Seeing trays of deep-red heirloom tomatoes showcased at local greengrocers takes me back to summertime in the 1960s, when my father, András, grew a meaty and flavoursome Hungarian Oxheart variety from seed.
Those tomatoes flourished in amongst dad's roses, which climbed fan-shaped white trellises on the westerly wall of our house. The garden bed was shaded from the scorching afternoon sun by the broad, cooling leaves on the grapevines which had wrapped themselves around an overhead trellis.
The fruit was so large and weighty that, when plucked, each tomato had to be held in two hands. Sometimes my father and I enjoyed them right there in the garden, biting into the tomato and eating it as one would do with a ripe, succulent peach. Other times we took them inside to my mother, who sliced them onto thick wedges of crusty Vienna bread that she had toasted and rubbed with garlic.
Certainly, those home grown tomatoes tasted magnificent, and not as though they had come out of some sort of plastics factory - the description that food historian, Eric Rolls, once gave to modern-day, store-bought tomatoes.
Having been fortunate enough to have enjoyed such sumptuous home-grown tomatoes in my childhood, I have come to the conclusion that they are best eaten fresh from the hand on a sunny day by the side of a kitchen garden, if not in the middle of a field in Turkey (a la Rick Stein on this week's fab episode of From Venice to Istanbul).
Otherwise, I reckon you can't beat a classic tomato sandwich. That is, one made with fresh bread, which has been spread with good quality butter and layered with slices of tomato. IMHO, soft, white supermarket "bread" is the important component in an old fashioned tomato sandwich. It is made simply with few ingredients, much like the quintessential 'Fairy bread'. For the unitiated, Fairy bread is children's party food: white bread, buttered and sprinkled with multicoloured Nonpareils or hundreds and thousands.
Tomatoes + bread + olive oil = bruschetta, and panzanella. Both extraordinarily delicious as far as I'm concerned. For bruschetta, you will need home grown basil and garlic, as well as fine quality extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).
Award-winning author, Julie Biuso, sums up bruschetta eloquently in the introduction to her book, Take a Vine-Ripened Tomato (New Holland Publishers, 1999). "Many of my late summer lunches consist of nothing more than than, a tomato, a piece of bread and oil, eaten without ceremony at the kitchen bench as I look out on the tranquility of my garden." Delicious, no?
Panzanella is a Tuscan salad made with stale ciabatta and plenty of ripe tomatoes. In her book Italian Country Cooking - the secrets of cucina povera, and leading into a recipe for panzanella alla toscana (a dish of which she was served in an age-old olive grove near Greve in Chianti), author, Loukie Werle, wrote: "There must be as many versions of this refreshing salad as there are households in Itay". There is no cucumber or olives in her recipe, just slices of several days old pane di casa, along with basil leaves, a thinly-sliced red onion, a kilo of coarsely chopped ripe tomatoes, 60mls of red wine vinegar and a tablespoon of EVOO. The ingredients are tossed together, then refrigerated for at least an hour before serving. It is important to note that panzanella should be eaten on the day it's made.
Tomatoes are versatile, adding a richness and depth of flavour to dishes such as the Magyar chicken paprika and the confiture of capsicums and tomatoes known as lecsó. They are an essential ingredient in the French fisherman's soup, bouillabaisse and, without tomatoes, a tarte à la tomate would simply be a tart, and sugo might simply be sauce.
"Life is too short to stuff tomatoes," a social pages photographer scoffed at an event I attended years ago. From memory, the woman was referring to cherry tomatoes, and she was probably right, but I have never forgotten that quip because I happen to like stuffed tomatoes.
A simple, old-fashioned recipe for Pomidori Ripieni (tomatoes stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, tuna fish, capers, parsley and mayonnaise) is included in the pages of a beaut little cookbook that I found years ago at a Lifeline Book Fair. The book is titled The Flavour of Italy by the Chamberlains (Hastings House, 1965).
In that recipe, you cut the lid from the stem end of four large tomatoes, then scoop out the liquid, flesh and seeds. Next, combine two chopped hard-boiled eggs with a 100g can of shredded tuna, one teaspoon of salted capers that you have rinsed and dried, together with a teaspoon of finely chopped fresh parsley, a sprinkle of pepper, and two or three tablespoons of mayonnaise. Spoon the mixture into each tomato shell, top with a sprig of parsley (for a retro look) and serve chilled.
Another of my favourite summertime meals is tomatoes stuffed with zucchini and rice. This recipe is adapted from The Australian Women's Weekly Best Ever Slimmers' Recipes. I'm not sure what year the book was published, but it cost me a whole $6.98 AUD, so it must have been a long time ago! It has been one of my go-to books since I bought it.
TOMATOES WITH RICE & ZUCCHINI
4 large, ripe tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
a fresh basil leaf, torn
1 small zucchini, grated
1/2 cup cooked rice
60g grated cheddar cheese
First you need to cook the rice. Next, cut the tops from the tomatoes at the stem end and scoop out the fresh and seeds. Now, chop the flesh roughly an, in a small saucepan, combine the tomato meat with the tomato paste, garlic and basil. Bring the mixture to the boil and cook until almost all of the liquid has cooked away. Stir in the zucchini along with the rice and about half the cheese. Remove from the stove top and allow to cool slightly.
Switch on the oven to 180 deg C. Fill the tomatoes with the mixture and finish with the remaining cheese. Arrange them in a baking dish and bake for 10 minutes or until the cheese on top has melted and is golden brown. Serve immediately. Serves 4. Cooking and preparation time is less than an hour.
Happy new year, dear readers. Tell me, do you enjoy tomatoes? Do you grow them? What's your favourite way of serving them?
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