Food: The ripe stuff

There's nothing to beat the `pure pleasure' of a proper, vine- ripened tomato. Simon Hopkinson reveals the best ways to serve this elusive fruit

The very fact that Lindsey Bareham's eldest son, Zachary, 21, created a work of art from a shallow, wooden, Continental tomato box, indicates just how powerful are our associations with this familiar food. You should also know that Zachary's tomato box is fixed upside down inside a larger, white-painted frame and then glassed in, with the words "The Tomato Book" neatly stencilled in red gloss paint on slats on the bottom of the box. Proper tomatoes always come in boxes such as these, whereas those with given names and "grown for flavour" are usually packaged in clear-plastic cartons and wrapped in cellophane.

Zach's creation could have been a truly fitting cover for his mother's smashing new book, The Big Red Book of Tomatoes (Michael Joseph, pounds 17.99). But, surprise, surprise, it wasn't, as cookery book covers create constant controversy in the mysterious world of publishing. Is any author ever truly happy with their dust jacket? Is it almost always a compromise? Are "sales" eternally in the right? Some may say that I am shooting myself most accurately in the foot here, but they would be quite incorrect, as I admire, rely upon and thank my own particular publishers for having belief in me at all. But when the daring or inspired argues with safe, it seems that safe will always win. I am, however, eternally pleased that I had the foresight to offer Zachary a reasonable sum for his beautiful box, which now proudly hangs in my sitting room, looking all inspired and daring there.

Aesthetic opinions aside, it is the contents of Lindsey's tomato book that are - along with her equally exhaustive theses on both the potato and the onion - an eclectic collection of recipe treats. These run neatly alongside nuggets of historical information, useful facts and top tomato tips. The first few lines of her introduction are enough to let the reader know that here is a romantic dame who loves her tomatoes: "This book is about the pleasure of eating tomatoes. Take a tomato that has been allowed to ripen on the vine: the plant will have sent its roots deep into the earth in search of food and water, while the sun turns the skin of the fruit a deep, dark red. Slice this tomato, sprinkle it with salt, add cracked pepper and some good olive oil, then eat it. Pure pleasure."

That "pure pleasure", sadly, remains elusive for most of us in the UK. You see, a box of naturally ripe tomatoes is supposed not to travel well. And even though the flight time or lorry journey from Nice to Notting Hill is surely not that long, the tomatoes that are sent to us never seem to be how we remember them at source, when we last ate them in the shade of a pine tree, or smelt great piles of them at a stall in the Cours Saleya. So we should plead our case for a supply of tomatoes to these shores that are, in some sort of fashion, similar to those we can so easily purchase from foreign climes: in Provence, almost all of Italy, Greece, Spain ... oh, you know, from each and every one of those cheery, bronzed, Continental market traders.

At the beginning of this month I slipped over to Dieppe to stay with English friends who have a house near that town. Their local village does not sport the most inspired collection of shops - apart from the garage (whose extremely helpful owner, Monsieur Leconte, fixed my car following a minor contretemps with a gatepost) and the boulangerie. But even here it was no trouble at all to find a couple of kilos of perfectly ripe, red and tasty tomatoes. And, come to think about it, the relentless tomato discussion that we have over here would sound quite potty to the average French shopper. This is surely madness, when we know perfectly well that Dieppe is really quite close to Newhaven. Of course, it all depends on how much one cares. The very fact that Dieppe has a magnificent weekly market and daily fresh fish from the quayside, and Newhaven has next to nothing, surely explains a great deal.

Edouard de Pomiane's Tomates a la Creme

Serves 2

Both Lindsey and I wholeheartedly agree about the charming scribblings of Edouard de Pomiane. Apart from his brevity of description - a talent to amuse as well as to precisely instruct - the recipes in his book Cooking in Ten Minutes are themselves nothing less than inspired. And by inspired, I also mean intelligent, practical and interesting to read. To compare a clown, demonstrating on television how to (supposedly) cook in minutes, with the words of Monsieur Pomiane, would do a grave disservice to this witty and sparkling cookery writer. Incidentally, it would also be a refreshing change for a cookery book to sell extremely well without the boost of a television series behind it. Mind you, it is heartening to know that Pomiane's book (now re-published by Serif) is still selling 50 years on.

Note: I have taken the liberty of adding a few leaves of coarsely chopped mint to the dish, simply because I like it there. You could also add basil if you like, but not the two together.

