Injected with vodka, chopped with fennel, nibbled from jars - tomatoes have moved on. Mark Hix plays ketchup

They used to be red and round and that was it. Now shopping for tomatoes has become as complicated as everything else in life. It's not made any easier by the fact that, even though there's so much choice from around the world, the tomatoes themselves often don't taste of very much at all.

They used to be red and round and that was it. Now shopping for tomatoes has become as complicated as everything else in life. It's not made any easier by the fact that, even though there's so much choice from around the world, the tomatoes themselves often don't taste of very much at all.

About 15 years ago, you started seeing chefs on TV using plum tomatoes as a main ingredient. And they couldn't stop. They skinned them with a knife (my preferred method, instead of blanching), chopped them into little tiny bits, and before you knew it diced tomato was turning up everywhere. Plum tomatoes, diced or otherwise, stayed popular.

Trouble is, demand for them is greater than the growers' capacity to supply them in perfect condition all year round. Even now at the height of summer, when they should be great, you get them home and cut them open to reveal an unhealthy looking white ring around the flesh. When they look like that you'll need to boost a soup or sauce with a good spoonful of tomato paste. And it doesn't just happen to supermarket shoppers. We have the same problem in the restaurants.

If you think about the amount of canned plum tomatoes in the world - chopped, whole, pulped or with herbs - it's hard to imagine there's enough room on earth to grow them all. Is there a planet pomodoro somewhere out there that no one's telling us about? Anyway, if they can grow so many tomatoes to go into cans, why are most of the fresh ones underripe and tasteless? In supermarkets I am usually conned into buying the dreaded vine-ripened tomatoes, when the good old Dutch ones would probably have done the job just as well, and would certainly have been cheaper.

Even cherry tomatoes risk getting a bad name. They're great in a salad mixed with their bigger brothers and sisters. Or injected with a syringe filled with vodka, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco to make little bloody Mary teasers before dinner. That's a bit fiddly for me but I haven't been able to resist trying it. I would, however, resist using the poor little things too often. In a reputable Italian restaurant recently, my nicely cooked piece of monkfish was howered with an array of coloured, half-cooked cherry tomatoes. You can have too much of a good thing.

Grilled mackerel with tomato and fennel salad

Serves 4

As a kid I would catch bags full of mackerel on a lightweight trout rod. Back then I did it for sport more than for the pleasure of eating them fresh. Holiday-makers would cast half a dozen feathers with a heavy lead weight and catch them three or four at a time, but we would be quite content pulling them in on a tiny float and single hook, with a bit of a struggle, one at a time. They must have thought we were just kids having fun, and they were right. When mackerel are that fresh you struggle to keep them in the pan. The hot fat makes them curl up because of the rigor mortis. But freshly caught on the day, they make a memorable feast.

4 fresh mackerel, weighing about 300-350g, head removed and fins trimmed
4 ripe red tomatoes, halved and thinly sliced
1 small bulb of fennel or half a large one
1tbsp good quality white-wine vinegar, such as chardonnay
3-4tbsp of olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the mackerel seasoning

1tsp celery salt ( click here for a recipie on how to make your own)
1/2tsp cayenne pepper
1/2tsp ground cumin
1/2tsp salt
1/2tsp finely ground black pepper

Pre-heat a grill or barbecue. Score the mackerel a few times about 1/2cm deep vertically along the flesh. Mix the seasonings together, lightly brush with oil and scatter the seasoning over the mackerel. Grill the fish for about 7-8 minutes brushing with more oil every so often, turn the grill down if the skin begins to blister.

Meanwhile quarter the fennel and cut out the root. Slice it as thinly as you can, a Japanese mandolin is perfect for this job. Chop the furry fennel tops and put them in a bowl with the sliced fennel, tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil and season. Mix well and arrange on plates or a serving dish with the mackerel.

Cocktail tomatoes

Makes enough to fill a 500ml Kilner jar

I first stumbled upon this delicious drinks snack on a truffle-hunting trip in Italy last year. Along with Heston Blumenthal and some food writers, I was invited by Sacla - the Italian pasta sauce and antipasti people - to taste an un-launched version of these tomatoes at the home of Carlo Ercole, the owner of the company. Understandably, they didn't share the recipe, but we were trying to work out how to do it ourselves.

