I sometimes think I grow tomatoes for their scent alone. Passing the straggly plants on the steps, it is almost impossible not to rub a leaf or two between finger and thumb. They offer a smell that is herbal, a little spicy at the stalk, with – to my nose at least – notes of thyme and marjoram. Unlike sweet peas or narcissi, other favourite “homegrown” smells, your nose doesn’t become numb to it if you sniff too often.
There are plenty of good fruits if you look around. The best are often those with a flash of orange or green rather than a perfect, monotone scarlet. Give them a sniff. Not an infallible trick to detecting a tomato worth eating, but more reliable than going on looks alone. Those fruit with a snap of sharpness, a hint of piquancy and bite are the ones I eat unadulterated, maybe with a little olive oil or a timeless dressing of black olives and basil. These are the ones I cut into small dice – a more delicate version of a chopped salad – and toss with crisp gnocchi or garlicky croutons still hot and salty from the frying pan. It is the larger fruits I tend to bake or grill.
They say a fridge can dull a tomato’s flavour, but what is more refreshing than the squirt of golden juice from a fridge-chilled cherry tomato? I keep a box of them there for snacking on. Smarties for grownups. Salt teases out their flavour, which is of course why anchovies and parmesan are a tomato’s best friends, but you don’t always need them.
The peppery leaves – rocket, basil and watercress – all work their magic. Especially true if you can find bunches of proper, thick-stemmed, glossy-leaved watercress rather than the tangle of hair-thin stems and tiny leaves in a bag we now see so often.
While yellow tomatoes, even those grown at home, can be a bit flabby and soft-fleshed, the ones with green shoulders or emerald and orange stripes can be catnip for those who cherish a sweet-sour note. I cook them under a hot grill, their cut edges flecked with pepper, thyme leaves and olive oil. If they are too sweet, shake the red-wine or sherry vinegar bottle over them – works a treat.
Tomato salad with olives and anchovies
For a decade or more I grew tomatoes on the sunny side of the back garden, then, when I rethought the layout, they moved home to capacious pots on the kitchen steps.
The best are those whose skins have been open to the heat of the sun, even though being left to the elements means they will be somewhat pock-marked and gnarled. Who cares what they look like, what matters is the intensity of their flavour.
When I find tomatoes good enough to eat raw, I slice them thickly and dress them with olive oil and black pepper. There will be basil too, and occasionally a few shakes of red-wine vinegar. But more than anything, there will be olives. Tomatoes adore the salty piquancy of olives as much as they do anchovies.
In the case of this salad, one of those that begs to be eaten outdoors, I include both.
Serves 6 as an accompaniment
black olives 10, stoned
anchovy fillets 8, salted or bottled
capers 2 tsp
parsley leaves a large handful
basil leaves 12
garlic 1 small clove
red-wine vinegar 1 tbsp
olive oil 3 tbsp
dijon mustard 1 tsp
Finely chop the black olives. Wipe the anchovy fillets with kitchen paper to remove excess oil or salt and finely chop. Mix together the olives, anchovy and capers.
Finely chop the parsley leaves and the basil, then stir into the olive mixture.
Peel and crush the garlic to a paste using a pestle and mortar and a pinch of sea salt flakes. Into the garlic paste, stir the vinegar and set aside for 10 minutes. This will soften the pungency of the garlic. Using a fork or small whisk, beat in the olive oil, the mustard and a little black pepper (you won’t need salt unless you aren’t using the anchovies).
Stir the dressing into the parsley and olive mixture. Cut the tomatoes into thin slices – I like mine about ½cm thick, but that is up to you – then place them, slightly overlapping on a large dish. Spoon the dressing over them, leave for a good 15 minutes somewhere cool, then serve.
Grilled tomatoes, cucumber and beetroot labneh
You can get into a terrible mess grilling tomatoes, so I find it best to cook them “under” rather than “on” a grill. If you get the tray snug to the overhead grill they brown appetisingly on their cut sides, and the flesh below softens rather than collapses as it does when you cook them more slowly. The smoky notes of the scorched surface of fruit and the sharp-sweet seedy jelly within makes for good eating.
