Guest Columns
Tomato Pie, Rocky Ford, and Me, Part 7 (conclusion)
Bob Radcliffe

Note from Peter:  This is the final installment of Bob's series, which has been a huge inspiration for many of us. Bob has shown that where there's a will (and serious fire) there's a way. Please note in the narrative below the link to Bob's video, which was professionally filmed by a local crew for television -- really terrific! And feel free to subscribe to his newsletter and stay connected with The Ben Franklin Society and The BreadWorks events. Here's a link, also, to a recent news story about Bob and his work:

http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/07/06/3988523/exploring-the-country-roads-in.html?sp=/99/100/&ihp=1

Remember, you read about him here first!!  Thank you Bob for a great series. When you come up for air we'd love to hear more from you.

And now, the final chapter, full of useful tips for any of you with that same passion and fire within to pursue your own quest or, simply, make your own delicious tomato pies!

 

PART SEVEN – PHILADELPHIA STYLE, CAROLINA CHARACTER

When I left Philadelphia 15 years ago to begin anew in Carolina, I created a “Philly-in-the-Woods” in my adopted home.  It has a log cabin, and overall I’ve tried to combine the genius of Ben Franklin with the practicality of a small farm. This Little Philly on my Lynch Creek Farm now serves as a get-away in the middle of Franklin County, a special gathering place to dine and entertain with your friends. Who’d of thought an idea like that would work? Me. I just believe you can sometimes will things to happen - with enough hard work and determination.

 

As part of creating my Little Philly, I wanted to develop a signature pizza reminiscent of Delorenzo’s Tomato Pie. A recent BreadWorks event at my farm attracted 65 folks and confirmed for me that each attendee, in their own way, experienced “Philly-in-the-Woods” – tasty food, coupled with live music and great friends – in a most unlikely Carolina venue.  We’re not Asheville, nor the Outer Banks, but just as special and exhilarating for those who came. Watch my video called BreadWorks Tomato Pies with Bob Radcliffe on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjLTiSLj02A.
It’s no coincidence this installment shares the same title as my monthly BreadWorks newsletter, and similarly conveys the notion that for every ending, there is a new beginning.

My starting point was understanding that to make a great Tomato Pie, I first had to master open-fire cooking.  There is no modern digital or even mechanical control over the temperature – just primal fire, heat and smoke – a near religious experience. Grilling comes to mind, but we’re talking about wood-fired, oven baking here!  Have you surmised the fate of my sacrificial pie? My first test dough is usually destined for ruin in an oven too hot, but serves as a necessary quality check before I begin food service. Another essential first step is to clean the oven floor of all debris first, initially from wood embers, and later from burned semolina flour. Always use a natural bristle brush, never a brass, metallic or plastic brush. That avoids introducing metal or plastic fragments into your Pie. Natural bristle brushes burn up over time and I discard them. Wrap the brush with a wet cloth and wipe the oven floor to remove any remaining grit.

Next, insert the Tomato Pie in the oven with a short-handled wooden peel. Once in the oven, I manage the pies with a long-handled metal peel, the flat-ended kind you may have seen in pizza restaurants. This approach works best for me. Also, clean the oven floor every four to six pies. You want to capture the smoky oven flavor, not the burned residue on the oven floor.

Clearly outside ovens are disadvantaged in cold and wet weather. My shed roof provides working cover for me in the rain, and I prepare pies inside my warm cabin when it is cold, then walk them outside to cook; otherwise the dough is unworkable. Even in the dead of winter, my oven still registers over 200 degrees F after cooling down overnight (a great time to roast or braise a sizeable cut of meat).

When I am cooking a large number of pies (40+ for a BreadWorks event), I partially cook the pies ahead of time, cover them with foil, and store them on metal serving trays in a rolling baking rack. When patrons begin to arrive and food service begins, I reheat the pies quickly, add the toppings, cut and serve continuously without undue delay - with the help of my aiuto pizzaiola or assistant pizza maker - April Hitchcock.

I prefer classic-style aluminum trays to serve my Tomato Pie - preferably ones generously decorated with cut marks – like those I remember from Delorenzo’s. Although I recall a short-bladed knife was used to cut the pies into irregular shapes, I prefer a rolling cutter. To each his own. There was nothing better than sopping-up the last drips of olive oil and bits of tomato from those metal trays with a piece of crust. The cardboard forms and boxes used today ruin this experience altogether. And yes, I always serve retro glass-bottled soda - never cans, plastic foam cups, paper plates or plastic cutlery – Philly style demands the real thing.

If you ever have leftovers, wrap the slices in foil and refrigerate. For the best taste, reheat in a hot cast-iron pan without oil. Just drop the slices onto the pan and heat until they gently bubble. The slices will taste like they just came out of the oven. I’ve heard it put this way: “It’s the iron pan – stupid!” By all means never use a microwave.

