It’s not enough to have a recipe from a book by Nigella, Jamie or Gordon. For best results it is absolutely imperative that you also buy the most suitable ingredients. That means seasonal vegetables and fruit, grown locally and, when possible, harvested on the vine or stalk. Most of us, however, live come across very few veggies or fruits that reach markets with those bits still attached.
I recently saw and bought for the first time some Brussels sprouts on the stalk. They cost a very reasonable 70 pence, were as firm as pebbles, and there were enough for five people. Cooked slightly al dente, they kept their deep verdant colour, had a superb texture and were truly scrummy. Even inveterate city types like myself can quite easily find tomatoes on the vine. They include the cherry variety, the plum kind and the round deree variety that’s ideal for salads.
Five things happen when tomatoes are sold on the vine: they look better, are tastier, are firmer, have a longer shelf life and are slightly dearer. But if Nigella, Jamie and Gordon prefer them that way, so should we. Some Palma restaurant cooks make good use of cherry tomatoes on the vine, tossing them into a hot frying pan with a little olive oil and shaking them around until the tomatoes blister and become slightly soft. They then serve atop or beside the main ingredient.
For Michele Caporale of La Bottega in Santa Catalina’s Calle Fábrica, the cherry tomato is his fetiche and he uses it in several pastas as well as pan-fried and oven-baked fish and meat dishes. Michele has suppliers that deliver the bulk of what he needs for the restaurant, but he goes to the supermarket of El Corte Inglés in Avda Jaime III every day to buy cherry tomatoes as well as fresh soles and sea bass for customers who have made special dish requests at the last minute.
A little branch of cherry tomatoes is decorative and the sweet-acidic flavours always enhance a dish. And in this particular case the cost involved is most reasonable: these tiny tomatoes are great value for money.
You should do as Michele does: shake some loose cherry tomatoes in a very hot pan with a little olive oil and when the skins begin to shrivel, press them gently with a large fork and then toss them into the pasta and mix well.
Mallorca’s splendid ramellet tomatoes are the finest I know of for plain tomato sauces or sofritos, that Mallorcan mixture of onions, garlic and tomatoes that is slowly cooked and used as the base for a wide variety of dishes, especially stews, potajes and paellas. And the ramellet’s pulpy and juicy interior makes it ideal and essential for an authentic pa amb oli —the slices of Mallorcan country bread rubbed (refregado) with half a ramellet and then drizzled with virgen extra olive oil.
This is the basic pa amb oli refregado that can be eaten as a traditional snack with some black or green olives and a glass of red Mallorcan wine. Mallorcans also top a pa amb oli with slices of cheese, ham and other charcuterie and use it for a light luncheon.
Some Mallorcan families turn the pa amb oli into a light evening meal by serving the slices of bread with a different kinds of cheese and charcuterie, a few salted sardines, as many as five kinds of olives and some local pickles. These include small onions, gherkins, carrots, florets of cauliflower as well as samphire, which is extremely popular in Mallorca and is called fonoll marí.
This Catalán name literally means ‘marine fennel’ and the one that grows on Mallorcan rocks has swollen leaf stalks eaten in its pickled state. It grows on some stretches of Mallorca’s coast (Palma Nova, for instance) and is easily harvested from the shore. Mallorcans search for the young plants, give then a quick boil and then store them in a saline solution. The young plants are better because the stalks are thinner and more tender. This plant, also called Florence fennel, in some parts of England and Wales is boiled in water until tender, dressed with melted butter and eaten as a vegetable. The boiled plant can also be turned into a sauce that is extremely green with a nice marine taste. It is ideal with steamed, grilled or fried white fish and looks most attractive on the plate.
I’ve never seen fresh samphire at any Mallorcan market, so if you want to use it as a veggie or a sauce you’ll have to get down to Palmanova, or some other rocky coast, and pick your own. It’s an easy little job and perfectly legal. Another special tomato is the raf variety, native to Spain and now grown all over the world. It is unusual in that it has an irregular shape with deep furrows. It is a meaty variety with few seeds and little water. There are plenty of raf tomatoes on sale at supermarkets that aren’t the real thing. These are easy to spot because their ridges are malformed and they are low in price. The genuine ones are on the expensive side. Buy them at market stalls you can trust or at El Corte Inglés where you will always be sold the real McCoy. Some of the cheaper ones, though, are good for making a plain tomato sauce, especially when you need lots of it to freeze for future use.
I once had the best kind of raf tomatoes at Michele Caporale’s La Bottega in Calle Fábrica that were grown on the island by a friend’s father. Michele did them as a salad, roughly cut and served with a superb burrata in the centre. They were among the best tomatoes I’ve ever had. A Spanish variety known as tomates de buey, sold as beefsteak tomatoes in England, are the largest you will see at the island’s market stalls and supermarkets.
The best ones are on the dear side so I use them exclusively as a simple starter, sliced through their width to expose their striking interiors. The slices are served in a single layer, and each diner dresses them to taste with nothing but rock salt, virgen extra olive oil and finely chopped fresh parsley or basil when it’s in season. I am very generous with the oil and sop up any excess with slices of freshly baked French-style barra.
I also use the deree variety on the vine for salads, cutting them roughly into chunks and serving them atop crisp baby gem leaves, the surface being drizzled with abundant virgen extra olive oil and rock salt to taste. Very ripe plum tomates make a suitable alternative when you don’t have any ramellets for pa amb oli, and they also make splendid tomato sauce for pasta. In a frying pan of a suitable size, gently sauté four plump tinned anchovies in virgen extra olive oil, stirring frequently until they are reduced to a soft paste.
Add a dozen peeled and sliced garlic cloves and gently sauté them for five minutes, stirring frequently. Add two kilos of chopped unpeeled plum tomatoes and cook them at a simmer over a low heat for an hour, stirring from time to time. Put them through a vegetable mill or sieve, add plenty of virgen extra olive oil to the saucepan, and simmer until the mixture is reduced to a paste-like oily mass. You’ll then have a pasta sauce that will bring a huge nostalgic smile to any Italian’s face, because they’ll be recalling the simple pasta dishes their grandmother used to make for them when they were children.
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