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Tomatoes from the Garden

Tomato sorbet, tomato powder, pickled tomatoes

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This is my take on one of those plates of food that should only be served as part of many courses in a well-heeled restaurant. But with kilos of tomatoes ripening at the end of summer last year and limited desire to turn them all into passata, there was an opportunity to try some new techniques and play around a bit. One of the most surprising things was just how well the elements work as preservers. A sorbet whose refreshing tanginess could be paired sweet or savoury; pickled tomatoes pack a punch to lift salads up a notch; a tomato powder that uses leftover skins and seeds to deliver an unami hit to anything it’s sprinkled over.

The stars of the show are all out of season in Europe now but hopefully this will serve friends in warmer climes at this time of year. Besides, it’s nice to bring some summer back now the weather has turned. 

Garden Tomatoes-3Garden Tomatoes-7Two chefs inspired these. Firstly, Quique Dacosta’s restaurant in Denia which I was fortunate enough to visit last summer. His playful and minimal approach to Mediterranean cuisine is a showcase of creativity and innovation, and one of the highlights for me was a plate that explored many interpretations of the Spanish staple: the tomato. Secondly, Thomas Keller’s book ‘The French Laundry’ captures life inside and the inspiration behind an American institution. Although TFL is rumoured to be on the slide and its sister restaurant Per Se was ruthlessly taken down in the NYT this week, the book is one of the best kitchen companions for fine-tuning technique, inspiring pairings and impeccable presentation. His respect for ingredients and the importance of deriving pleasure from cooking clearly come through in every recipe and the refreshing first course tomato offerings are no exception.

Garden Tomatoes-28 Garden Tomatoes-19The elements of the dish work well on their own in other dishes or together, so here’s the recipe for the sorbet, powder, and my own for the pickled tomatoes. The basil oil and parmesan crisps can be found in TFL book or elsewhere online…

Tomato Sorbet (from The French Laundry)

1kg ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped into small pieces

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

 50g yellow onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

pinch of chopped tarragon

pinch of cayenne

210ml simple syrup

1/2 orange zest, julienned and brought to a boil in cold water, strained three times

Simmer the tomatoes for 45 minutes on a medium heat, stirring frequently until reduced by half.

Meanwhile gently cook the onion in the oil for around 7-8 minutes until tender

Blend the onions and tomatoes until smooth and pass through a tamis or fine sieve. Return 240ml of mixture to the blender, add the remaining ingredients and blend again before straining in a chinois. Cool in the fridge before freezing 350ml in a prepared ice-cream machine.

Tomato Powder (from The French Laundry)

1/2 cup finely chopped tomato pulp (from a peeled and seeded tomato)

Squeeze the tomato pulp in a towel to extract the excess moisture. Line a microwave tray with parchment paper and spread the tomatoes on in a thin layer. Microwave on the lowest possible power for 30 minutes, or until the pulp is completely dried out (also possible to dry in a low oven). It should retain its vibrant colour. Let cool to room temperature.

Grind the dried pulp in a coffee or spice grinder until very fine. If the mix is too wet, return to the microwave for 1-2 minutes more. Sift through a sieve to separate any remaining unbroken bits and store in a plastic container.

Pickled Tomatoes

The tomatoes can be peeled for a quicker brine.

15-25 cherry tomatoes

250ml red wine vinegar

5 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons salt

2 garlic cloves, peeled

sprig of rosemary or thyme

Sterilise the jars the pickle will be in. Peel the tomatoes. Combine the vinegar, sugar and 250ml of water in a pan an simmer for 5 minutes.

Place peeled tomatoes in the sterilised jars, add the garlic, herbs and any other seasonings you’d like. Pour over the pickling solution to the top of the jar and seal. Peeled tomatoes should be eaten within a week or they’ll go too soft.

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Pane di zucchine

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As the courgettes keep on growing and the weather begins to turn, it was time to think of more substantial uses for them and their flowers. I was reminded of a bread I once had in Rome that used elderflowers and decided that grated courgettes could take their place. They sit happily between the saltiness of some cured ham and the freshness of ricotta and basil. The result is somewhere between a bread and a savoury cake – fairly dense but happy sitting on a table amongst salads or as a side to soup. It also looks pretty great, I think.

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Pane di Zucchine

Makes one loaf in a 23cm cake tin or large loaf tin

250g plain flour

100g corn flour

5g dried yeast

3 tablespoons grated parmesan/pecorino

100g cured ham such as speck cut into small pieces (optional)

500g grated courgette

80ml good quality olive oil

3 tablespoons ricotta (optional)

230ml milk

handful chopped basil

generous pinch of salt

courgette flowers (optional)

Mix the grated courgette with a pinch of salt and leave for 10 minutes before wringing out moisture with a clean tea towel.

