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Juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes are the ultimate Mediterranean summer ingredients. Full of flavour, with a slightly aromatic scent, they are one of those magical ingredients that seem to make others sing.

The Spanish love tomatoes so much, they celebrate them with the traditional Tomatina Fiesta. Every year on the last Wednesday in August, the town of Buñol in Valencia prepares to get seriously messy when it stages what has become the world’s biggest food fight, during which about 150 tons of tomatoes are thrown at party-goers with abandon.

With such a tomato culture, it’s no surprise that Spanish growers produce some of the tastiest varieties in the world. For something different, try to find beefsteak tomatoes, known here as cor de bou (beef hearts). Some regard them as the ‘pata negra’ of tomatoes and it’s hard to disagree. Unlike other varieties, the ripening process occurs from the inside out. So the best time to buy them is when the tomatoes begin to display orange streaks on the green skin. As they mature, the reddish streaks on the green skin become a deeper red. The flavour is equally delicious, but you will sacrifice some of the crisp texture.

Although normally sold at a premium price, tomatoes still attached to the vine are well worth the extra expense. It is the stem that gives the distinctive aroma, rather than the fruits themselves, but they can be picked when they are very ripe and generally have a better flavour.

All that glitters is not gold, and good looks are often deceptive when buying tomatoes. If you can, pick them up and smell them – they should have an intoxicatingly pleasant aroma. Chances are, if they smell of nothing they will probably taste of nothing. Never store tomatoes in the refrigerator as this impairs the natural ripening and flavour; instead, store them at room temperature. Over-ripe tomatoes will actually deteriorate even more quickly if chilled.

One of my favourite summer recipes is a classic ratatouille. It’s basically an all-star team of the season’s greatest produce all in one glorious pot! Sun drenched, Mediterranean vegetables such as aubergines, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes cooked with olive oil and garlic…I mean, what’s not to like?

Ratatouille is a French Provençal dish, originating in Nice, and sometimes referred to as ratatouille niçoise. A true ratatouille is a labour of love. It does require very ripe tomatoes, a liberal hand with the olive oil, and a little patience, because only long, slow cooking will give you the creamy soft texture of all those wonderful vegetables, and the intense, almost jammy sauce that literally sings of the sun.

Ratatouille is perfect served just as a side dish for grilled lamb or baked fish, but a generous serving, either hot or cold, makes a superb lunch with nothing but a crisp baguette and perhaps a small green salad for company. For some added flavour, you could add capers, black olives or a little anchovy. You could also sprinkle the top of each serving with crumbled goat cheese or grated Parmesan.

I also love to mix ratatouille with pasta and bake it in the oven for spectacular vegetarian dinner. But, however you serve it, I can’t think of a better way to enjoy all those delicious sun-drenched vegetables at the very peak of their season.

Ratatouille pasta bake with mozzarella & basil

Ingredients: serves 4-6
2 large aubergines, diced
4 small courgettes, diced
2 red or yellow peppers, diced
5 large ripe plum tomatoes, chopped
200g cherry tomatoes, halved
1tsp tomato puree
5 tbsp olive oil
A small bunch basil
A pinch of oregano
Q stalk of fresh thyme
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
180g penne pasta, cooked
150g grated mozzarella cheese

1. Heat the olive oil a large saucepan. Add the chopped onions and crushed garlic and
soften slightly for 1 minute. Add the chopped peppers, aubergines, courgettes and
tomato puree and mix well. Add the chopped plum tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, oregano
and thyme.

2. Season with salt and pepper and cook slowly over gentle flame for 30-40
minutes until soft and tender. Stir gently with a handful of torn basil leaves and add
the cooked penne pasta.

3. Pour into a baking dish, add the cherry tomatoes and sprinkle
with grated mozzarella. Bake at 180C/gas mark 4 for about 15 minutes. Remove from
the oven and scatter with fresh basil leaves. Serve immediately.

HERB-ROASTED COR DE BOU TOMATOES

These ‘meaty’ tomatoes are just perfect for roasting, but any large beefsteak tomato
will suffice.

Serves 4
4 beefsteak tomatoes (preferably cor de bou)
25 basil leaves
12 sprigs thyme
Olive oil, for drizzling
1 bunch chives, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 180°c/350°F/gas mark 4.

2. Remove the stalk from the tomatoes to create a small cavity and cut 2 slashes on each
side. Push most of the basil leaves (reserve a few for garnish) and all of the thyme
sprigs into the cavities and the slashes.

3. Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle generously
with salt and pepper. Bake for 25–30 minutes, until the tomatoes are cooked and
lightly caramelised.

4. To serve, carefully place the tomatoes in a serving bowl and drizzle with the cooking
juices from the pan and some fresh olive oil. Garnish with chopped chives and fresh
basil leaves.

CHILLED TOMATO and PIQUILLO PEPPER SOUP with FRESH BASIL

Roasting the tomatoes for this soup really intensifies the flavour and it could also be
served hot, if you prefer. The piquillo peppers can be found in all Spanish
supermarkets but can also be substituted with two deseeded and chopped red bell
peppers.

Serves 4
800g/1lb 12oz ripe tomatoes, chopped
10 piquillo peppers
1 red onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 4 tbsp good olive oil, plus extra for serving
200ml/7 oz/scant 1 cup mineral water
Few drops Tabasco sauce (optional)
1 handful basil leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black
Pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 200°c/400°F/gas mark 6.

2. Put the tomatoes, piquillo peppers, onion and garlic onto a lipped baking sheet,
sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle generously with olive oil.

3. Mix with your hands to ensure everything is well combined and bake for about 30 minutes, turning
occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and just slightly charred.

4. Blend the roasted vegetables along with the mineral water in a food processor until
smooth, then pass through a ne sieve (strainer). Check the seasoning and add the
tabasco if you need a little kick. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or
overnight.

5. To serve, ladle into soup bowls, scatter with fresh basil leaves and drizzle with a few
drops of olive oil. Serve immediately.