The sight and smell of fresh grown tomatoes transports us back in time
John Denver once sang the lyrics 'Only two things that money can't buy, That's true love and homegrown tomatoes.'
I get a bit envious of people on Facebook saying they’ve so many tomatoes they don’t know what they’re going to do with them, accompanied by pictures of hundreds of red orbs amid flourishing green fronds.
My grandparents grew tomatoes in a greenhouse at the side of their home. Whenever I walk into a green house or polytunnel now full of tomato plants, I’m immediately transported back to being a child with that lovely warmth and smell of vibrant fruit. Those tomatoes would have been part of a salad with homegrown lettuce and scallions, hard boiled egg, ham and salad cream. The best way to eat a fresh tomato though is straight off the vine, split open and sprinkled with salt.
In countries where tomatoes are an essential part of their diet, like Italy and Spain, the simpler the better when eating them.
The great chef Andre Simon said: “A cooked tomato is like a cooked oyster – ruined.”
When you get a perfectly ripe, juicy tomato there is no need to cook it. In Spain, tomato toast is a staple. Grilled bread is rubbed with garlic and then topped with chopped or coarsely grated tomato. It’s a refreshingly stunning and yet simple way of getting the most out of the harvest.
The classic Spanish tomato soup, Gazpacho makes for a light snack. Blend homegrown tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, red wine vinegar, oil and salt and pepper to a smooth puree and serve in bowls with ice cubes and basil.
The classic Italian salad, Caprese comprises of sliced tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, a few basil leaves and a slick of good olive oil. Nothing could be nicer on a warm summer’s day. Tomatoes are synonymous with Italian cooking – where would they be without tomato sauce for pizza or pasta?
If you’re lucky enough to grow your own or have a source of tomatoes, it’s a good idea to preserve them for the winter. You could make up a tomato sauce – cook onion and garlic in oil until soft, add tomatoes, a splash of vinegar and season well. Cook down and then blend. Pour into plastic containers and freeze.
If you have big tomatoes, blanch in boiling water for 10 seconds and then into iced water. Peel and pack into sterilized kilner jars with lemon juice and top with boiling water. Screw the lid on tightly and place the jars into a saucepan of hot water. Simmer for 45 minutes. Cool the jars and store in a cool dark place.
The extraordinarily hot weather this year has resulted in extra sweet and fragrant tomatoes. I was in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago in a lovely restaurant where they grow lots of herbs and vegetables at the front of the building. The food was delicious except for one blip – a misplaced imported generic tomato served with some bread. It was beyond me why you would put something like this on the plate just for the sake of it.
Some supermarket tomatoes can be tasteless and horribly acidic. This week I saw an article in a paper that had an image of sliced tomatoes for sale – placed on a polystyrene tray and encased in plastic. What a waste of packaging and what an abhorrent thing to do to a tomato. If we’ve really become too lazy to slice a tomato then we’ve got a big problem.
The mackerel season is in full swing at the moment and serendipitously they go beautifully with tomatoes.
My first recipe is for grilled mackerel with sweet and sour tomatoes. If you have a glut of tomatoes make a lot of this as they also go well with beef, chicken and soft cheeses. Andre Simon mightn’t have approved, but they are deliciously zingy.
My other recipe is for one of the simplest and best known pasta dishes in Italy, pasta all’arrabbiata. The name means “angry” due to the heat from the chillis, but feel free to adjust to your own palate.
The sauce is all about the tomatoes so source some local ones or splash out on some imported Italian ones.