Combine well all of the ingredients in a large bowl except the salt and courgette flowers, if using. It should be of a cake mix consistency – add a little more milk if it isn’t. Add the salt and stir in before placing in a greased non-stick cake or loaf tin. Add the flowers on top. Leave to rise slightly in a warm place for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden on top and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool on a rack before removing from tin.

This is a soft bread so keep it in the fridge. Also great toasted.

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Stuffed Courgette Flowers / Fiori di Zucchini Ripieni

Zucchini Flowers-MW-Kitchen-8I defy anyone to find a better way of eating these flowers. A shell of light, crisp batter protects a delicately perfumed flower petal, leading to an explosion of freshness from the light cheese and herbs inside. So when these big blossoms started sprouting in huge numbers in my garden, it was time to fry.

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If for some reason you’re trying to watch your deep fried food consumption, then slicing them raw into salads, oven baking or even shallow frying will produce great tasting and probably healthier results. It also saves the hassle of trying to remove the pistil or stamen without tearing the petals so that your flowers do not leak water into the oil causing a volcanic bubbling of oil. I found the best way to remove these was to pick the flower in the morning when it was still open and cleaning then, before filling later.

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Some great combinations to go inside your flowers:

  • Seasoned ricotta and basil (+ finely diced salami if feeling indulgent) – my favourite.
  • Mozzarella and speck
  • Mozzarella and anchovies

The petals will have a natural twist when closed so they should be easy to reseal when you have spooned a teaspoon or so of your preferred filling into the flower.

Recipe for the batter from Jacob Kenedy’s cookbook ‘Bocca’ which has a whole chapter devoted to fritti if you should need further reason to invest.

Batter

100g plain flour

50g cornflour

20ml extra virgin olive oil

10g dried yeast

250ml tepid water

Combine the flours, olive oil and yeast in a bowl. Stir in a little water and combine to form a thick paste without lumps. Add the remaining water until you arrive at a nice single cream texture.

Leave to rise covered for one hour or up to 5 hours at room temperature.

Frying

Heat a saucepan with 4cm of your preferred frying oil to 190C.

Sort your workstation out around your hob. A plate lined with plenty of kitchen towel on one side, the batter on the other with the stuffed flowers.

Hold the flowers by the stem and twist in the batter to keep shape and seal any holes. Hold the flower above the batter for around 10 seconds allowing most of it to drip off – this is Kenedy’s trick for a lighter batter.

Then carefully place the flower into the heated oil, dipping the head in first to seal the head and then releasing it away from you – do not drop from a height!

Fry for 1-2 minutes, turning once when the underside is taking on a golden hue.

Remove carefully using tongs, allowing as much oil to drip off as possible before draining on the kitchen towel. Try and do in batches but do not overcrowd the pan, you have about 4 minutes until they are perfect temperature to eat, and 7 minutes until the batter becomes soggy!

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Smoky Red Pepper Hummus & Pitta Crisps

I stumbled across this article the other day and realised that I had never made Hummus in the proper way. Despite making many batches of the stuff at uni last year, I had never bothered with dry chickpeas, imagining that there really couldn’t be that much difference; after all it just cuts out a bit of work buying them tinned. So after having spent this year striving to use the freshest, most natural ingredients available I decided it was time to take on the classic that has been adopted as the dip of choice by most of the West. In fact the weekend saw a finger food foray in my flat as ridiculous heat and humidity made cooking and eating a proper meal unthinkable.

Recent popularity in the West doesn’t feature much in the Hummus story. After a bit of light research I learnt it is believed to date back to the 12th Century, favoured by the Sultan Saladin, whilst others cite it in the Old Testament. It is a source of modern political tension and made in unbelievable quantities as a means to settling origin debates. It is also considered a blasphemy to stray away from the most basic of Hummus’ preparations; rendering mine and most of the supermarket versions as frauds.

Although I am a sucker for sticking to the food rules and limiting my fusion there is something about this combination which is so right that I had to break them (plus I had a couple of peppers to use) . The result is a vividly coloured hummus, where the sweet/smoky flavour of the skinned capsicums didn’t overpower the nutty chickpeas and sat perfectly with the garlic, cumin and smoked paprika.

I will agree with most in the dry versus tinned debate in that flavour doesn’t differ that much, maybe a slightly nuttier taste with the dried ones, the real distinction is the texture. It was smooth but still had some of the grainy, wholesome texture that hummus should have – if that makes sense. And as for the extra time taken, I would deem it worthwhile, after all it only requires a little forethought to pre-soak overnight and with the addition of baking powder the chickpeas can be cooked in much less time and be left unattended, even quicker with a pressure cooker. The simple pitta bread crisps are an idea stolen from my mum and are not only extremely ‘moreish’ but are a great way of using up bread that is past it’s best.

 

Smoky Red Pepper Hummus

this makes a nice big dish of hummus with plenty left over for other uses. Lemon, garlic, tahini, cumin should be adjusted to personal taste. 