By the way, in May, my favorite TV show, “The Mind of a Chef,” received the James Beard Foundation’s Broadcast Award for Television on Location (www.jamesbeard.org/#home-awards ). I must sadly note, it beat out “A Chef’s Life” featuring Vivian Howard of the “Chef & the Farmer” (www.chefandthefarmer.com ) in Kinston, NC – my home-state TV food telecast.

Gosh, (drawing my Pizza Pie story to a close), it has certainly has been an incredible journey, as Peter envisioned when the Pizza Quest website was launched. I believe my story is one of many testaments to the “amazing things” revealed when artisanship flourishes. Thank you, Peter, for the opportunity to tell my story, and for understanding that “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” Above all, it’s been fun!

Thanks to each of you for reading along and providing comments and suggestions. My odyssey continues - there’s the looming Potato Pie story, flavored cheeses, other toppings, seasoning-wood alternatives, and who knows what the mind of a chef will conjure-up – roasts, casseroles and even desserts.

I hope to have honored my promise not to bore you with my story. I have shared a lot of my techniques in the belief I could encourage you to make your first Tomato Pie. You will hear from me again, but until then, by all means cook with the mind of a chef - YOU CAN DO IT!  If you ever need help, know you can always contact me by email.

In the meantime, keep up with my latest adventures by subscribing to my monthly BreadWorks newsletter (www.benfranklinsocietync.org). Better yet, attend one of my upcoming BreadWorks events, or stop by to see Molly and me, and of course take a tour of downtown Rocky Ford.
Call ahead though, so I can remember to leave the light on. Happy trails!
Bob

P.S. A note of special thanks for the backstage help I have received during the publication of this series of articles and my BreadWorks events from: Marion Blackburn, Dennis and Jane Radcliffe, Brad English, Pat Washburn, Dave Debonzo and Gloria Urbano.

 
Tomato Pie, Rocky Ford, and Me, part 6
Bob Radcliffe

Part Six – A “Field of Dreams”

When we bought our Rocky Ford farm property in 1997, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream. We had previously restored an 1858 row house in the historic Spring Garden neighborhood of Philadelphia, but this was different -- nearly 55 acres with a stream along side. We named our farm property Lynch Creek, after the stream that I found had more history associated with it than I ever could have imagined. That discovery led me to create the non-profit Ben Franklin Society in 2008 honoring the forgotten Yankee namesake of our county, and then hold fund-raising events through the associated Franklin BreadWorks private dining and entertainment club.

Even though I spend a lot of time indoors cooking, my days include many hours managing the farm using sustainable practices. This outdoors work is a labor of love. Indeed, all my life I’ve been an outdoors type. As a kid, I would fish all day at Gropp’s Lake in Yardville, N.J., riding a bike to the lake from my home. After college, I lived in a Dutch Colonial farmhouse in Middlebush, NJ and played hooky from work to go trout fishing alone in the Delaware Water Gap. It seemed natural to me in 2000 to begin the work necessary to place our farm in permanent conservation easement. Our legal agreement with the local Tar River Land Conservancy was finalized in December 2007. By deed, our property will remain a farm forever, may not be subdivided or developed beyond the needs of a farm, and has a restricted 12-acre stream buffer zone along Lynch Creek.

In the same time period I began working to secure organic farm certification, which you may imagine was the butt of many jokes in a very traditional Southern farming area in North Carolina’s tobacco country. I vividly recall baffled local farmers scratching their heads with hat in hand as they stopped roadside by my 15- acre field of buckwheat in white blossom. They had never before seen such a cover crop – buckwheat, peas and clover!

Over the years I have fixed fencing, plumbing and electrical problems; built a front pasture storage barn, stream pump and spring house, a woodshop, a chicken coop, a heated greenhouse and unheated high-tunnel, a produce workshop with walk-in cooler, and a vehicle maintenance barn; built our Log Cabin from 100 year old pine logs salvaged from two dismantled tobacco pack houses in Elmo, Va.; and finally, built my wood-fired Pompeii-style brick oven. Only a smokehouse renovation project remains on my to-do list.

Our Log Cabin was initially to be an antique showroom for my wife, Kerry. It morphed into an artist’s studio, and finally into a business meeting event center when we finally completed construction in December 2012. Construction continued over ten years with many obstacles. If you’re interested, our website, www.lynchcreek.com has posted a month-by-month chronology and photographs of the last four years of my construction work.

The site plan we designed (with help from Tim Hanauer of Earth Graphics, Greensboro, NC) around the cabin to control erosion provided the opening I needed to add an outdoor, wood-fired oven. At the time, no one, not even Kerry, comprehended why I was doing this. To me it was simple – not to cook traditional Southern BBQ, but rather to bake Tomato Pie and artisan breads, of course!