4 medium-sized ripe tomatoes

a large knob of butter

salt and pepper

3 heaped tbsp creme fraiche or double cream

a few mint leaves, chopped (optional)

Cut the tomatoes in half through their circumference. Heat a frying pan over a medium heat, melt the butter in it and lay out the tomatoes, cut side down. Cook for 5 minutes, during which time you puncture, here and there, the rounded sides with a sharply pointed knife.

Carefully turn the tomatoes with a palette knife and cook for a further 10 minutes. Turn them again, and after a couple of minutes, when their juices have started to run, turn them back so that the cut sides are uppermost. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the cream between the tomatoes (add the mint or basil now) and mix it lightly with the juices. As soon as it bubbles, slip the tomatoes and their sauce onto hot plates. Serve immediately.

Baked tomatoes with pesto

Serves 4

A very simple way to eat hot tomatoes, and deeply savoury into the bargain. Dish up as an accompaniment to roast lamb, or eat them on their own with crusty bread for lunch. Best left to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

the leaves from a large bunch of basil

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

3tbsp pine kernels, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan

3tbsp freshly grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese

100ml (approx) olive oil

about 1kg of ripe tomatoes, cut into quarters

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/gas mark 6. Pound the basil, garlic and pine kernels to a paste, in a mortar or food processor, together with a little bit of salt and pepper. Then add enough of the olive oil, in a thin stream, to produce a loose-textured puree. Finally, quickly mix in the cheese. Fill a shallow dish with the prepared tomatoes, spread the pesto thickly over the top and bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden and bubbling.

Tomato jelly with tomato cream

Serves 4

I was inspired to make this luscious and cooling combo after eating at the restaurant of Michel Guerard earlier this year, way down in the southwest of France, in that heavily wooded region called Les Landes. The dish in question consisted of a light consomme, bejewelled with tiny vegetables and soft herbs, and set into a shallow soup plate. Then, a waiter at tableside carefully cloaked the jelly with a vichyssoise of celery scented with truffle juice, with the aid of a large silver spoon. The contrast between the trembling jelly and the unctuous celery cream was sheer bliss - and one of the most delicious things I have put into my mouth for many years.

For the jelly

2kg very ripe tomatoes - it is not worth making if they are not

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

salt

pinch of dried red chilli flakes

1 large bunch of basil (reserve a dozen or so small leaves)

2 leaves of gelatine

For the cream

4-5tbsp of the tomato pulp

1-2tsp sugar, to taste

2tbsp dry sherry

1tbsp sherry vinegar

200ml double cream

salt and a few shakes of Tabasco

It is essential to use a stainless steel or other non-reactive saucepan here.

Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for 10 seconds, immediately drain and then peel them. Using a sharp knife, cut and slice them, anyhow, directly into the pan, so as not to waste any precious juices. Put in the garlic, salt and chilli and set on a low heat. Bring up to a simmer, stir and put on a lid. The liquid that forms comes purely from the tomatoes. Cook for 40 minutes. Tear in the basil leaves and continue simmering for a further 10 minutes. Strain through a colander into a clean bowl or other pan. Leave to drip for a good hour, but do not force through any of the pulp, or you will unnecessarily cloud the jelly. Do not discard this pulp. Soften the gelatine leaves in cold water. Squeeze dry and warm through in a small pan with a little of the tomato liquid, to melt it, then stir back into the strained liquid. Tip the pulp into a bowl and put aside.

Now, either using a damp tea towel or jelly bag, further strain the tomato liquid, into another scrupulously clean bowl. It is best to support the towel/bag well above the bowl (jelly bags usually have strings attached so that they can be hooked up). Allow to drip until it stops completely. The liquid should settle into the bowl and be clear (do not panic unduly if it is not, as it will still taste jolly good). However, if there is a little settlement at the bottom, simply pour off the clear liquid into another container. Pour enough jelly into individual soup dishes to fill them by three-quarters, drop a few basil leaves into each and then put into the fridge to set.

To make the cream, liquidise the pulp, sugar, dry sherry and sherry vinegar until as smooth as possible. Push through a fine sieve into a bowl, season boldly with salt (the addition of the cream will mollify the mixture and you will not be able to add seasoning later, for fear of curdling by further stirring) and add a little Tabasco to taste. Loosely whip the cream by hand until showing soft peaks, and gently fold into the tomato until all is pale pink and without streaks. Once the jelly has set, carefully spoon over the tomato cream and serve at once. n

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