To skin the peppers (capsicums) 

Place 2 large red peppers  directly onto the flame of your hob or even better onto  hot coals until blackened all over. Cover in a bowl until cool then rinse under a cold tap to help remove the skins. When skinned remove the seeds and stalk and then blend until liquid.

For the Hummus

500g dried chickpeas

2 teaspoons bicarbonate  of soda

8 tbsp tahini

3 lemons, juiced

6 garlic cloves, crushed

2 teaspoon cumin powder

salt, to taste

red pepper purée (above)

olive oil

smoked paprika

Stir 1 teaspoon of the bicarbonate into two litres of water and use to cover the chickpeas in a large bowl. Leave for 24 hours.

Drain and rinse the chickpeas, covering with fresh water in a pan and adding the remaining bicarbonate of soda and a teaspoon of salt. Bring to the boil over a medium heat and reduce to a low simmer until they are very tender, almost falling apart. Mine took around 2 1/2 hours. Add more hot water to the pan from time to time so the chickpeas are always covered.

Allow to cool in the pan, then drain, RESERVING the cooking water. Mix the tahini with half the lemon juice and half the garlic, then to loosen this thick paste slowly add a little reserved cooking water until the paste is loose and workable. Then transfer to your food processor or similar appliance along with the chickpeas, cumin, and a teaspoon of decent salt.

Blend until a purée and then loosen again with the cooking water until you reach the desired consistency, I also added a good dash of olive  oil at this point. Continue to blend adding the red pepper purée. Taste and add any of the remaining garlic, lemon juice or more cumin, olive oil or salt before transferring to serving dish.

Garnish with olive oil, smoked paprika and cooked chickpeas if you like.

For the Pitta Bread Crisps

pitta breads

olive oil

sea salt

dried rosemary

Oven @ 180 C

Cut the pitta bread into strips lengthways then separate each strip into two (they should come apart easily due to the natural air bubble in the centre). Drizzle a baking tray with a little olive oil, lay the pitta bread slices on then drizzle with more olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and a pinch of rosemary.

Bake for 7 minutes or until golden brown. Remove and place on paper towel to absorb any excess oil before serving.

Summer is Coming – Home-dried Tomatoes

Welcome news to start this week for all those living in the UK with the prospect of some sun and balmy heights of 25C before the end of the week (well done to the Guardian for putting a downer on things for those living in Scotland though). Underused BBQ’s will be dragged out of sheds throughout the country, Pimm’s opened and pasty bodies exposed as summer finally arrives.

The weekend just gone here in Valencia was hot, nothing unusual there, clocking 34C on Saturday but for me it was the start of Summer with my first BBQ of the year. Prawns with alioli, squid, garlic and rosemary butterflied leg of lamb, chorizos and of course bananas on the coals. What it did miss however was some tomatoes, not your bland supermarket tomato, nor the popular sun-dried tomato (whose texture or taste is really not that great when bought in a jar?), but the semi-dry, over-priced, full-flavoured morsels of goodness that are sun-blushed tomatoes.  Ok so done in the oven isn’t the same as the sun, but let’s not put too much confidence in British weather to stay good and leave them outside, besides when these come out you won’t be going to that deli counter any more.

Get to a grocer or market this weekend and grab a few kilos of very ripe tomatoes, preferably English as imported ones will lack that sweet-savoury caramel flavour that comes from being picked ripe. Even better if you have a bumper garden crop.

I used this recipe from the brilliant Heston Blumenthal at home, a must-have book for any ambitious home cook. The flavours are pretty provencal but obviously this type of recipe calls for individual taste so play around with herbs  and quantities to personal taste. The recipe forms part of a tomato tart which is  probably the best I have ever eaten, think tapenade, caramelised onions, pesto… salivating?

Removing the pulp and seeds first means a shorter time in the oven, and in my opinion removing the skin first leaves such a lovely, smooth texture at the end which is very worth the effort (for less hassle and less pleasure just leave them be, season and dry for 4-5 hours instead).

Oven-dried tomatoes 

medium to large very ripe tomatoes

cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced

bay leaves, finely sliced

thyme sprigs

salt

caster sugar

olive oil

  • Peel tomatoes.
  • Cut in half and scoop out pulp and seeds.
  • Drain on kitchen paper for around 2 hours.
  • Oven at 100C.
  • Line baking tray(s) with parchment , place tomatoes cut-side up and add to each some garlic, bay and thyme. Season with salt and sugar.
  • Drizzle with olive oil and place in oven for 3 hours.

After 3 hours the result should be a dry but soft tomato, for me the texture was almost that of a dried apricot but less chewy. Eat that day drizzled with some good oil or store in a sterilized jar covered with oil – find endless uses for these in pastas, salads, tarts etc.. enjoy!