I began building my oven in 2008. The Forno Bravo guideline Pompeii Oven plans were my reference. It was an incredible challenge to build. Its sheer size (56” inside diameter) dwarfs most residential and commercial models. I needed to be sure I could bake two standard sheet trays (18” x 26”) at a time. When I bake breads, I always start my loaves on sheet trays and then transfer them to the oven floor (it’s just too difficult to do otherwise). I use my oven door when I bake breads. It was made by our Pennsylvania friend and expert blacksmith, Ray Mathis (www.tuttometaldesign.com), The Forno Bravo Forum was an incredible resource along the way, but my Yankee ingenuity was required to overcome a few key construction dilemmas:

· Oven entranceway: I chose to use formwork, not brickwork, to build an arched opening. I also used laminated chimney flue pipe to create the precise, arched door reveal. Special high-temperature concrete mix was required – like that used in pottery kilns.

· Chimney flue transition: I again built a custom form to transition from my rectangular flue opening to my circular double-insulated stainless steel chimney pipe. I used carved Styrofoam that could be chipped-out after the high-temperature concrete cured to expose the flue geometry.

If interested, you can view a slide-show of how I built my wood-fired oven using the web link provided on my Biography page here:  http://www.fornobravo.com/pizzaquest/contributor-profiles/54-contributor-profiles/506-bobradcliffe.html.

I finally cooked my first Tomato Pie in the Oven on Oct. 24, 2011. We prototyped a handful of BreadWorks events in 2012, and began scheduling monthly BreadWorks Dining and Entertainment events in 2013 at the showplace we have today. To understand how some of the more than 400 Ben Franklin Society BreadWorks community members feel about their headquarters, you can read the comments posted for the articles of this series. We are humbled by the success and support we have received.

Indeed our “Field of Dreams” had become a reality – even more than we had envisioned. Kerry often reminds me to “watch what you pray for.” Our property also represents a new sustainable farm model – one integrated with a non-profit entity committed to educational, literary and scientific endeavors. Remarkably, what makes it all work, is food and entertainment - with a blend of farm and public service. Rather than growing food for market, I now grow menu ingredients.

Many have asked me “If you had known how much time and effort it was going to take, would you have begun?” In reply, “I just decide what I want to do, and go do it.” I’ve concluded over the years that I am just wired differently than most. Few contemporaries of mine have ever understood my choices and timing. That’s okay.

Now you understand how long it took, and how difficult it was, before I cooked my first Tomato Pie in Rocky Ford. Let me pass some tips along to you about using such an oven:

First, let’s talk about firing the oven. As you know, everything passes in-and-out of the oven entrance. With larger diameter ovens like mine, you need a bigger fire. To do that, I start small “Lincoln” log fires (on wooden rails) with a propane torch just under the flue opening in the entranceway, and then slide the log rails into the oven with my metal peel. I usually make at least two, if not three, such fires. I then begin adding split oak wood to gradually create a large fire at the middle of the oven. I burn a vigorous fire for about three hours (until the oven is white hot). I always use oak (hardwood) for what I call the furnace fire that’s solely responsible for heating the oven.

Next, I use a metal hoe to split the fire and push the coals and remaining wood equally to each side creating a center cooking platform. From this point on, I consider these side-fires - flavoring-fires. I optionally use seasoning woods such as hickory, apple, pecan, and even coal, to add another hidden layer of flavor. These fires use smaller pieces of wood, but are essential as you bake Tomato Pie as I do, over several hours, to keep the hot air circulating from the dome above, to the floor below. I continue to experiment with variations of fuel whose smoke flavors my Tomato Pie.

Then, I bake what I call my “sacrificial” pie.

More about that in my next installment - “Philadelphia Style with Carolina Character.” I’ll have more tips about baking, plating, and presenting Tomato Pie and how to deal with leftovers (if any). And yes, gently wind my story down -- for now.

Bob

 

 

 
Tomato Pie, Rocky Ford, and Me, Part 5
Bob Radcliffe

PART FIVE – LAYERS OF FLAVOR

My experiences working at Jack’s Firehouse were the most memorable of my 20 years living in Philadelphia. The deal I made with Chef Jack McDavid was simple – I would work one day a week without pay, if he would teach me three new things each shift. When I left and moved to Rocky Ford, he told me, “If you put your mind to it, you could run a restaurant one day.”  I took that as a compliment and confidence builder that to this day, steadies me when confronted with the demands of managing a 55-acre working farm.

My analytical background served me well in the past. As I began adventuring into the culinary world it became clear to me from everything I read, the professionals I observed, and the impressions I got from a proliferation of TV shows that it was all about “layers of flavor.”  More important, about being willing to do whatever it takes to develop those flavors.

