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.
Mediterranean Umami: unlocking the fifth taste
Umami is the enigmatic fifth taste – a rich, meaty flavour and a catalyst that unlocks and defines the deliciousness in certain savoury foods.
About 3,000 years ago, Greek philosophers came up with the concept of our four elemental tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Their theory remained intact right up until the early twentieth century, when a scientist in Japan discovered a fifth, slightly more complicated, taste: umami. In Japan, people traditionally used dashi – an umami-rich stock made from kombu (seaweed) – to illicit the best flavour from food, so the concept of umami has been recognised in the East for a long time. Over the past decade or so, umami has now started to play an increasingly important role in the West.
Obsessive chefs now believe that if you can find the perfect balance of the very basic tastes (sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami), you’ll have some sort of culinary utopia!
Thankfully, for those who don’t want to douse all their food in soy or fish sauce, there are some naturally occurring umami- rich foods, such as sardines, mackerel, oysters, mushrooms, truffles, soy beans, potatoes and tomatoes.
Tomatoes take on a particularly intense umami flavour when they are dried. There are a number of reasons why the flavour of tomatoes changes during both the cooking and drying processes, largely to do with the introduction of fairly high levels of salt to help remove moisture.
During cooking, this causes the flavour molecules to become more concentrated, intensifying the resulting flavour. Without getting too technical, over the course of the tomato drying process, the glutamic acid in the tomatoes breaks down even further and changes into different aroma molecules.
A basic tomato sauce or ketchup will have lots of umami, but when you dry tomatoes, they have considerably more.
Oven "sun-dried" tomatoes
Almost an indispensible ingredient in my kitchen, sun-dried tomatoes add a really tasty kick to so many Mediterranean recipes.
Makes about 800g/1lb 12oz
· 2kg/4lb 7oz ripe plum tomatoes
· 1 tbsp sea salt (preferably flor de sal)
· 6 garlic cloves, crushed
· 4 tbsp chopped oregano
· 2 tbsp chopped rosemary
· Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
· Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Preheat the oven to the lowest heat setting (110°c/225°F/gas mark 1⁄4 or lower if possible). Slice the plum tomatoes in half horizontally and scoop out most of the seeds. Salt the insides and place them, cut-sides down, on a wire cooling rack for 30 minutes. rinse o the salt under running water and pat dry. Mix the garlic with the oregano, rosemary and some black pepper and sprinkle the mixture over the cut sides of the tomatoes. Place the tomatoes, cut-sides up, on a wire rack over a roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil. Place in the oven for 6–8 hours, until thoroughly dried out.
Pack the dried tomatoes into a large sterilised jar (see page xx) and cover with olive oil. Store in a cool, dark place for no longer than 6 months. Refrigerate on opening and keep for 1 month, topping up the olive oil if necessary.
Herb-roasted cor de bou tomatoes
These ‘meaty’ tomatoes are just perfect for roasting, but any large beefsteak tomato will suffice.
· 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
Preheat the oven to 180°c/350°F/gas mark 4. 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.
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.
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.
· 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
Preheat the oven to 200°c/400°F/gas mark 6.
Put the tomatoes, piquillo peppers, onion and garlic onto a lipped baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle generously with olive oil. 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.
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.
To serve, ladle into soup bowls, scatter with fresh basil leaves and drizzle with a few drops of olive oil. Serve immediately.