The Vintage Cookie

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Scalloped Tomatoes - British traditions in a New World dish

We have had some lovely weather here lately, hot during the day and cool at night. When things cooled down, quite suddenly, around 6:30 pm I had a hankering for something warm and rich, but also quick and healthy. I wanted Scalloped Tomatoes, a dish that I have only had in Virginia. In Virginia, Scalloped Tomatoes are a baked tomato and bread pudding.  It took only a couple of minutes to find a version in the Woodlawn Plantation Cook Book. This is a homey spiral bound book, published in 1979. The first half of the book is dedicated to recipes that reflect traditional Virginia cookery. Some of these may have been familiar to Nelly Custis, the adopted daughter of George Washington and mistress of Woodlawn Plantation, but the recipes as given here represent the evolved version of the traditional foodways. These Scalloped Tomatoes, and every version I have ever had of this dish, use canned whole tomatoes. However, the recipe does reflect the English tradition, brought over by Nelly's ancestors, of putting just about anything you have on hand into a bread pudding. I am not sure how traditional the basil is. I left if out because I don't like dried basil and I didn't have any fresh on hand.

The editor of the recipe is correct, an early nineteenth century version would have included a little sugar. This reflects both some ambivalence about the identity of the tomato - is it a fruit or a vegetable - and an older tradition in European cooking, which freely mixed sweet and savory. It is also a good trick with tomatoes. Treat the sugar as a spice - use only a smidge more sugar than salt, and I think you will be pleased. Sugar actually works in all sorts of tomato dishes. My mother taught me to add a bit of sugar, about a teaspoon, to a pot of spaghetti sauce, to better simulate the flavor of tomatoes which have simmered for 12 hours on the back of the stove. But a dash of sugar also works well in a raw tomato salad, especially one made with marginal, supermarket tomatoes.

If you are in the DC area I urge a visit to Woodlawn Plantation. It is beautiful; it is always a lot less crowded than Mount Vernon; and the Plantation includes an unexpected bonus. There is a beautifully restored Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house on the grounds. The house was originally built in Fairfax in 1939, but was moved in 1964 because it stood in the path of I-66. The new location, however, was well chosen and the house and grounds work beautifully together. The cookbook, like the Plantation, is a two-for-one deal. The second half collects recipes from the 1940s-1960s that might have been prepared and served in a modest yet stylish mid-century home. (Although, more than thirty years on, the recipes in the two parts of the book look less distinct to me than I am sure they seemed to the women who gathered, tested, and compiled them for this book.)

And now, without further ado, here is the recipe.

Scalloped Tomatoes (Woodlawn Plantation Cook Book, Joan Smith, ed. Woodlawn/Wright House Council. 1979, p. 73.)

A delicious way to use canned tomatoes.

2 - 16 oz cans stewed tomatoes. (I used one 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes)
4-6 thin slices firm white bread, toasted and buttered) (I used three slices, it was all I had.)
Salt, pepper and dried basil to taste. (For my taste, I skipped the dried basil.)
Buttered bread crumbs. (1 slice of bread, I like to use the heel of the loaf, TBS butter, softened.)

Optional additions
2 TBS grated parmesan cheese
Brown or white sugar

Preheat oven to 350 deg. f.

Butter a shallow baking dish. I used an 8 inch square casserole. If you have a bigger casserole, double the recipe.

Combine 1 slice of bread and TBS butter in bowl of small food processor. Process until evenly ground into buttered crumbs. Set aside.
Tear toast slices into 4-6 pieces each.
Coarsely chop tomatoes, reserving liquid. Layer tomatoes, juices, and pieces of toast in a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (and basil, if using) as you layer. As noted in the cookbook, for a more authentic nineteenth century touch, you can also sprinkle the layers with a little bit of brown or white sugar. Early Virginians liked a sweet taste to their tomatoes. Top with a thick layer of buttered crumbs. If you like, the buttered crumbs can be tossed with the Parmesan cheese before layering on top. Bake 35-45 minutes, or until bubbly and browned on top.

(Or, for a quicker, more 21st century way to cook the casserole, microwave the casserole until heated through BEFORE covering with breadcrumbs. Then cover with crumbs and run quickly under the broiler. This version will be a little moister, and it will get to the table a LOT faster.)

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