The importance of tomatoes to our cultural and culinary world is so great it nearly goes unrecognised. The vast myriad of sauces, preparations, signature dishes, home cooked favourites and processed goods which contain this South American fruit are incalculable. At times, we need to step back from an ingredient and examine it at its very best, raw and untouched state. The colours, shapes, varying sweetness, acidity and fragrance of heritage, (heirloom across the pond) tomatoes are unsurpassed. The versatility of beefsteak, the honeyed hit of cherry, the earthy aroma of any fresh tom from the vine. The varieties are endless. Green Zebra have a firmness that hold up to breading and frying, Beef Hearts are meaty and robust, Goldens adding a great colour twist and San Marzanos the classic. The older I get as a chef, the simpler I prefer my cooking. So; if I can present a stripped down Caprese but use an unusual mix of tomatoes, I’m keeping it real but still giving the diner a unique experience.
Tomatoes were once regarded with much suspicion in Britain, even poisonous by some. By the mid-18th century they were a near staple and British tomatoes in season, (possibly not this one) are some of the very best.
The Importance of Caprese
An Italian classic.
The simple combination of fresh tomatoes, basil, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil and seasoning will be with us until the end of time. The first picture here reflects Caprese at its most base principle, contrasting with the other offering, an altogether posher affair. In the latter, the very best of heritage tomatoes have been tossed with extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and Cornish sea salt flakes. Arranged carefully and dotted with basil cress from Teign Valley Micro Herbs, fresh buffalo mozzarella and little quenelles of basil pesto.
Take care when buying mozzarella. Price usually dictates quality and buffalo is far superior to cow. Those 80p rubber balls at your local hypermarket aren’t worth the bother, spend a bit more for the real thing and always serve at room temperature.
Pesto shouts of summer and is a great condiment. Easy to make, stores well and flexible for all manner of pasta, bread or salad combinations.
3 good handfuls of fresh basil leaves
½ garlic clove
3-4tbsp Parmesan cheese
2-3tbsp toasted and cooled pine nuts
Simply blend to a paste, drizzling oil to your desired consistency.
-Seasoning. So important. Tomatoes love sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper.
-Room temperature. Always. A tomato served fridge cold is a near crime in my world.
The Importance of Sauce
It would be near ridiculous to include a recipe. Everyone should be able to whip up either a fresh or cooked tomato sauce to their taste with olive oil, chopped onions, garlic and seasoning. One of the most effective concoctions and one of the very simplest. There is no excuse to buy jarred sauces. Period. A fresh tomato sauce takes mere minutes. A cooked, thirty or so. Tomatoes have a powerful flavour, high liquid content and soft flesh that breaks down easily to aid in the thickening to a superb and unmistakable mouthfeel end. The key is to use fresh ripe tomatoes or quality canned. Napolina plum tomatoes would be the only ones I use from the hypermarket. In the restaurant we use Caesar. Whether it be puttanesca, arrabbiata, Mama’s secret recipe or ketchup...tomato sauce is the queen of all the mother sauces.
The classic Tomates a la Creme first graced the pages of Edouard de Pomiane’s unique and charming book, Cooking in Ten Minutes, and has been handed down through the ages by Elizabeth David and Simon Hopkinson. A near sauce itself; here I have utilised the best of heritage tomatoes. The end result just keeps the integrity of the tomato with the added luxury of near caramelisation. The acidity of the tomato cuts the heaviness of the double cream beautifully.
Tomates Heritage a la Creme
For a starter or side dish for 4
8 medium size ripe tomatoes (a nice mix of heritage if you can get them)
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
8tbsp double cream
1) Cut the tomatoes in half through their middles.
2) Season the tomatoes well and let sit for five minutes.
3) Heat a frying pan, melt the butter and lay out the toms, cut side down.
4) Cook for a few minutes, jabbing a few punctures in the upturned bottoms.
5) Turn carefully with a palette knife, (try to avoid tongs for most things) and cook for another 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the tomatoes.
6) Turn again and add the cream between the tomatoes. Add the basil to the cream.
7) The cream will bubble and reduce very quickly, mixing well with the leaked tomato juices.
8) Serve immediately.
The Importance of Concasse
The simple act of cross hatching the bottom of a tomato and carefully digging out the root with a sharp knife from the other end is one of the first things one learns in a professional kitchen. Plum, San Marzano or Roma are best for this due to their supple, tapered shape and the subsequent 30-40 second blanching in boiling water, ice refreshing and skin peeling is a job I have performed countless times. For a time; top chefs tired of using this technique, but we had to return in the end. There is no substitute for the silky and acidic hit of tomato concasse. Its most famous incarnation being heaped on Italian bruschetta, the tomato concasse became somewhat restaurant weary with its uniform inclusion into every sauce and garnish in the chef’s repertoire. A good long rest from the table and a begrudging nod to its irreplaceable position has brought it back to my daily mis en place. Here I have tried to do a very simple dish of fried cod with a chervil butter sauce, the classic tomato concasse presented very old school- dotting the sauce, and a uniform petal gracing the crisp top of the cod. The flaky, buttery fish with silky, just-so-tart peeled tomato is heavenly.