There is something wonderful about the smell of a tomato plant, whether the fruit is properly ripe, soft and sweet, or still green with a sharp flavour and tight, crunchy flesh. Tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes – small and round, oval or teardrop, or the shape and size of an ox heart. And in a myriad of hues, from almost chocolate-brown, through orange and yellow, striped and green, to glorious red. Heritage tomatoes, San Marzano, cherry, datterini, tiger and cuore di bue are some of my favourite varieties.
Although it is possible to buy tomatoes all year round, I encourage you to respect their season – midsummer or early autumn is when they are truly at their best. Silky, fragrant and plump at this time of year, their flavour more than makes up for the months they are not in season. Tomatoes that grace supermarket shelves all year round tend to be of the dependable growing varieties such as Moneymaker. Sadly, they rarely have more than a hint of flavour. Instead, look in season for tomatoes that feel heavy for their size and just yield to the touch. And always keep them out of the fridge, as the cold arrests their perfume and flavour.
Tomatoes have a natural affinity with nearly all herbs. The classic marriage of perfectly ripe tomatoes and basil is difficult to beat, but in early autumn try them with the earthy flavour of sage, marjoram, rosemary or oregano.
Seasoning is very important: the crystal crunch of good-quality sea salt is a perfect foil for sweet tomato flesh. Olive oil – extra-virgin – enhances the flavour, too. And a drizzle of good-quality red-wine vinegar, or viscous, mellow traditional balsamic, is also an ideal match for their sweetness.
Cheese, olives, capers and anchovies all work superbly with tomatoes, and please don't forget their affinity with seafood – crab and lobster, in particular.
In fact, tomatoes go so well with so many different ingredients that I dedicated a chapter of my new book, My Favourite Ingredients (Quadrille), to them. The following recipes are taken from there.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627. 'My Favourite Ingredients' is available at the special price of £22 inc p&p (normally £25). To order please call direct on 01256 302 699 quoting ref GLR 1EZ and your credit card details
Squash and tomato curry with lime and coconut
This curry is full of big, bold, clean, clear flavours. It is good with any type of flat bread and a tangle of blanched chard or spinach leaves dressed with lime juice and olive oil. Onion squash comes into season around this time of year: don't bother to peel off the skin – it is best left on.
1 medium onion squash
1tbsp vegetable oil
1 red onion, peeled and finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 green chilli, chopped (seeds left in)
10 curry leaves
A bunch of coriander, roots and stalks finely sliced, leaves reserved for garnish
1tsp mustard seeds
1tsp fennel seeds
2tbsp caster sugar, or to taste
2tbsp fish sauce, or to taste
Juice of 2 limes, or to taste
15-20 little ripe San Marzano tomatoes
340g/111/2oz jar (or tinned) good-quality peeled plum tomatoes
250ml/8fl oz coconut milk (fresh or tinned)
Using a large, sharp knife, slice through the middle of the squash. Scoop out the seeds using a spoon, then slice into 5cm wedges and set aside. Place a heavy-based pan over a medium heat. Add the oil and when it is warm, the onion. Lower the heat and cook for 10 minutes until soft. Add the garlic, chilli, curry leaves and coriander, and continue to cook gently.
Meanwhile, warm a small, non-stick frying pan over a medium heat, add the mustard and fennel seeds and cook until they begin to pop. Remove from the heat and pound to a powder, using a pestle and mortar. Add to the onion curry base, stir to combine and cook gently for a further five minutes. Add the onion squash, stir again and cook for 10 minutes, then add the sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. It is really important to get the balance of flavours right at this stage, so now is the time to taste and assess. The curry should be pleasantly (not aggressively) hot; sweet (but not sticky); sour (but not so much that it makes you squint); and salty enough to underpin and ground the dish.
Once you feel the flavours are right, add the little ripe tomatoes – squishing them slightly between your fingers as you do so, to help them release their flavour. Add the jar of plum tomatoes and cook for a further 20-25 minutes until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork. Pour in the coconut milk and cook for a final five minutes. The tomato and coconut milk enrich the curry, giving it a depth and smoothness that complete the dish.
Turn off the heat and allow to cool. Reheat the curry gently and thoroughly when you are ready to serve. Like many sweet dishes, this one improves in flavour if allowed to cool and sit before reheating.
Rabbit with saffron, basil, cucumber and tomatoes
6 farmed free-range rabbit legs (and shoulders, if you like)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp olive oil
40 saffron threads
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
750ml/11/4 pints verjuice
20 little ripe tomatoes, such as San Marzano, datterini or cherry tomatoes
4 little cucumbers
A bunch of basil, leaves only
Large knob of unsalted butter
Season the rabbit then place a large, wide pan over a medium heat and add the oil. When hot, brown the portions in batches until golden; don't overcrowd the pan.
