THE first tomato that made an impression on me was a scarlet Roma at a train station just outside Barcelona.
I was sceptical when I handed over my euros for a pan con tomate to the man in the kiosk. His eyes were dark and his mood darker. And I was hungry and tired. Tomato on bread. I was poor but felt poorer.
A quarter of a baguette was passed through the hatch in a piece of white paper. The bread looked like it had been attacked with anger or passion. The halved tomato's broken flesh and withered carcass clung to it. Pits and sauce became one with the ivory crumble and dripped through the bread's air holes. With the drizzle of olive oil, it formed pink pools of juice in the little hollows.
I said nothing and nodded politely. I didn't want to attract the attention of whoever had attacked the bread so violently. Now was not the time to ask where the butter and iceberg lettuce was. (I was young, I still thought the world was the same everywhere.)
Dear reader, I was so wrong. It wasn't a crimen pasional after all. Whatever had happened to this bread and the tomato was clear and clearly consensual. This tomato, said my tongue, is sweet and sensual and a completely different species than those I got to know in little styrofoam coffins in the supermarket. Wild and voluptuous, it was greedily absorbed by the baguette's impressively firm interior. The crust slightly sticky. A woman with rough hands later showed me how you mash the tomato with your hand and spread it over the bread before sprinkling it with olive oil. I still do it that way.
This fruit is the prima ballerina of the Mediterranean cuisine oeuvre. A hieroglyph that conveys sacred knowledge.
Until then I didn't understand tomatoes. Especially not raw tomatoes. Wherever I visit southern European countries — Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece — I see tomatoes in the sunlight. Unpacked in a single layer, like crystals charged by the sun for some pagan ceremony. Vermilion. Crimson. Rose.
On kitchen windowsills, cats in the sun. Around a corner in a stone courtyard, tomatoes in a lazy wooden box worship the sun. Elsewhere, in a greengrocer's side street booth, the heat stands still and I find unreal purple-red, strange, gnarled ones — so heavily ripe I wonder if they will start throbbing in my hand; hearts.
Someone explains to me: a tomato should never go into a fridge. It ruins the texture and robs it of the delicate aroma.
In a world that made sense, this fruit would surely be the symbol of lust and passion. Alas.
Weeks ago, I came across the most wonderful tomatoes at Montebello Design Centre in Newlands. Other wonderful things such as baobab pods and litchis with stems and leaves were also on display, but it was the tomatoes that enchanted me. Long pear-shaped ones and ugly, lumpy ones as big as a man's hand.
I took a paper bag home and unpacked them in a row in my sky blue courtyard. My father ate tomato on bread for three days in a row. The last time he had tomatoes like that was on the farm, he sighed. He scraped the seeds onto a napkin and took them with him to Calvinia.
This morning I received an SMS: of the 14 seeds, seven were planted and all of them came up.
In Tender Volume 1, Nigel Slater writes: “A tomato’s character is enhanced by a rough life, a certain negligence, a gasping thirst and the occasional drenching downpour. Pamper a tomato, overfeed it, overwater it, and you will get a Paris Hilton of a tomato. The rougher time it has, the more ugly its appearance, the more interesting it generally is.”
I think those tomatoes will do well in Calvinia.
Smoky, roasted salsa
This salsa is based on a method (juicing some ingredients and chopping others) that I stole from Heidi Swanson. It gives the salsa just the right substance to be transported onto a sturdy tortilla chip with avocado. Or as a side dish with barbecued meat.
Sometimes I crumble feta directly into the hot salsa and use pieces of toasted bread soaked in olive oil as a spoon.
Leftovers make a nice breakfast — I heat a few tablespoons of cannellini beans in a pan with the leftover salsa and break an egg into it too. The whole thing is then crushed with any leftover tortilla chips or bread. Heavenly.
Ripe Roma or any ripe, fleshy tomato will work. I have also used the smaller Rosa variety. The most important thing is that the tomatoes should be ripe and fragrant, otherwise you might as well not bother.
