Tomato bake

Tomato bake.

17-10-2020Peter Clover

Over the years, one of the things I’ve noticed that visiting friends seem to rave about when they talk about Majorca, apart from the glorious weather, the secret coves and calas, the graceful sweeps of white sandy beaches, the picturesque mountain villages, the dramatic rocky landscapes, the cristaline waters, the lush pine woodlands, the verdant mountain ranges, the terraced orange and lemon groves or the acres of native olive and almond trees is, wait for it . . . the wonderful tomatoes! Yes, that’s right. Tomatoes! And I couldn’t agree more.

Although our visitors have been non-existent this year, our friends back home still wax lyrical, and say that the tomatoes here in Majorca are simply out of this world. Well they certainly are; even the mass produced tomatoes straight out of our supermarkets are great, as long as they’re not those ‘dead cheap’ variety sold in dodgy dayglo nets that don’t even keep your hair in place (I’ve tried). They are dead cheap for a reason, and from experience - usually virtually tasteless. However, there are some major players in commercial food retail that stock wonderful tomatoes, displayed in a market-style environment within the supermarket chains, so keep a lookout for those.

They say the best tomatoes to go for are always those sold on the vine, and are either found in the local produce section of supermarts, or bought directly from a local market stall. But for the real pick of the crop you usually have to venture outside of the aisles, and in all honesty you can’t really beat the home grown produce sold in the marketplace.

Throughout the summer months, even the smallest of villages across the island have a shop or two selling organic ‘home-growns’ sourced from local allotments. But wherever you get your tomatoes from, they will always benefit from being left to continue ripening for a few days before popping them into the fridge, making doubly certain they are deliciously ripe and ready to swoon over. But don’t wait for them to go all soft and squidgy! There is quite a difference between a semi ripe tomato and one that has reached natural perfection, and is bursting with sweet flesh and unbeatable flavour. That’s what all our friends remember – Majorca’s perfectly sun ripened tomatoes. Delish!

Since the pandemic crisis, we have been doing our regular weekly shop on-line, which is quite a different experience from idly wandering the aisles, plucking whatever takes your whimsical fancy off the shelves before tossing it casually into a trolley. Or drifting through a local fruit and veg market swinging a wicker basket without a care in the world. Shopping on-line invariably means you have to plan your strategy at least a week to ten days ahead, in time to secure a delivery date. And trying to decide what you want to cook, a week ahead of time and going forward, can often be frustrating and result in over-ordering, or having excess of a specific product left over at the end of each week; especially as all fruits and vegetables are sold within a ‘minimum weight’ system (which might be a lot more than you actually want) and not individually – except thankfully for pumpkins! Let’s face it, whoever buys two?

With me, my regular downfall has been tomatoes. I’m a bit of a sucker for the ruby rounds, and can’t resist trying all the different varieties, as well as taking advantage of ‘special offers’, yet NOT the tasteless ‘dead cheap’ deals I mentioned earlier. But what do you do with all those tomatoes you might, or might not have left over at the end of each week? The thrifty Majorcan housewife has a traditional solution which deals with that little problem, especially if they have also been growing some stock themselves, and have a glut of allotment produce to utilise. Vast quantities of chopped tomatoes are cooked with onions and garlic to produce ‘sofrit’, the mother of all sauces, which is then bottled in sterilized jars and lasts all through the winter, adding a touch of summer to numerous stews and sauces when tomatoes are mostly hothouse imports and sadly not at their best.

Of course, one of the simplest meals in existence to prepare and present is tomato and mozzarella, known as ‘insalata Caprese’ (the salad from Capri), and there are versions all over Europe as well as here in Majorca. When the tomato is fully and deliciously ripe, then this salad is unbeatable; but I’ve had my fair share of those over the past few months, along with the ubiquitous ‘pa amb oli’, which still hails as Majorca’s mascot snack.
The specific tomato used for an authentic ‘pa amb oli’ lays claim to being a unique variety of ‘tommy’ only found here on our sunny Balearic island - a special tomato with its own particular look, and its own intensely individual flavour - the ‘tomate de ramallet’.

This gastronomic wonder is a bit like Donald Trump. It’s rather thick skinned with an orange to rosy bloom, traditionally strung onto long braids called ‘ramallets’, and preserved for winter use by hanging up to dry. The most distinguished and amazing feature of this tomato is that it can be conserved for month upon month without any deterioration whatsoever, almost defying gastronomic science.

It is reported that the ramallet tomato first appeared around 1929 and originally grown in the villages of the Tramuntana Mountains, mainly Estellencs and Banyalbufar. These days they are grown all over Majorca yet still remain famously indigenous to the island. The ‘tomate de ramellet’ is now a protected crop and listed as a conservation variety in the register of commercial varieties. So now you know. Boom!

Many years ago I made tomato soup using an excess of tomatoes at hand. It was quite a lengthy process and although the result was extremely good, it tasted exactly like a major brand of tinned tomato soup. In fact everyone thought it was tinned tomato soup. Not quite the reaction you want after slaving over a simmering pot for hours. These days my tomato soup takes no time at all, and believe me, tastes even better than any tinned variety. I really like to utilise the oven when I’m cooking, and it takes no time at all to quickly prep up a tray of tomatoes for roasting at the bottom of the oven, which can be used later, at your convenience, to make a delicious roasted tomato soup. And it’s one of the best ways I know of using up excess tomatoes. This recipe is for a serving of four (or like me, two people eating twice). Quantities don’t have to be exactly precise so don’t sweat if you are a tomato short!

Ingredients

Roughly anything between 1 to 1.5 kg tomatoes, which translates as around 5 big tomatoes (halved) and a good handful of cherry tomatoes (whole). I like to use a variety of tomatoes for a well rounded flavour. 4 whole cloves of garlic. I medium onion (quartered). 1 small red pepper quartered and seeded. 1 small potato peeled and quartered. Up to 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (cube is fine). 2 sprigs of rosemary (optional). Sprinkling of dried basil. Olive oil. Salt. Pepper. Good pinch of sugar.

Method

Place tomatoes, onions, garlic, red pepper and potato on a shallow baking tray. Drizzle generously with olive oil, jumble and mix well. Season with salt, pepper, dried basil and sugar. Place rosemary on top and roast in bottom of oven (while cooking something else, or not) for around 35 mins. I leave the tray in oven after I’ve turned it off to cool, and go back to it later. The longer the better. Charring is fine but DON’T burn.

Heat stock in saucepan- start with 3 cups as you can always thin the soup later with the 4th cup. Take garlic and squeeze soft pulpy interior into stock. Remove rosemary then add entire contents of baking tray, juices and all, into stock and simmer for ten minutes. Then liquidize with a hand blender. I also like to add a few good glugs of tomato ketchup (optional). Adjust any seasoning to your taste and enjoy. Couldn’t be simpler.

This is also great topped with a broccoli pesto. Simmer 100gms broccoli florets with 2 cloves garlic for five minutes. Drain, cool and blend/whizz in food processor with 1tbsp chopped/whizzed walnuts, 1 tbsp finely grated parmesan cheese, generous handful of fresh basil leaves or rocket or mixture of both, and blend until smooth with between ¼ - ½ cup of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. This pesto sauce will keep in the fridge for a week to top other soups, enhance a ‘pa amb oli’, or serve on its own stirred through cooked spaghetti or pasta and sprinkled with additional parmesan cheese. Yum! Also freezes well. Toms up and enjoy!

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