Archive for Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Basil, tomatoes make heavenly combination

August 2, 2006

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I'll use just about any excuse to pick basil. Even if I didn't eat it, I'd still plant it in my vegetable garden for the perfume it releases whenever I brush up against it. When I pick it, basil's distinctive scent melts into my fingertips and stays with me all day.

The dozen or so plants I set out every summer are probably overkill, but I haven't found a reason to cut back. Some years I alternate basil and tomato plants in a row, and the combination produces a rich aroma when I'm working around them. This year, however, I planted the basil in its own row, to allow the scent to concentrate.

As one of the most distinctive herbs to use in summer menus, basil deserves to have a central place in the vegetable garden, rather than to be tucked in the corner of an herb bed. When I'm picking tomatoes, I often pluck leaves off the basil plants to chop and sprinkle, along with some shredded parmesan, over the top of tomato slices.

I came across a recipe in Victoria Wise's "Gardeners' Community Cookbook," which puts the basil-cheese-tomato combination into a baked dish.

I played around with this and made it in a 9-inch deep-dish pie crust. The directions are not clear, as they lack any reference to the type of pan to use. Although the recipe calls for a tart crust, the dish is called a pie. I suspect the recipe envisions a tart pan because I didn't have enough batter to fill the pie plate.

To solve that problem, I doubled the recipe, with the exception of the basil. One packed cup of basil leaves is a lot of basil and enough for one pie, I figured. Doing it this way gave me about a half-cup too much batter. The cooking time was about the same, but my oven tends to run fast.

This quiche-like pie can be served warm or cold:

Tomato, Basil and Cheese Pie

1 10-inch tart or pie crust

3 large tomatoes, sliced 3/8-inch thick

Salt

1 cup (firmly packed) fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup small-curd cottage cheese

2 large eggs

1/2 cup coarsely grated or chopped mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Oil, for brushing tomatoes on top of the pie

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly sprinkle the tomato slices with salt on both sides. Set the slices on paper towels to absorb the liquid as the slices drain. Set aside. Place the basil, cottage cheese and eggs in a food processor and blend until well-combined. Add the mozzarella, parmesan and 1/2 teaspoon salt and continue blending until well-mixed. To assemble the pie, pat the tomato slices dry and line the bottom of the pie shell with the end pieces. Spoon the cheese mixture over them and spread to smooth. Arrange the remaining tomato slices in one overlapping layer over the top of the cheese mixture. Brush the top layer of tomato slices with a little oil and place the pie in the oven.

Bake until the edges of the crust are crispy and golden and the cheese mixture is firm enough that a knife inserted in the center of the pie comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove and let cool for about 15 minutes before slicing. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cover and store in the refrigerator and serve the next day. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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