- 1 kg tomatoes
- 2 large shallots or 1 onion
- 1 red chilli
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 big clove of garlic
- 2 whole chipotle chillies in adobo sauce
- handful of coriander leaves
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Halve the tomatoes lengthwise and cut the onion or shallots into 2 cm wedges. Cut the chilli lengthwise and scrape out the seeds.
2. Pack the tomatoes, onions and one half of the chilli, garlic and olive oil in an oven tray in which they fit snugly and roast for 20-30 minutes. (Stir halfway through). It's okay if the tomatoes are completely soft and maybe slightly black in places.
3. Fish out about two of the cooked tomatoes, the garlic and chilli and use a hand juicer to finely pulse them with the chipotle peppers.
4. Coarsely chop the rest of the oven dish's contents with a chopping knife on a wooden board. Make sure you don't lose any of the pan juices! (Don't be lazy and just juice everything up, then come and complain.)
5. Roughly chop the coriander leaves and add them to the juiced ingredients with the chopped tomatoes.
6. Taste the salsa and season it with salt and black pepper. Decide if you want to chop the remaining chilli in as well. Add another drizzle of olive oil.
Tomato and cold beef
I got the idea to roll beef in the Japanese chilli mixture nanami tōgarashi* from Nigel Slater. This spice mix contains, among other things, orange peel, sesame seeds and that wonderful tongue-numbing chilli: szechuan. The meat is thinly sliced and served cold like carpaccio.
This is a handy recipe. It's easy and quick to prepare, then it is kept in the fridge, ready to be crumbled with bread and salads and become many assembly-style meals.
The tomato salad is unabashedly Mediterranean but the nanami tōgarashi works particularly well with it. Sometimes I add olives and capers.
* Nanami tōgarashi is available at Asian shops or online.
- 500 g beef fillet, cold
- olive oil
- 3 tsp nanami tōgarashi
1. Sprinkle a drizzle of olive oil on a cutting board or plate and roll the fillet in it. Sprinkle evenly with the nanami tōgarashi.
2. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and as soon as it's hot, sear the fillet on all sides until brown. The best technique is not to move the meat around or move it in the pan until it starts to form a brown layer that pulls away from the pan. You need to give the meat a chance to caramelise and seal. Then turn it over and repeat with each side until it is browned all around. It won't take long — remember, you're only looking for a brown layer on the outside, because carpaccio is basically raw.
3. Move the fillet to a plate and put it in the fridge for at least 2 hours or overnight.
4. When you are ready to eat, cut the meat into the thinnest possible slices with a very sharp knife.
5. You can make it even more special by placing the slices on a layer of plastic wrap, covering them with another layer of plastic wrap and rolling them even flatter with a rolling pin or a wine bottle.
6. Arrange the slices on a plate, sprinkle lightly with more nanami tōgarashi, salt and olive oil if you wish, and serve with the tomato salad.
- 4 thick slices of sourdough bread
- 1 red onion or 2 big shallots
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 6-8 anchovy fillets
- ½ cup olive oil
- 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
- handful rocket leaves
- 6 sprigs of parsley
- 20 basil leaves
- 4 large, fleshy, ripe tomatoes (room temperature)
1. Tear the bread into pieces or use a food processor to make coarse crumbs. Add 2-3 tablespoons of the olive oil to a pan and fry the crumbs until golden brown. Scoop out the crumbs and set aside.
2. Chop the onion very finely and heat it over a low heat with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Cut the garlic into paper-thin slices and add it to the pan as well. Let it all melt over a low heat. Chop the anchovies and add them to the pan with the red wine vinegar until melted. Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes.
3. Chop or juice the rocket, parsley and basil with the rest of the oil.
4. Slice the tomato and pour the lukewarm anchovy sauce over it. (Don't put it in the fridge!)
5. When you are ready to eat, pour the herb oil over the tomatoes and sprinkle the crumbs over at the end.
♦ VWB ♦
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