Let me explain how I think about building the “layers of flavor” into my Tomato Pie:

--It was paramount to remain true to what a Delorenzo’s Tomato Pie meant to me. It’s all about the bread and tomatoes. The crisp (almost burned) artisan crust becomes the foundation layer of flavor to the extent that I do everything possible to ensure it remains crisp. That means isolating the dough from the juicy tomatoes with a thin layer of cheese, for instance, or not using even a drop of olive oil either in or on the dough until after it has been cooked.

--I prominently display the tomatoes in visible chunks, not in an indiscriminate layer of sauce, to visibly convey their importance.

--Many patrons in the South tell me “No garlic, please.” I nod affirmatively, but always proceed to spread a large clove of freshly crushed garlic on every dough I prepare for the oven. I follow this with a generous array of freshly ground black pepper. Never a complaint so far!

--Thin slices of cheese follow to seal the dough from the moisture of the tomatoes and meat toppings that follow. Meats, if any, are selectively placed, and then, always last, come the tomatoes. Then I quickly slide the pie into the awaiting oven. That’s it!

--Noticeably missing are the olive oil, mushrooms and spinach. I never apply olive oil while the dough is cooking (in the oven). No one wants a “burned” mushroom or spinach flavor from the extreme heat of a wood-fired oven, nor be the reason to remove a pie before the crust is perfectly cooked. I sauté and season the mushrooms and spinach to taste, ahead of time, to perfection! They are warmed by the pie as it cools down. (Again, I credit Jack for teaching me that all temperatures cook – both low and high ones. Whether I was cleaning squid in an ice-water bath to keep it from cooking, or recalling his story about how Japanese tuna fisherman quickly pull live tuna in with hand lines and then ceremoniously cut and bleed them, force a rod down their spine to immobilize them, and then flash freeze them at sea – all to preserve the essence of the tuna flesh – a most highly prized and costly product. All fish start to "cook," even at sea water temperatures, as soon as they die).
From this experience I concluded, “Why waste the heat of a cooling Tomato Pie?  Let it warm the oil, mushrooms and spinach.”

--I generously apply olive oil with a squeeze bottle to the cornicione (edge of the crust) immediately after I remove the pie from the oven. An added benefit of this approach is that you never burn the roof of your mouth and ruin the pleasure of eating the rest of your pie. If desired, I sparingly add the mushrooms and spinach.  Then I apply the salt, grated Parmesan, and (always last) torn basil. Done!

Simple but thoughtful steps mean that we are always building layers of flavor as we go. Oh, yes, one last hidden flavor: the delicious one that comes from the wood-fired oven itself!

Don’t think I was born knowing how to do this type of cooking. It took years of trial and error to decipher this culinary puzzle. Don’t be constrained by tradition and consensus thinking. Leap outside the box (a learned, but uncanny ability I have had through all of my life’s endeavors).  Maybe this is why I became so attracted to the TV show “Mind of a Chef.”  It helped me more clearly understand what food was really about – a metaphor for life itself.  Without food there is no life.  The quality of our food is integral to the quality of our lives.

As an educator, it was important to me to convey knowledge to the next generation, but it was even more important to give them the confidence they needed to succeed.  “The answers are all there; learn to ask the right sequence of questions,” they told me in engineering school at Rutgers University in 1964.  I credit the leaders, educators and friends I had along the way for shaping my “can-do” mindset.

Jack McDavid was the only chef I ever worked for, and to this day, I feel grateful to have had that experience. Thanks again Jack. You done good!

 

 

 

 

In my next posting I will discuss the wood-fired oven that I built so I could achieve the high temperatures  needed to cook my ideal Tomato Pie, adding that "invisible layer of flavor."
It is aptly named, “A Field of Dreams.”  Still lots to discuss, so see you again soon.
Bob

 
Tomato Pie, Rocky Ford, and Me, Part 4
Bob Radcliffe

 

PART FOUR – A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN

I’m known for more than making Tomato Pie on my Franklin County Farm. I’ve also made an appearance of sorts on the front page of the Times – the Franklin Times that is – and the cover of Back Home Magazine (thanks to friend and writer Donna Campbell Smith).

Let me explain how my ass gets on the front page! Molly, my donkey, is the guard animal for my herd of beef cattle, protecting them from predators. I bought her from a goat herder who was going out of business. Starting to sound strange? She was really pretty but had bad feet. “Would you buy a used car with four flat tires,” I ask? Probably not, but I did! I was confident I could fix her feet. Heck, I was already vetting my cattle, pulling calves and castrating bulls. Not too shabby for a city-slicker. But honestly, without Coy Duke’s help (rest his soul), I would be in deep, as they say.

