Seasoned in the southern sun: Carla Tomasi cooks sun-ripened tomatoes, aubergines and peppers and celebrates the sensual cuisines of southern Italy

Most foreigners believe that Italian cuisine springs from a single style of cooking. In reality, there is Italian regional cooking and each region fiercely proclaims to produce the best food. Common ground is shared in lovingly perpetuating traditional methods of cooking and in the passionate love for the seasons.

Italians understand the importance and benefits of eating seasonal food. Sadly, this concept is still ignored in Britain, where the consumption of processed food is increasing. The overall simplicity of southern Italian cuisine, all the more evident when compared with the opulent cooking of the north, rich in butter and cheese, depends for its success on the use of fresh ingredients in their proper season. It is true that a minority of Italians rush to the shops to buy le primizie - the early crops - but on the whole they are happy to wait. In Britain, because we depend heavily on imported produce, it is imperative to learn about the seasons abroad so as to become more discerning about quality.

Quality is the key to simple yet tasty southern dishes whose ingredients have been chosen for flavour, not for sake of appearance. And just because it is ingredient cooking, an understanding of the basic principles is important.

A dish of roasted plum tomatoes with new season garlic will not taste truly wonderful if made with unripe specimens from some faraway country (hence picked when green, and ripened under sun lamps). Panzanella, one of the many bread salads made all over Italy, will fail to impress if prepared using an unremarkable bread that doesn't sport a clever crumb like a nice sourdough.

These recipes use the aubergines, plum tomatoes and peppers imported from Mediterranean countries that are coming into the shops now and should therefore have been grown, at least in their final stages, under the sun.


Caponata (sweet and sour aubergine)

This dish is quite rich and best served as a starter or as a relish with grilled fish.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1 large aubergine, cubed

vegetable oil for frying

Sauce: 6tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, finely sliced

2 celery sticks, sliced

1 x 400g/14oz can of chopped plum tomatoes

1tbs capers

3tbs green olives (not the type kept in brine)

1tbs red wine vinegar

1tbs granulated sugar

salt and black pepper

Preparation: Fry aubergine in hot oil until golden brown. Please do not undercook aubergine. Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle with salt while still hot.

For the sauce, fry onion and celery in the olive oil in a large frying pan till soft but not coloured. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently, until fairly thick. Add green olives and capers. After a few minutes push the sauce to one side of the frying pan, add the sugar, stir it and flame with the vinegar.

Mix in the aubergine, season and pour into a serving dish. Serve cool. If you need to refrigerate the caponata, bring it back to room temperature before serving.


Zucchine a 'Scapece'

Serves 4

Ingredients: 4 medium-sized courgettes, sliced into rounds of 1 3 in/3 4 cm

8tbs extra virgin olive oil

8 cloves of garlic (new crop if available), peeled but not sliced

leaves from a small bunch of mint


4tbs red wine vinegar

Preparation: Heat half of the olive oil in a large frying-pan and fry the courgette slices in batches over high heat until brown around the edges. When ready put them in a bowl and scatter the mint leaves on top, then season.

Heat the rest of the olive oil, quickly brown the garlic; add the vinegar, bring it to the boil and pour it on the courgettes. Leave to marinate for a couple of hours before serving. This dish is best eaten at room temperature, never straight out of a refrigerator.


Panzanella bread salad

Serves 4

Ingredients: 6-8 pieces or slices of stale sourdough bread

1 or 2 very ripe plum tomatoes per person, roughly chopped

1 whole bunch of spring onion, thinly sliced

a few sticks of sliced celery with leaves, if possible

1 small bunch of basil leaves picked off the stems and shredded

extra virgin olive oil

salt and black pepper

red wine vinegar

Preparation: Soak the bread for a few minutes in cold water. Leave it to soften, then squeeze out well and crumble in a bowl.

Add vegetables, basil, a good dose of olive oil, seasoning, red wine vinegar and toss well. Refrigerate for a couple of hours. Prior to serving, toss again and adjust seasoning if necessary.


Patate al forno raganate

(Baked potatoes with oregano)

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1kg/2lb potatoes (not floury), peeled and sliced into thick rounds

1 small onion, thinly sliced

extra virgin olive oil

6 very ripe plum tomatoes, quartered

1 sun-ripened red pepper, quartered

1tsp dried oregano

5tbs pecorino romano, grated

5tbs dry breadcrumbs

salt and black pepper

Preparation: Preheat the oven to 160 C/325F/Gas 3. Oil a large ovenproof dish and layer the vegetables with the olive oil, oregano, cheese, breadcrumbs and seasoning. Bake for about one hour. When just out of the oven, squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over the vegetables.

The author is the principal of Turnaround Cooks. Details on courses from Books for Cooks, 071-221 1992.

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