The essential ingredient: tomatoes


IMG_3613Tomatoes are at the centre of Spanish and other Mediterranean cuisines. For me, a kitchen without olive oil, garlic, onions and tomatoes is unthinkable! Perhaps it is because these are the ingredients necessary to make sofrito, a tomato paste which forms the base of a lot of Spanish dishes.

Warm in autumn and winter yet light and refreshing during the hot months, tomatoes offer something for all moods and seasons. Tomato soup, pasta with tomato sauce and chorizo or roast peppers with tomatoes are some of the recipes I fancy in November or December. In spring and summer however, tomatoes play a different part in my cooking. Consommés, salads and cold soups like gazpacho, to name but a few, help me enjoy the hot sunny days (or dream about them!), and make me feel closer to home.

To seed or not to seed; that is the question! Tomatoes are a fruit — the edible part of the plant — and have lots of seeds in the middle. (Read about how to know your fruit from your vegetables here.) I never take the seeds out; they contain a lot of the flavour (umami) so I don’t see the point in getting rid of them. Some recipes tell you to deseed the tomatoes but I would only do it if you are trying to get rid of the moisture and speed up the cooking process; for example if you want to dry them in the oven. Heston Blumenthal agrees with me! Read the article here or watch him make the perfect tomato sauce for pizza.

The skin of the tomatoes, on the contrary, has no flavour. To remove it, use a sharp knife to cut a cross on the bottom of the tomatoes. Dip them in boiling water for 10 to 30 seconds, depending on the size of the tomatoes, and transfer them to a bowl of cold iced water, in order to stop the cooking process; they peel easily after that. However, if you are skinning lots of tomatoes for a sauce, it is easier to freeze them whole. Once they defrost, the skins peel off just like that!

Not only are tomatoes great to eat but they are also good for us. So, here’s a list of recipes and ideas for any time of day:

For breakfast: pan con tomate forms part of breakfast in a lot of Spanish homes. To make it, simply take a tomato or two and grate them into a plate. Add some salt and pepper and drizzle some extra virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil. Toast some sourdough bread and just spread the tomato on top. I often do this for lunch or dinner as well, to use up yesterday’s bread.

For lunch: in winter, it has to be tomato soup (try Tom Kerridge’s delicious Proper tomato soup); in summer, Tom Kitchen’s summer tomato salad with tomato consome and tapenade is one of my favourite dishes; it is so full of flavour and there is no cooking involved! And, of course, I must mention gazpacho, the popular and refreshing Spanish cold tomato soup. I always follow Ferrán Adria’s recipe and, when I want to give it a different touch, I leave the mayonnaise out and add about 300 g of fresh strawberries to it. Serve it with a garnish of Spanish Ibérico ham cut into tiny pieces, fresh strawberries cut in small pieces or chopped hardboiled egg or croutons.

IMG_3609For cooking: sofrito, tomato sauce and ketchup. Sofrito is used at the start of so many Spanish dishes. Try it and see the difference it makes to your stews, fish soups, pulses or paellas! Ferrán Adria’s recipe from his book The family meal is worth it. I normally make double quantities and freeze it in small batches, ready to use as needed. To make tomato sauce or tomate frito, I use 2 onions, two cloves of garlic, one tin of tomatoes (or passata), a bit of tomato puree, a splash of white wine, salt, olive oil and sugar to balance the acidity. The process is simple: soften the onions and garlic putting them in a pan with olive oil (be generous) on medium heat. When they are golden, add the tomatoes and the wine and cook for a few minutes. Add the sugar and season with salt and pepper. Cook it on slow heat for as long as you can and pass it through a food mill adjusting the seasoning at the end. Remember that tasting as you go along is key to a good tomato sauce.

For afternoon tea or as a desert with cheese: tomato jams and chutneys (don’t miss the recipe at the weekend!).

For dinner: pasta with tomato sauce and chorizo, meatballs with tomato sauce, roast peppers with tomatoes (I love Simon Hopkinson’s Piedmontese peppers). To make the pasta with chorizo you need some tomato sauce, some thinly sliced onion, chorizo ibérico chopped in small pieces, cooked and drained penne pasta, olive oil, salt and pepper. Boil the pasta, drain and keep to one side. Thinly slice the onions and cut the chorizo in small pieces. Fry the onions gently until soft and golden. When ready, add the chorizo and cook for one minute. Add the pasta and some of the tomato sauce. Pour all this into an oven proof dish, season well with salt and pepper. Add some butter and grated cheese on top. All this can be done in advance and left in the fridge overnight. When ready to serve, put the dish into the oven at 180°C for about 15 minutes until it is hot and crispy on top.

IMG_3607For parties (and hangovers): try a Bloody Mary or make a cocktail with a difference adding tequila to a clear tomato consommé served in a salt rimmed glass. For this, you need a large bunch of fresh basil, 2 kg ripe tomatoes, a 2 cm piece of peeled ginger, 1 clove of garlic, a splash of white wine vinegar, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. To make, blend all the ingredients to a fine pulp. Remove from blender into a muslin or tea-towel lined sieve placed over a bowl. Add a good pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Carefully lift the corners of the cloth and tie them in a knot at the top. After 5 or 6 hours the resulting liquid will be crystal clear and will have the most fantastic smell. Chill the consommé for a couple of hours and serve as an intriguing mixer with tequila and salt around the glass.

I have not talked about growing tomatoes… My skills as a gardener need a lot of work but I have managed to grow cherry tomatoes in a long ceramic pot for two years and, although the crop is tiny, there is something special about eating your own tomatoes, even if it is only two at a time!

Photographs copyright Marta Pipiora:

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