Well, after two long years of research, vet consultations, medicines, help from farrier Joey Hite, and nearly getting kicked to death, Molly now has four sound feet and is a real beauty queen -- a cover girl – and, when pictured with me on the front page of the local newspaper, the cue for everyone to ask “Which one is the jackass?”

I take all this in stride because I’m a Yankee in the South who is on a mission to make Rocky Ford famous with my Tomato Pie. Can you hear the laughter getting louder down at the Biscuit Kitchen in nearby Louisburg?

Well, I tell everyone down here that I am no rabbit, but I sure am a fast turtle. I am confident I will live long enough to get the last laugh -- at least I sure hope so. If not, as they often remind me, I can always use my return bus ticket and find my way back to Philadelphia and points north.

I’ll get back on point – Tomato Pie – since that’s what you’re reading for! I’ve got some interesting tips about toppings. Once you’ve had a look, I would appreciate some emails from you with your recommendations.

Toppings cooked on my Tomato Pie

Garlic
large fresh-crushed clove on the dough

Fresh Ground Black Pepper
on the dough

Cheese
7-9 slices covering the surface of the dough

Sausage (and any other meats)
nominally one piece per slice

Tomatoes
irregularly spaced pieces

· Each garlic variety tastes different. I am still experimenting with which variety to grow and use. I have raised both hard and soft-necks. I prefer hard-necks because they store longer. The soft-necks tasted great, but are too perishable. Do you have a garlic variety you could recommend?

· Replicating the sausage flavor I recall from DeLorenzo’s has been a real challenge. I finally gave-up on the prospect of simply buying it somewhere. I was really excited when I bought my commercial Bread Mixer because I could grind meat with it as well. When you make sausage, you can’t do it in tiny batches. So each experiment that doesn’t work out leaves you with at least 5-pounds of stuff. You’ve got to first select the cut of meat and target fat percentage, use the right die-size on the meat grinder, and get your seasonings and proportions right. Experiments like this get expensive and quickly consume a warehouse of freezers. I finally have honed-in on my own “secret” recipe after years of fiddling around. I just describe it as a sweet-basil Italian sausage. By the way, I also have developed a “secret” breakfast sausage recipe that I sometimes serve at my BreadWorks Sunday Brunches.

I am sure that in 1950 DeLorenzo had a butcher buddy that knocked this stuff out with simple ingredients. There were no supermarkets at the time, no TV Food Channel, no celebrity chefs, probably just Tony next door. But he made great Italian sausage; probably a hand me down family recipe from Sicily like the one I someday may pass along.

I always use free-form, “loose” sausage pieces on my pie, not neat slices with a casing. Maybe, that’s why I shy away from using pepperoni on my Tomato Pies. It just doesn’t look right, and in my opinion, overpowers the tomatoes.

Toppings added to my Tomato Pie (after it is removed from the oven)

Olive Oil
immediately applied to the crust with a squeeze bottle – be generous – heated by the Pie

Mushrooms
sparingly applied if so desired – heated by the Pie

Spinach
sparingly applied if so desired – heated by the Pie

Coarse Kosher Salt
applied to taste

Fresh-grated Parmesan Cheese
for flavor and decoration

Fresh-torn Basil
always last for aroma

· The olive oil should not be light, fragrant or aromatic, but rather a middle blend, to prevent the heat of the Pie from creating an unpleasant aroma. Think about focaccia when applying the oil. Be generous. It will be absorbed by the crust. You will never burn the roof of you mouth, like most pizzas do, that cook the oil on the pie in a hot oven! The oil is slowly warmed as the Tomato Pie cools down.

· Mushrooms are sautéed separately and seasoned as desired and simply added to the cooling pie. In this way they are never burned. I prefer the earthy flavor of the shitake, but crimini (small portabellas) work well also. Only at last resort do I use white button mushroom – they lack the flavor I prefer. What variety of mushrooms do you recommend?

· Spinach is also sautéed separately and seasoned as desired and simply added to the cooling pie. In this way it is never burned. I prefer fresh whole leaf spinach with garlic, but frozen spinach works fine if well drained.

· Course kosher salt is preferred, but specialty sea salts can be used. Do you have any such recommendations?

· Fresh-grated Parmesan – the better cheeses, although more expensive, are worth it. Do you have any recommendations?

· Fresh-torn basil adds that flash of aroma as you eat the first slices of your Tomato Pie. It burns easily, and a little goes a long way. I grow basil in season (above freezing), but prefer to have potted plants nearby the kitchen.

Before winding this installment down however, I want to let you in on a secret. I have been experimenting with a new topping – beyond what DeLorenzo’s (past or present) ever imagined. Fingerling potatoes - like the size and shape of your small finger.