I have been known to serve them with salsa verde (mashed parsley, basil, anchovies, lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil) but also with a mixture of labneh, the strained and salted yoghurt, and grated beetroot.
thick yoghurt 200g
beetroot 1 small, raw
tomatoes 550g, large
za’atar 2 tsp
mint leaves 12
Put the yoghurt in a sieve over a bowl, add ½ a teaspoon of salt and leave to drain for an hour. Peel the cucumber, lightly shaving off the dark green skin with a vegetable peeler, then slice it in half down its length. Using a teaspoon, scrape and discard the seedy core from each half. Coarsely grate the cucumber into a large sieve, sprinkle with a little salt and leave to drain over a bowl. Coarsely grate the beetroot.
Switch on the overhead grill. Cut the tomatoes in half and place them cut side up on a grill pan or baking sheet lined with tin foil. Lightly season with salt and the za’atar. Cook the tomatoes under the grill for 10-12 minutes or until their cut edges start to brown.
In a small bowl, place the strained yoghurt, the drained cucumber, squeezed of any excess liquid, and the grated beetroot. Finely chop the mint leaves then add to the yoghurt and stir gently (if you overdo it, your labneh will turn pink).
Put the grilled tomatoes on a serving plate and serve with the cucumber and beetroot labneh.
Roasted tomatoes, courgettes and chickpeas
Roasting a tomato with a little olive oil in a blisteringly hot oven will deliciously scorch the skin of the tomato and concentrate the juices in the roasting to a sticky caramel. This Marmite-like goo – basically the caramelised sugars from the tomato – makes a rich sweet-sour base for any dressing. To the tomatoes I add pieces of courgette and garlic, and flakes of dried chilli, turning the courgettes over regularly as they cook, so they are coated with roasting juices. This is essential, by the way, rather than a mere suggestion. Hot or cold, this is a juicy accompaniment to anything else you may be planning to put on the table, but it can also become a principal dish simply by adding cooked chickpeas or butter beans.
plum tomatoes 6 medium to large
olive oil 3 tbsp
red-wine vinegar 1 tbsp
courgettes 4 small to medium
garlic 2 cloves
chilli flakes a large pinch
chickpeas 1 x 400g tin, drained
For the dressing
preserved lemons 2
basil leaves 10
white-wine vinegar 1 tbsp
Cut the plum tomatoes in half lengthways and place them in a large roasting tin. Pour over the olive oil and the red wine vinegar, season with a little salt and black pepper and toss to coat.
Bake at 200C fan/gas mark 7 for 35 minutes. Slice the courgettes a little thicker than a pound coin. Peel and slice the garlic. Add the courgettes and garlic to the roasting tin, then stir in the drained chickpeas, chilli flakes and toss with the tomatoes and their roasting juices. Return to the oven for 25 minutes.
Make the dressing: halve the lemons, scoop out and discard the pulp inside, then finely chop the skins. Tear the basil into small pieces, then add to the lemons with the vinegar. Add to the roasting tin, toss together and serve.
Baked tomatoes with coconut and mustard seed
Of all the things I have stuffed a tomato with – cherry tomatoes and feta, haricot beans and pesto or roasted peppers and garlic – this soft, coconutty curry sauce is my favourite. There is a sweetish note from the caramelised onions, warmth from the chilli, ginger and mustard seeds, and a fruity sweet-sour hit provided by the tomatoes. Firm, large fruits are best, so you can easily hollow them out with a teaspoon. I use the seeds and flesh in the stuffing. You could make this into a substantial supper for a cool summer evening by serving it with a mound of steamed rice.
onions 2 medium
groundnut oil 2 tbsp
mustard seeds 1 tsp
garlic 3 cloves
ginger 3cm piece
red chilli 1, medium hot
cherry tomatoes 20
ground turmeric 1 tsp
nigella seeds 1 tsp
tomatoes 8 large
coconut cream 100ml
mint leaves 12
Peel the onions and roughly chop them. Using a deep saucepan over a moderate heat, warm the groundnut oil, add the mustard seeds and let them cook for a minute. Stir in the onions, coating them with the oil, and let them soften, giving them the occasional stir, while you peel and slice the garlic. Peel and finely grate the ginger to a paste, then finely chop the chilli.
