eating in; Red red vine

Tomatoes are in season right now, making it the perfect time to experiment with new recipes. Michael Bateman recommends two ways of preparing them: a luscious north Italian summer dish with peppers and a tart where the juices don't soak into the pastry
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The Independent Culture
WE'RE SO used to eating greenhouse tomatoes every day of the year that we hardly notice when they're in season. But this is their moment, both here and in their spiritual home, Italy. And since tomatoes are never going to be cheaper or taste better, this is the best time to enjoy them.

There's nothing to beat a salad of sweet, ripe tomatoes; skinned, sliced and drizzled with virgin olive oil and a dash of lemon juice, sprinkled with sea salt and left for half an hour to marinate in the fridge, then served with freshly torn basil leaves.

But which tomato? In Mediterr-anean countries salad tomatoes are unshapely and greenish. Cooking tomatoes are either dense and round (what we call beef tomatoes), or long and thick, such as Italian Marzano. In shops here, though, they always seem to be as smooth as billiard balls.

But at least English-grown tomatoes have a good flavour these days. Those sold on the vine in particular, or the large, tasty Delice, which are like a beef tomato. Then there are the small, dark Melrows or the meaty, juicy Sweethearts (usually sold in packs).

Tomatoes can be used in an encyclopaedic range of ways: baked or stuffed, made into soups or sauces, jellies and jams, used as toppings for tarts and pizzas or even in sorbets.

A world without tomatoes is unimaginable, is it not? Yet its journey into our hearts has been painfully slow, especially in this country. In an invaluable new book, The Big Red Book of the Tomato (Michael Joseph, pounds 17. 99), Lindsey Bareham traces the tomato's unusual history, before setting out some 400 recipes (two of which we publish here).

Spain and Italy (while under Span-ish rule) were the first European countries to adopt the tomato in the 1520s; a little yellow fruit from Mexico, which the Italians immediately dubbed pomi d'oro, meaning golden apples. But the tomato was not welcome here as it was generally regarded as poisonous, being a botanical cousin of Deadly Nightshade. In the 1636 edition of John Gerard's Herbal, the tomato plant is denounced as having a "rank and stinking savour", the fruit as provoking gout and cancer, not to mention excessive sexual appetite.

The red version of the tomato did not arrive in Europe for another 200 years, when Italian chefs in Naples developed a sauce for meat, fish and, later, pasta. Yet it was still another century before the French, British and Americans began to accept it. The Chinese, so notorious for their omnivorous cuisine, have been among the last to take it up (in the 1930s). And it still has no place in the Japanese diet.

Far from being poisonous, though, the tomato has turned out to have significant health benefits. Raw tomatoes contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant said to flush out free radicals. The tomato is also a cheerful addition to any slimming diet, containing 93 to 96 per cent water, with a modest 14 calories per 100g.

Lindsey Bareham also offers the following tips for preparing tomatoes:

PEELING: The skin is edible but indigestible. Cut out the core (at the stalk end), making a cone shape with a sharp-pointed knife. Score the other end with a criss-cross cut. Plunge into a pan of boiling water for five to 15 seconds, depending on the ripeness of the tomato, until the skin begins to peel back. Drop into a bowl of cold water to prevent further softening. Use a knife and thumb to work away the skins.

CONCASSE (or diced tomato): Use this in dishes where you want a dense texture and no seeds, for example in a salsa with spring onions and chilli, or stirred into a soup as a garnish. Halve the peeled and cored tomatoes lengthwise and squeeze out the seeds. Cut into slices again, then crosswise to the size of pieces you want.

SEEDS: The serum or jelly-like liquid which encloses each seed is intensely flavoured and contains most of the fruit's sugars. Use a strainer, pressing the seeds with the back of a spoon, and reserve the liquid. The juices add vitality to stocks, soups, consommes, sauces and vinaigrettes.

PASSATA: This is raw tomato pulp or tomato puree, a basis for cold and hot soups or sauces. It is better to make your own as shop-bought passata will have been pasteurised or heat-treated, which alters its flavour. Peel and roughly chop as many tomatoes as you need, passing them through a food mill or large-holed sieve. Some pips are retained but many go through. You can pound up whole tomatoes in a food processor but the result will be frothier and creamier. For a small amount of puree, rub halved tomatoes along the coarse edges of a cheese grater, then sieve it to remove the pips.

PIEDMONTESE PEPPERS

Serves 6

6 equal-sized red peppers

salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 or more plump garlic cloves, sliced into wafer-thin rounds

12 ripe tomatoes, preferably plum, cored, peeled and halved lengthways

8 tablespoons olive oil

12 anchovy fillets

Pre-heat oven to 425F/220C/Gas mark 7. Slice the peppers in half through the stalk, keeping the stalk intact. Remove the seeds, white membrane and any baby peppers with a sharp knife. Rinse inside and out. Drain. Lay the pepper halves, cut side up, in a heavy roasting tin. Season with salt and pepper and spread with a few garlic slices. Tuck two tomato halves inside each pepper half, cut side down, and season again. Pour half a table-spoon of olive oil over each pepper. Place the tray near the top of the oven and cook for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 350F/180C/Gas mark 4, and cook for a further 20 minutes. Remove from the oven. While the peppers are cooking, cut each anchovy fillet into four strips and as soon as the peppers come out of the oven use them to make a cross over the centre of each pepper. Leave peppers to cool in serving dish and spoon over juices.

TOMATO TARTE TATIN

Serves 4

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 heaped tablespoon caster sugar

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

750g/1lb 8oz tomatoes, cored, peeled and halved through the core

150g/5oz puff pastry

25g/1oz freshly grated Parmesan

about 10 basil leaves

Pre-heat oven to 400F/200C/Gas mark 6. Lightly oil an 18cm flan tin. Dissolve sugar and a little salt and pepper in the vinegar and whisk in three tablespoons of the oil. Place the tomato halves in the tin, rounded sides down, slightly overlapping. Pour on dressing. Roll the pastry quite thinly on a floured surface and lay over the top of the tin. Cut round the edge and tuck lightly down inside the tin. Smear the pastry with remaining oil and cook for about 20 minutes until the pastry is puffed and scorched. Run a knife round the inside edge of the pastry. Drain most of the liquid into a jug. Invert tart onto a plate and set aside until warm. Pour dressing over tomatoes, grate over the Parmesan, snip on the basil and slice into wedges.

This is very good eaten with peas mixed with pesto that has been slackened with a little olive oil.

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