The idea of using fingerlings on Tomato Pie actually comes from Tacconnelli’s Pizza, another famous haunt of mine in Philadelphia. I remember having Vince make a special Potato Pie for my 40th birthday celebration. It was delicious, but sadly the first and last Potato Pie I’ve ever eaten – but not forgotten. When fingerling potatoes are roasted properly, they are as addictive as peanuts!

Coincidentally, I have specialized in growing fingerling potatoes for years. As by now you can probably imagine, I grew a test potato garden (in 2006) of a dozen varieties to find the best one for my soil and environment and settled on Austrian Crescent’s – and they do have great Rocky Ford terroir!

When I perfect my recipe and technique, I believe Potato Pies could be hugely popular in the South, and my “ace-in-the-hole” to make Rocky Ford famous (if my Tomato Pies should stumble). Maybe I’ll be the only Tomato and Potato Pie baker in North Carolina – perhaps the whole country – maybe the world!

I started this column today with a story about Molly so by the time you got to the end of the article you could catch your breath from laughing so hard. But I’m afraid my latest idea – Potato Pie – may have you howling again. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Catch your breath, as there’s still more to come about “Layers of Flavor.” The tables included above establish a framework for that discussion. Please remember to send your suggestions by email to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it (as well as commenting below).

Bob

 
Tomato Pie, Rocky Ford, and Me, Part 3
Bob Radcliffe

PART THREE:  TRY IT, YOU’LL LIKE IT

Let’s talk tomatoes:
Like Mikey in the old cereal TV commercial, here in the South, when it comes to tomatoes it’s often a pleading, “Try it, you’ll like it.”  That’s because down South, leafy greens and butter beans take center stage, leaving tomatoes relegated to salads and canned spaghetti sauce.  I first had to decide which tomatoes to buy. Heck, why would you buy them, when you can grow them -– right?  I’m sure most of you aren’t looking to hold a tomato taste test, but that’s what I did.

In 2004, I ordered 18 different plum and paste tomato varieties of seed, with enticing names like Cour di Bue, Costuluto Fiorentino, Opalka, Polish Linguisa and Viva Italia. Can’t you just taste those beauties? I planted the seeds, transplanted and secretly labeled the rows and, about three months later, sand-bagged Nick Thomas, a food writer at the time for the Raleigh News and Observer, into a blind taste testing of the lot by promising him exclusive rights to the story. I also arranged to take several baskets to a local Italian restaurant (since closed) to make tomato sauce.

Well, what do you think happened?  Nick concluded that San Marzano’s were the best. Yet, although he loved those varietals, the restaurateur found it was too much trouble to cook them down.

Subsequently, I experimented by growing different strains of San Marzano’s, but just wasn’t happy with the taste. I grew them outdoors; I grew them in a greenhouse; I tried different organic approaches with fertilizers and irrigation schemes for watering. Forgive me, again, but I cussed a lot – thankfully, no one was nearby (well maybe Kerry, my wife).

I can grow tomatoes, but the soil and climate here just isn’t their favorite. Then I realized, “Wouldn’t an agricultural state like North Carolina be growing tomatoes instead of tobacco, cotton, soy beans, wheat, sweet potatoes and collards if it could?”  Dah!

Alas, I finally understood what terroir meant. It certainly has nothing to do with North Carolina being an English Colony instead of a French one. Terroir is the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology, and climate of a certain place, interacting with plant genetics, express in agricultural products. Wine connoisseurs know it permeates the grapes. It’s simple: Italian tomatoes have terroir, and my Rocky Ford tomatoes do not! Italy’s San Marzano tomatoes simply taste better!

It’s embarrassing for me to admit how much time and effort I wasted trying to grow this crucial ingredient for my Tomato Pie.  What had seemed like a sensible idea was,in fact, a big bust! But you only learn from your mistakes. Chef Sean Brock on the “Taste of a Chef” would have been proud of me, but I can see the tears of laughter coming down his face, and hear him howling as he reaches for another brew. Always use the food ingredients that taste the best. 

So, we now buy imported San Marzano Tomatoes from Italy by the case each month, from Philadelphia of course, when Kerry travels there for work. The Rosa brand we use are imported into Philadelphia and Baltimore, while the Cento brand is available in Camden, N.J., just over the Ben Franklin Bridge. They are always intrigued when Kerry arrives at the warehouse as their only North Carolina customer yet who always gets their “best” cash discount price (of course). By the way, I also have to admit that these imported tomatoes cost less to buy than if I were to grow them. (Wow, will I be happy to finish telling you my tomato story.)