Stir the garlic, ginger paste and chilli into the onions, and continue cooking for a few minutes till they are soft and honey coloured.
Halve the cherry tomatoes and stir into the onions, continue cooking for five minutes, with the occasional stir, then add the ground turmeric, the nigella seeds, a little black pepper and salt.
Set the oven at 180C fan/gas mark 6. Remove a “lid” from the top of each of the large tomatoes, then, using a teaspoon, scoop out the seeds and core to give a deep hollow. Place the tomatoes cut side up in a roasting tin or large baking dish.
Finely chop the filling you have removed, discarding tough cores as you go, and stir into the onions and continue cooking for 5 minutes, then stir in the coconut cream and bring to the boil.
Spoon the filling into the hollowed-out tomatoes, putting any left over filling around them in the dish. Put the “lids” back on and bake for 40 minutes until the tomatoes are soft and fragrant. Scatter with mint leaves – they lend a clean, cool bite to the earthy curry – and serve.
Lamb flatbreads with tomatoes, pickled onions and mint yoghurt
Sometimes, eating gets messy. In the case of rolled or wrapped flatbreads, then it must. Flatbread that isn’t dripping with meat juices and trickles of yoghurt, with salad leaves and scraps of tomato trying to escape, isn’t really worth eating at all. I have used workaday commercial pitta, the soft, floury wraps from local Turkish grocers and vac-packed pebble bread – all good when given a blast of heat from the griddle or the oven if it happens to be on anyway. What I wrap in them varies with what needs using up, but there is invariably a sweet-sharp pickle (often onions or red cabbage), seasoned yoghurt (think garlic, mint and maybe a snipped green chilli), and then the heart and soul of it, by which I mean slices of scorched lamb from the griddle, or bits of blackened aubergine, grilled courgette or scarlet tongues of roasted peppers.
lamb steak 1 x 300g
olive oil 1 tbsp
thyme 2 tsp
chilli sauce 1 tbsp
mint leaves 2 tbsp
yoghurt 4 tbsp
roasted garlic 4 cloves
rocket leaves a small handful
pickled onions see below
For the pickled onions
red onions 2
caster sugar 1 tbsp
red-wine vinegar 4 tbsp
black peppercorns 10
sea salt 1 tsp
To make the pickled onions, peel and thinly slice the red onions, put them in a stainless-steel saucepan and add the juice from the lemon, the caster sugar and vinegar. Add the peppercorns, water and salt. Bring the mixture to the boil, lower the heat to a simmer, then cover with a lid and continue cooking for 10 minutes. Keep a watchful eye on the liquid level, adjusting the heat as necessary. Transfer the hot pickle to a clean storage jar, seal and store in the fridge until ready to use.
Get a griddle pan hot. Brush the lamb with the oil, then season with thyme, salt and pepper. Cook on the griddle for about 4 minutes on each side, pressing the meat firmly on to the bars of the griddle with a heavy weight, then remove and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
Dice the tomatoes and the cucumber, put into a mixing bowl and stir in the chilli sauce. Chop the mint leaves and stir into the yoghurt. Crush the roasted garlic to a paste with the flat side of a knife and stir into the yoghurt. Warm the flatbreads either in the oven, a toaster or – better still – on the griddle while the lamb is resting.
Divide the rocket leaves between the flatbreads. Place a spoonful of the mint yoghurt on each then some of the tomato and cucumber relish. Cut the lamb into thick strips and divide between the two flatbreads, then add the remaining relish and mint yoghurt. Finish with a few of the pickled onions and a few mint leaves, and serve.
July 18, 2022 at 12:42PM Nigel Slater