Literary recipe: Vegan tomato tart with lemon arugula pesto inspired by "The Mothers"
The Mothers is a story about two motherless girls and the pastor’s son, and how their paths twine in and out over the course of their young lives. It centers around a black community in Southern California, and is a study of love and friendship, expectations and choices, and secrets and what-might-have-beens.
It begins with a young and bereaved Nadia Turner, struggling in the wake of her mother’s suicide. She’s seventeen, undone by grief, invisible to her mourning father, and searching for a distraction. Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son a few years her senior, arrives on the scene, exactly what she needed. Until, naturally, he’s not.
If Nadia is the wild beauty of Oceanside, Aubrey Evans is the girl next door. Aubrey snuck into the novel long before I understood she was one of its core players, and she eased into Nadia and Luke’s lives in a similarly subtle way, offering kindness and love and stability that wrapped itself around their hearts and didn’t let go.
As you may have guessed, what is means to be a mother, to have a mother, to lose a mother, permeates every page. The novel is narrated by the church ‘Mothers,’ a chorus of older, experienced women who watch and listen (and gossip). The absence of Nadia and Aubrey’s mothers — for two very different reasons — hangs over both girls as they grow up, a question mark whose uncertainty they can never dismiss. Even Luke’s mother, the pastor’s wife, is a minor character whose role later looms large in the two girls’ lives.
A main theme of The Mothers is the unknowability of others, even those closest to us. Nadia wonders at her father: “Didn’t he know by now that you could never truly know another person? Hadn’t her mother taught them both that?” But it’s this very wisdom that drives Nadia, Aubrey and even Luke, to keep their secrets locked away, and this is the foundation upon which the misfortunes of this book are built.
The overall story was a beautiful study of relationships, of how people make choices that spiderweb across the years to pull them closer or push them farther apart, and Bennett’s prose is a lovely, wending thing that detours to make sparkling observations about love, loss, and life. But it’s also a story rooted in loss. The feelings that plague Bennett’s characters follow you long after the last chapter, that hollow sense of what-might-have-been burrowing deep and staying there even after The Mothers has been placed firmly back on the shelf.
This tension between a beautiful story, lovingly told and the heartache lining every chapter made me want a recipe that was both refreshing and tart. A savory vegan tomato tart fit the bill, and I added a layer of lemon arugula pesto to give it an extra bite.
VEGAN TOMATO TART WITH LEMON ARUGULA PESTO
For the pesto
- 2 cups packed baby arugula
- 1 small clove garlic
- ½ cup almonds
- zest of one lemon
- juice of ½ lemon
- salt and pepper, to taste
- pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
- ½ cup olive oil
- ⅓ cup grated parmesan, Romano, or cotija cheese (optional)
For the crust
- 1 ½ cup plus all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
- ½ cup olive oil (plus a little more if dough feels too dry)
- 2 tablespoons almond milk
For the filling
- Approx. 32 ounces, or 2 pounds, cherry tomatoes, washed and dried
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (or more if you think the cherry tomatoes may stick to your pan)
Preheat the oven to 300ºF.
Place the cherry tomatoes in a large baking dish or pan. Drizzle over the olive oil until the tomatoes are very lightly coated.
Cook the cherry tomatoes in the oven for 2.5 to 3 hours, or until the tomatoes are caramelized, turning brown, and have split open.
Remove tomatoes from oven and set aside to cool.
Now preheat the oven to 400ºF.
To make the tart crust, stir together the flour, salt, and rosemary in a medium-sized bowl.
In a separate small bowl, whisk together well the olive oil and almond milk.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and add the olive oil mixture. Using a fork or your hands, gently mix together the wet and dry ingredients just until combined (do not over-mix). The dough should hold together but not feel too greasy. If it's too dry, add a little more olive oil.
Place the dough in the center of an 11-inch (or smaller) tart pan. Using the palm your hand, spread the dough from the center to the edges. Do this by pressing down, not out. It should be approx. ⅛ inches thick all around.
Cook in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Let it cool on a rack before adding the filling.
To make the pesto, blend all ingredients except olive oil and cheese in a food processor.
Slowly add the olive oil (either drizzle in while the food processor is running, or add in small quantities).
Once the ingredients are well blended and pesto looks smooth, uncover and add cheese, if using. Pulse to combine.
Smear a thin layer of pesto on the baked crust (you will have extra pesto, I served each slice with an extra dollop of pesto on the side), add the tomatoes on top, and the tart is ready to serve.