t appear often enough.

Barbara Tennille’s Georgia tomato pie

9” pie shell

2 or 3 large tomatoes, thickly sliced

salt and pepper

sweet basil, coarsely chopped

2 or 3 green onions, chopped

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated

            Fill the pie shell with tomatoes, sprinke with salt, pepper, green onions and basil.

            Combine the mayonnaise and cheese and spread over tomatoes.  Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees.  This should serve six.  Likely, it will serve four.

            Speaking of tomato pies, as I seem to a lot, to PeeWee Lambert, I heard excitement in her voice.  “I have my mother’s recipe from Texas.  She gave it to me when I got married.   I’ve used it often.”  She showed me the battered recipe card, I believe her.  This pie is much like Barbara’s but with a softer crust and a little cheesier.

Elsie Harvey’s Texas tomato pie

2 cups Bisquick

1/2 cup water

            Combine a form a crust in a large Pyrex pie pan.

            Place 2 or 3 thickly sliced tomatoes in the crust and top with a combination of 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 1 1/2 cups grated cheese.  Bake 30 to 45 minutes at 325 degrees, then let set for 15 minutes before serving.

            Elsie’s pie made me remember this recipe.  I’ve seen it several places, but of course, now I can’t locate it, so I’m playing it by ear.  If you have a recipe like this—send it along.  It’s good if you don’t have enough diners for a whole pie (if that’s possible).

Tomato pies one at a time

1 unbaked biscuit for each diner (I used thawed frozen biscuits)

1 slice tomato

mayonnaise

grated cheese

sweet basil, coarsely chopped

            Place biscuit on an ungreased baking sheet and mash down until it is about 4 inches across, or bigger than the tomato slice.  Bake in a 400 degree oven for about 5 minutes.  Remove, flatten biscuit slightly, top with mayonnaise, basil, tomato and cheese.  Return to oven for about 5 or 6 more minutes until the biscuit is done and the cheese is melted.

            You could use canned biscuits if you’re making several.  Or be a sport and make those biscuits from scratch.

            And for the real tomato-holic., someone who could even eat tomatoes for dessert—try out this goody.

Fresh tomato cake

1 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 cup Crisco

2 eggs

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups fresh, very ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1 cup chopped dates (or raisins)

     Cream sugar and shortening, the add eggs, one at a time.  Sift dry ingredients together and gradually add to the egg mixture, mixing well.  Stir in tomatoes, nuts and dates.  (Don’t worry that the egg mixture is very stiff, the tomatoes will juice it up.  I drained my chopped tomatoes planning to add some juice back in.  I didn’t have to.)  Pour into a greased and floured 9 X 13 pan.  Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 35 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.  Frost with your favorite frosting; I used a prepared coconut pecan frosting.  A white or cream cheese frosting garnished with grape tomatoes would be pretty, if you don’t mind giving away the secret ingredient.

            What’s your classic tomato sandwich or pie recipe? I’d love to give it a try. You can e-mail me.


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network