Monday, 30 November -0001

Pick of the crop

Often taken for granted, the tomato is a wonderfully vibrant and versatile ingredient, says Jenny Linford. It’s time to get to know it better

Written by Jenny Linford
The tale of the tomato is an extraordinary success story. Today, it is a key ingredient in an array of cuisines around the world. Juicy-fleshed and delicate in flavour, offering a distinctive blend of acidity and sweetness, the tomato is a wonderfully versatile food, available in hundreds of varieties, able to be eaten raw in dishes such as salads and salsas and also cooked in soups, sauces and curries.

The story of the tomato plant (Solanum lycopersicum), a member of the family Solanaceae, begins in South America, from where it originates. From there it travelled north, cultivated by the Aztecs in Mexico around 700AD. The word ‘tomato’ derives from the Aztec name  xitomatl. Botanically speaking, the tomato is the fruit of the plant, but in culinary terms it is perceived as a vegetable. It is thought that the Spanish Conquistadors who invaded Mexico introduced tomato plants from the New World to Europe in the 16th century. Initially, this mysterious new plant was credited with aphrodisiac powers, hence its French nickname pomme d’amour or ‘apple of love’.

The tomato is used in many cuisines, but is particularly associated with Italian cuisine, where it features in many classic dishes. Writing my new book brought home to me just what a wonderful ingredient the tomato is. Often taken for granted, it is a food to be celebrated and enjoyed. Happy cooking! 

The Tomato Basket, by Jenny Linford, with photography by Peter Cassidy, is published by Ryland Peters & Small, priced £14.99.

Panzanella (pictured above) 

Serves 6-8

1 red onion, peeled and very finely sliced into rings
100ml white wine vinegar
2 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
1 large yellow or red (bell) pepper
200g day-old rustic bread
500g ripe tomatoes, ideally in assorted colours and shapes
100ml extra virgin olive oil
50ml red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed (optional)
1 tsp capers, rinsed
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
a generous handful of fresh basil leaves

Lightly pickle the onion rings. Place them in a colander and pour over freshly boiled water. Transfer the onion rings to a mixing bowl and add the vinegar, sugar and salt. Pour over 150ml of water and mix together. Set aside for 1 hour, then drain and dry on paper towels.

Meanwhile, grill the (bell) pepper under a medium heat until charred on all sides. Place in a plastic bag (as trapping the steam makes the pepper easier to peel) and set aside to cool.

Peel using a sharp knife and cut into short, thick strips.

Trim and discard the crusts from the bread and slice into small cubes. Cut the tomatoes into chunks or in half if using small cherry tomatoes.

Make the dressing by mixing together the oil, red wine vinegar, garlic and capers. Season with salt and pepper, bearing in mind the saltiness of the capers.

Mix together the chopped tomatoes, bread and roasted pepper strips in a large serving bowl. Pour the dressing over the mixture and toss together, ensuring all the ingredients are well coated. Add the pickled onion rings, then the basil. Mix well and set aside for 15-20 minutes to allow the flavours to infuse before serving.

Greek rice-stuffed tomatoes

Serves 4


4-6 large tomatoes
3 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
150g long grain rice, rinsed
1 tsp tomato purée
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp chopped fresh flatleaf parsley
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint
1 tsp grated lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.

Cut the tops off the tomatoes and carefully scoop out and reserve the soft pulp. Put the tomato shells in a baking dish large enough to hold all of the tomatoes upright. Set aside with their caps until you are ready to bake them.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a frying pan set over a low heat. Add the onion and fry until softened, without allowing it to brown. Add the reserved tomato pulp, the rice and tomato purée. Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Bring the mixture to the boil and continue to cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the flat-leaf parsley, dill, mint and lemon zest.

Fill the tomato shells with the rice mixture and top with their caps. Drizzle with the remaining oil, cover with foil and bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour, until the rice is tender.

Serve warm from the oven or at room temperature.

Summer tomato tart

Serves 6


300g puff pastry dough
400g ripe tomatoes
2 tbsp black olive tapenade
salt and freshly ground black pepper
a handful of fresh basil leaves, to garnish
a baking sheet, greased

On a lightly floured surface, thinly roll out the puff pastry to form a circle about 27cm in diameter. Chill the pastry circle in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.

Cut the tomatoes into 0.5cm-thick slices.

Place the chilled pastry circle on the prepared baking sheet. Spread the olive tapenade evenly over the pastry, leaving a 2cm rim around the edge. Arrange the tomato slices in spiralling rings over the tapenade, overlapping them slightly. Season with a little salt and freshly ground pepper, bearing in mind the saltiness of the tapenade.

Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 150C/300F/gas mark 2 and bake for a further 1 hour, until the pastry is crisp and goldenbrown and the tomatoes are cooked through.

Serve either warm from the oven or at room temperature, garnished with basil leaves.

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