“To air condition or not?” That’s the question . . . at least it has been in our house for the last month.
A friend called on Monday. “How are you handling the heat?”
While our current heatwave is nothing compared to the one that swept Europe last month, there are afternoons when we all start to melt like snowmen and slink downstairs to seek refuge in the cool rooms on the lowest level of our house. Our home was built in the time before air conditioning. And really, many houses here in Colorado don’t have it. We just don’t need it, at least not for about ten months out of the year. As for those other two months – July and August – despite the scorching afternoons, the nights are cool enough that, if you open the windows wide when it’s dark, by morning the house is blissfully cool. And that’s just what we do. As soon as we wake up, with coffee in hand, we wander around the house closing all the windows to keep the heat out. It’s become almost a ritual, and it keeps the house cool until late in the afternoon when the cycle starts all over again.
In my 20s I lived in Italy where air conditioning in homes is almost unheard of. I enjoyed the daily hot and cool cycles – it’s a way to keep in tune with nature in the summer months. We stayed cool with gelato and well-chilled vini rosati. When I came back to the US to visit friends and family, the artificial frigidness of air-conditioned American restaurants, offices and shopping malls was jarringly unpleasant. I still find it uncomfortable. Give me the soft, natural heat of summer over AC any day.
That’s not to say that on the hottest afternoons, Rich and I don’t toy with the idea of having an air conditioner installed. We talk about it often, but can’t justify a purchase that would only be used two months out of the year. Instead we chose an evaporative cooler, which works wonders in Colorado’s dry, arid climate by circulating clean, cool and humid air throughout the house, taking the edge off the heat and making it feel like a breezy tropical oasis.
You’re probably wondering why I’m droning on and on about heat and central air when I should be talking about food. It’s because, though our summer routine works well and keeps us comfortable on most days, there’s one caveat: If I turn on the oven the entire balance is thrown to the wind and the house heats to the point where we’re all melting again and we’re forced to retreat to the coolness downstairs and serious talk of installing an air conditioner resumes. So, if I’m going to turn on the oven in the summer, it has to be for a good reason. A savory summer galette is what I consider to be “a very good reason.”
I love tarts, galettes and pies in any form at any time of year, sweet or savory. Is there anything more comforting than seasonal vegetables or fruit wrapped in buttery pastry? Apples in the fall, pumpkin in winter, spinach in spring, and tomatoes in the summer. Over the last few months my tart of choice has been the galette. Call it summer laziness, but the ease of a free-form galette is what appeals to me most when it’s too hot to be meticulous about shaping and crimping a crust or fitting the pastry dough into a pan. I’ve made one at least once a week this summer and never regretted having to turn on the oven for it. These are so satisfying, filled with garden vegetables. I make endless savory varieties with swiss chard and potatoes, zucchini, creamed spinach, and this one with tomatoes and caramelized onions. They never get old.
Speaking of the garden, there are at least a few things that are enjoying this dry summer heat – the tomatoes. We spent a couple weeks in Santa Fe and when we returned I expected to find the garden parched and dying. Much of it was – everything but the tomatoes who were thriving and blooming like I’ve never seen them before. They love to bake in summer sun, and, like grapes, seem to produce even more flavorful fruit when neglected and left to their own devices. The first tomatoes are finally ripe enough to harvest and that means these tomato galettes are going to be heating up the kitchen for the remainder of the summer. I’m okay with that.
Tomato Galette with Sweet Basil Crust
For the sweet basil crust:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 TBSP sugar
1 tsp dry basil
1/4 tsp salt
8 TBSP (1 stick) cold butter, cut into cubes
1/4 cup ice cold water (you may not use all of it)
1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar
To make the crust, mix the flour, sugar, basil and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and “cut” it into the flour mixture using a pastry blender or two knives until the butter pieces are very small and well-incorporated.
Stir the vinegar into the water. Add the water to the flour mixture one tablespoon at a time, mixing well with the pastry blender, until the dough just begins to come together. You may not use all the water.
Knead the dough in the bowl a few times with your hands to make sure all the ingredients have come together and there’s no flour remaining at the bottom of the bowl. Form the dough into a disk shape and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least one hour.
For the galette:
4 TBSP extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 large, sweet onion (Vidalia or other sweet variety), thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig of basil
5 – 6 sprigs of parsley
2 large heirloom or beefsteak tomatoes
a handful of mixed smaller tomatoes (such as grape, cherry or romanella)
1 tsp milk (or water)
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
While the dough rests in the refrigerator, preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Make the filling.
In a medium pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the sliced onions and a pinch of salt. Turn the heat to low, cover the pot and let the onions cook until sweet, jammy and deeply golden, stirring occasionally so they don’t burn, about 25 minutes.
Note: Onions that are older may not have enough moisture to prevent them from burning. If the onions begin to burn, add a splash of water to the pot and continue cooking, as above. Add water if necessary, until the onions are rich and jammy.
Add the minced garlic to the cooked onions and cook an additional minute. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
Meanwhile, cut the large tomatoes into thin slices. Cut the small tomatoes in half or in slices, depending on size.
Remove the basil and parsley leaves from the stalks. Finely mince the leaves and place in a small bowl. Drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add a pinch of salt and pepper.
Remove the dough from the refrigeration and place on a floured surface. Roll the dough into a rough 13-inch (33 cm) circle. Carefully transfer the rolled dough to the baking sheet.
In a small bowl, beat the egg with the milk (or water). Brush the dough with the egg wash, leaving a 2-inch (5 cm) border.
Spread the caramelized onions on the dough, keeping the border clear. Drizzle the herbs and oil evenly over the onions. Lay the tomato slices neatly on top, slightly overlapping. Season the tomatoes with a pinch of salt and pepper. Sprinkle the cheese over top.
Fold the edges of the pastry up over the filling. Brush the edges with the egg wash.
Bake the galette for 40 minutes, until brown and bubbly. Allow to cool slightly before cutting into slices and serving.