Add the saffron and garlic, then the verjuice, scraping up all the juices from the bottom of the pan. Allow to bubble to reduce down, then turn the heat to low. Using the tip of a sharp knife, pierce each tomato and add to the pan. Season with a little more salt and pepper, then cover and cook gently for 30 minutes until the rabbit is cooked. Continue to cook slowly for 15 minutes until the rabbit is very tender.
Halve the cucumbers lengthways and scoop out the seeds, then halve each piece. Add to the rabbit and cook for a couple of minutes. Tear the basil into strips and add with the butter. Swirl to combine and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning if you need to, then serve. '
Tomato and bread soup
We make this lovely, nurturing, elegantly flavoured soup at this time of year when there tends to be a glut of tomatoes in the vegetable garden. Inevitably, some are in less than perfect condition – softening around the edges, perhaps, or with the odd bruise – but that makes no odds to this recipe. Based on the Tuscan pappa al pomodoro, this one is laced with garlic and sage, with just a hint of chilli, but you could also replace the sage with basil for a more traditional flavour.
1kg/2lb ripe tomatoes
80ml/3fl oz good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle
3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced into fine slivers
1 dried red chilli
5 sage sprigs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 slices of day-old, chewy, peasant-style bread
Aged balsamic vinegar, to finish (optional)
Chop the tomatoes roughly – don't bother to remove the seeds. Place a heavy-based pan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is warm but not hot, add the chopped tomatoes, garlic, chilli and sage. Season with a good pinch of sea salt and a couple of grindings of black pepper. Turn the heat to really low and cook for 40 minutes, stirring every now and then.
Now tear the bread into rough chunks with your fingers and add to the soup. Don't stir; just let the bread disintegrate into the soup – it will readily absorb the wonderful, deep, satisfying flavourof the cooked tomatoes.
To serve, ladle into soup plates and drizzle with a little more olive oil and the balsamic vinegar if you wish. This soup is best served warm, rather than hot.
Tomato and apple ketchup
This time of year – when the last of the summer tomatoes are still around and apple season is in swing – is time to make this ketchup. Sweet and zingy, it is the perfect accompaniment to grilled beef or hamburgers, sharp English Cheddars and lemony goat's cheeses.
Makes one large jar
1tbsp olive oil
5 red onions, peeled and roughly chopped
2.5kg/5lb ripe tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
400g/13oz caster sugar
500ml/17fl oz red-wine vinegar
2 cinnamon sticks
3 bay leaves
12 juniper berries
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place a preserving pan or large heavy-based saucepan on a low heat and add the olive oil. When it is warm, tip in the onions and sweat gently for 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Meanwhile, core and roughly chop (but do not peel) the apples and tomatoes.
Add the garlic to the pan and sweat for a minute, then add the apples and tomatoes. Stir in the sugar and red-wine vinegar. Tie the spices, bay leaves and juniper berries in a piece of muslin and drop into the pan.
Stir the mixture to combine all the ingredients, then turn the heat to low and cook gently for one-and-a-half hours, stirring occasionally to make sure that the mixture doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
The ketchup is ready when it has cooked right down to a glossy, pulpy sauce. At this stage, add a generous pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper, to taste.
Allow to cool, then spoon into one large or two small sterilised jars. Seal and store in a cool, dark place. Use within a few months and keep in the fridge once opened.
The Forager by Wendy Fogarty
Petersham's food sourcer on where to find the best tomatoes and seeds...
The Audley End Walled Kitchen Garden in Essex, where head gardener Mike Thurlow has recreated this historic Victorian kitchen garden, is a living showcase of old-English tomato varieties. Available in season from www.english-heritage.org.uk/audleyend (tel: 01799 522 148) and via a local box scheme.
Buttervilla's Funky Leaves This Cornish organic co-operative grows a wonderful selection of heritage tomatoes. A victim of its own success, it struggles to keep up with demand from local restaurants, notably Jamie Oliver's 15 restaurant in Cornwall. www.buttervilla.com
The Real Seed Catalogue sells old and new varieties, including bush, vine and new centiflor tomatoes. www.realseeds.co.uk
Grow Organic's Heritage Seed Library offers a variety of heritage seeds when you become a Seed Guardian through its Adopt A Veg scheme. Individual membership costs £28 a year. www.gardenorganic.org.uk.
Association Kokopelli, a non-profit-making organisation, sells an extraordinary variety of tomato seeds categorised under red, multicoloured, white, green, pink, black and early red varieties. www.kokopelli-seeds.com