Each can is opened, the fruits individually cleaned and broken into pieces, and then adjusted with sugar (if need be). Every can tastes different – I adjust each can separately and then combine the tomatoes together. Handling and cleaning each fruit is usually deemed unnecessary by everyone else. Yet I always do this! (Maybe it’s just the training I received at Jack’s Firehouse, the many hours I spent picking crab, cleaning squid, and de-boning salmon.) No other spices or seasoning are added; no salt or pepper nor any olive oil. I like to prepare my tomatoes a day ahead and refrigerate them overnight. They simply taste better this way. “Last-minute” tomatoes just lack the flavor I want. I always return the tomatoes to room temperature before using them.

Yes, this is a Tomato Pie: it’s all about the bread and the tomatoes. The care I take with the tomatoes seems in keeping with their overall importance. What do you think?

Now, let’s talk about cheese. I was going to discuss cheese later, but after my tomato-growing debacle, I decided to continue my confessional and get my embarrassing stuff out of the way. Does this introduction sound familiar? Heck, why would you buy cheese when you can make it – right? Try to contain your laughter, as it can become contagious.

Before setting out to make cheese, I had to decide exactly what type of cheese I would use. Obviously mozzarella, but low-fat, skim, part-skim, whole milk or what? After cooking pies with them all, I found that whole milk was the only one that did not separate on the pie. Hands down, always buy whole milk mozzarella! I have made pies with both fresh cow's milk and buffalo mozzarella but the cost and softness usually rule them out for me because I am typically making about 40 pies at a BreadWorks Event. For a small family affair, though, cost is not a factor.  Since I always slice my cheese and never grate it, I buy 1-pound blocks, the firmer the better. I always keep it refrigerated and cut it while it's cold into thin (less than 1/8”) slices. I usually find that I can prepare about 5 pies per package.

I want you to know, though, that it really is easy to make your own mozzarella cheese. For a modest investment of $25, you can buy a kit that includes a dairy thermometer, muslin, citric acid, vegetable rennet tablets and cheese salt – and you are ready to go. (I like to shop online at the New England Cheese making Supply Company www.cheesemaking.com.)

A gallon of milk will make about a pound of mozzarella. The big problem is finding and buying good whole milk. I own beef, not dairy cattle, so no advantage there. I am not about to get a dairy cow and have one more thing I have to do every day (milk the cow). The sale of raw, unprocessed milk is illegal in most states. Folks get around this by owning a share of a milk cow, and therefore technically are not selling the milk, but own it.

When I was a kid, we still had milk delivered in glass jugs to a milk box on our side porch. The jugs were sealed with a paper disk. When it was below freezing outside, the cream would rise to the top and push the lid off. When it was spring you could taste the field “onions” the cows were eating in the milk. The milk was rich (high butter fat content) and the kind that you wish you could find today to make cheese – but good luck! Buy the least homogenized and pasteurized milk you can find; it works better for cheese making.

Actually, I was quite successful making mozzarella and would recommend you try it. I just found that the cheese I could buy saved me a lot of time without sacrificing taste. I do however sometimes make special flavored mozzarella with basil and assorted herbs which add a unique layer of flavor to the Pie.

So maybe I was being a bit paranoid, dreading the discussion of my experiences with cheese. I just so much wanted to be able to tell you to “make your own bread and cheese, and grow your own tomatoes.”  Is that so weird?

Oddly enough, my best old Confederate friend, Joe Elmore, recently gave me a book titled “Weird New Jersey.” The thought of it makes him laugh out loud every time. I know he’s really laughing at me, but that’s OK, I find him pretty funny too. I haven’t found the “Weird North Carolina” book yet, but it’s got to be out there somewhere!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this posting.  Come back for my next installment, “A Match Made in Heaven,”  where I’ll discuss toppings. Get ready to laugh and hear about my “ace-in-the-whole”.

Bob

 
Tomato Pie, Rocky Ford, and Me, Part 2
Bob Radcliffe

Note From Peter:  Bob's first installment has drawn a record number of great responses, so I'm excited to offer you Part Two in his ongoing saga. We'll keep Bob's story going for as long as he keeps sending us his terrific writing. Enjoy!!

 

PART TWO.  A GOOD PIE NEEDS A GOOD CRUST.

So, “what the heck is a Tomato Pie?” you ask. My seasoned reply is simply that “pizza is like a Tomato Pie on steroids.” A strange way to answer? To that, I quietly say “Tomato Pie is not a lot of things.” Do you get it? Tomato Pie is, and always has been, about the bread and tomatoes!

The bread is thin and crisp enough to be picked-up without folding. No seasoned tomato sauce is used, only pieces of tomato cooked on the pie. Cheese and other toppings are used sparingly to enhance, not overwhelm, these ingredients. You may have read that Tomato Pies are built upside down – meaning the cheese goes on first – that is true. But do you know why?