I've come up with a version that's not quite as delicious as the ones we tasted, but I'm getting close. Heston's probably got it spot-on by now.

It's a bit tedious blanching and peeling the cherry tomatoes, but it's well worth it. Once you have eaten the tomatoes you can re-use the oil by just heating it up, cooling it and draining off any residual juice, or use it to make a salad dressing or pasta sauce.

800g large cherry or cherry plum tomatoes (sometimes known as pomodorino)
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
A few sprigs of fresh oregano, marjoram or thyme
1 small red chilli, thinly sliced
Around 300ml olive oil and possibly a little more
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 75°C (if you're on gas, set the temperature as low as you can). If you're using cherry tomatoes on the vine, as I did, snip the stalks so you leave a bit attached to each one - your guests can use these bits to pick the tomatoes up. Bring a pan of water to the boil and have a bowl of iced water and a slotted spoon ready.

Meanwhile make a small cut on the skin of each cherry tomato to make them easier to peel when blanched. Plunge the tomatoes into the boiling water, in two batches. Remove them with the slotted spoon after 8-10 seconds and put them straight into the iced water. Carefully peel them and put them on to a baking tray lined with silicone or grease-proof paper and lightly season them.

Put them into the oven for 1 hour then remove them and prick each one with the point of a knife to release any juices. Return them to the oven for another hour. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, heat about 100ml of the olive oil with the garlic, oregano and chilli, remove from the heat, mix with the rest of the oil and lightly season. Carefully put the tomatoes into a sterilised Kilner or jam jar, then pour the oil over them to cover. You may need to add more oil depending on the shape of the jar. Close the lid and store them in a cool place (the fridge is best) for up to six months.

Spaghetti with summer tomato sauce

Serves 4

At this time of year, when tomatoes are at their best, it's nice to capture the flavour in a pasta sauce. By barely cooking the tomatoes you keep that really fresh, ripe flavour. You can even serve it room temperature, or cold as a salad, scattered with basil leaves. The kids will like this one too, as there are no bits in it to push around the plate and it looks a bit like tinned spaghetti in sauce.

If you feel like it, add torn basil leaves, cooked prawns, capers or even a bit of chilli to the base of the sauce.

4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp fresh thyme or oregano leaves
150ml olive oil
400g ripe red tomatoes, halved and seeds squeezed out
400g cherry tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
400g spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino to serve

Gently cook the shallots, garlic and thyme in the olive oil without colouring for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the tomatoes, season and cook on a high heat with a lid on for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, blend in a liquidiser until smooth then strain through a medium meshed sieve and re-season if necessary.

Meanwhile cook the pasta according to the manufacturer's cooking instructions as this varies (though it will usually be between 9-12 minutes), and drain. Put the pasta in a pan with enough sauce to bind it, then warm on a low heat, stirring for a couple minutes so that the pasta absorbs some of the sauce. You may find you have too much sauce, if so it will keep in the fridge in a covered container for a few days.

Tomato martinis

Makes 4 proper ones

I loved the sound of this when I first read about it. But now I can't remember where I saw it and I've been through all my books and mags to try and trace its origins, and it's nowhere to be found. Tomato juice isn't the answer because it would just be like an intense bloody Mary. So I decided to make a clear tomato liquid, as I would for jellied tomato soup, and turn it into a martini. It's refined and sophisticated, and the excuse is that you're using up those innocent little cocktail or cherry tomatoes. This makes a perfect aperitif.

1kg very ripe red tomatoes, cherry or others
Vodka
Ice
Cherry tomatoes to garnish, preferably on the vine

Blend the tomatoes in a liquidiser. Pour the mix into a jelly bag and hang it over a bowl in a cool place or in the fridge. If you don't have a jelly bag, line a colander with a clean tea towel or a double layer of muslin and put that over the bowl. Leave overnight and you should end up with about 500ml of clear, intense tomato juice. Make less if you wish, depending on how many people you want to serve. You can discard the remainders in the colander/jelly bag.

For the martini, mix equal parts vodka (or as much as you wish) and clear tomato juice in a cocktail shaker. Fill the shaker with ice, give it a good shake and pour into martini glasses. Garnish with a cherry tomato (or a cocktail tomato), preferably with the stem on. You could even give that cherry tomato a vodka injection, if you've got the syringe and the stamina.

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