In the early days at DeLorenzo’s, there was no menu. You could have a plain pie, or one with just a few pieces of sweet Italian sausage. As I recall, extra cheese, mushrooms, pepperoni, and so on, were either frowned upon, or suspiciously 86-ed. My pies adhere to these principles, with the substitution of a few toppings – homemade sweet basil sausage, sautéed shitake mushrooms or spinach - and yes, begrudgingly, pepperoni (if I have any).

Well, I can hear you saying, “That’s an easy pie to make.” To which I reply, “Dream on” (or worse). It’s the simplicity of these few ingredients that have made my quest (and yours) such a challenge.

Keep reading as I guide you through the ingredient landscape and tell you about the choices I have made, and the techniques I now employ to build my Tomato Pie. Compare this with your present approach. Steal my best tips, but most of all along the way, try to think with the “Mind of a Chef.” Sean Brock laughs a lot on TV, but I just know he would say, “Don’t ever stop thinking critically when preparing food.” Keep asking yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish?” and “Is this the best way to achieve that objective?”

Let’s start with the bread

I always remember the axiom, you eat first with your eyes. So, how can we make each pie more attractive - like a piece of art? It’s obvious to me - stop making them industrially round or rectangular in shape! My pies are irregularly shaped – by design – and only coincidentally round. It dawned on me one day that my pies weren’t “perfect” as I eyeballed a vendor cooking pies with a new wood-fired oven trailer. His were perfectly round, matching exactly the outline of the cardboard serving tray he was using – incredible! Either I couldn’t toss a dough ball into a round, or it just wasn’t that important to me!

No. I have concluded my irregular shape alters the thickness of the crust and the topping distribution to help make each bite taste different – exactly what I remember about eating DeLorenzo’s Pie. Uniformity is a golden rule of cooking, but one that must be broken at times. I believe this is one of those times. Also, I cut my pies differently. Not into familiar pie-shaped pieces, but rectangular-like shapes that don’t fold when you pick them up. Cut across the widest dimension first, and then perpendicularly into 6-8 pieces.

I am sure that DeLorenzo’s didn’t make long-fermentation (artisan) dough. But after trying a slew of dough recipes over the years with mediocre results, I finally concluded (with help from Peter’s books) it was time to try using an artisan-like crust approach. I read everything I could find, attended the Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers Festival (coming up again this year April 12th) and seminars by Peter Reinhart and Lionel Vatinet – and voila - I was on my way.

At the same time, I had begun constructing my wood-fired oven using the Forno Bravo Pompeii Oven guideline plans, and the resources of the Forno Bravo Forum (more about my oven later). I had already decided that my gas and electric ovens were never going to cut-it if I was to bake the Tomato Pie and crusty breads I so dearly missed now that I lived in North Carolina.

Finding vendors of ingredients was another big obstacle. I needed hard (high protein) wheat flour – like King Arthur Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad and other Unbleached Bread Flours – you know, but not in 5-pound grocery store bags, but in 50-pound sacks. Soft (low protein) biscuit flour is everywhere down here in the south because they can grow soft wheat (and it’s cheaper), and only recently have scientists begun developing winter wheat varieties that will grow in the southern climate. David Bissette at The Grain Mill in nearby Wake Forest solved this problem for me.

Experimentation led me to understand how to adjust recipes using the baker’s percentage. Remember that most published recipes assume you are using off-the-shelf bread flour. The harder the flour, the more liquid you need. My restaurant apprenticeship years ago with Chef Jack McDavid in Philadelphia taught me, first and foremost, never serve what doesn’t look or taste right. I just had to make outstanding bread! So I mixed, and I baked, and I threw a lot away (fed it to the chickens). Sounds a lot like I huffed, and I puffed, and I blew the house down – but that was a fairytale. I must confess. I cussed a lot (please forgive me).

My dough recipe today uses King Arthur Sir Lancelot (high gluten) flour, water, yeast and salt - no sugar or oils added. I prefer pies no larger than 12” across because they are easier to manage in the oven. I cut about 250 grams of dough and refrigerate each in sealed plastic containers to develop flavor. I flour my room-temperature, wet-doughs on the counter, stretch them, and then “throw” the dough onto a short handled wooden peel with a thin coating of semolina flour. I like semolina, rather that corn meal or regular flour, because it doesn’t burn as quickly in the oven and ruin the flavor of the crisp crust.

I am proud to say that I think my crust is spot-on. Chick would be proud too. I’m not done talking about making and baking Tomato Pies yet, but need to check on my baby calves. It’s been a long winter feeding and watering through the wet and freezing weather. My back-pasture slopes south and grass sprouts sooner there. Above freezing temperatures and growing grass are signs of spring and the prospect of fewer demands on me to care for my herd and recent newborns.

Understand that there is more to life on a farm than baking Tomato Pies. I’ll be back soon to continue describing my odyssey. My cows are lowing.

 

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