It isn’t the little things. It is the really big things that I miss. I know I am spoilt, but I like tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. Tomatoes that have grown outside, in the sunshine. That have ripened gently in the warmth of the midday heat whilst still attached to the vine. These days I suppose I am considered difficult, a snob or possibly eccentric at best. The orange, perfectly round versions that bounce (three times I’ll have you know), that I can acquire readily in our local supermarket, just don’t cut it. It is humbling when you realise that your enjoyment of life is seriously diminished by the lack of a good tomato. I am not entirely sure what this says about me, but I have reconciled myself with the truth of the matter. Tomatoes, for me, are a really big thing.
I was teaching last week and manipulated a menu to demand tomatoes. Good tomatoes. A whole crate of them. My quest for good ingredients (and my belief that it is only good ingredients that can make a good end result) seems to become heightened to the point of obsession the older I get. With tomatoes there is just no hiding. You cannot make tomato soup with a tomato that doesn’t taste like a tomato. Perhaps I am stating the obvious. I have a secret hope that I am preaching to the converted.
As it happens, it turns out that I am not the only one who is obsessed. The handful of boxes of baby San Marzanos that are flown into Singapore every week from Southern Italy over the European summer are fought over by Chefs with fat cheques and big names. I have neither. I have better.
I have a three (and 3/4) year old blue eyed boy that loves to come with me to the wholesale dock and bat his blond eyelashes at all the workers. He sits on an enormous box of fresh water chestnuts, and is fed peeled rambutan by charmed and bemused “Vegetable Uncles”, while his mother braves the giant refrigerated warehouses and the surly attitude of the harangued manager. I re-emerge ten minutes later in a cloud of chilly air as I meet 33C heat and the cheers of my son. ‘Yay Mama… you got the Zanermatoes!”
More than a little precocious he may be, but I don’t care. Round here he is a golden haired demi-god, and today my demi-god got me the last box of San Marzanos, while culinary heavy weights begged over the phone with only cash as collateral. As we scoffed vine after vine, I started to wonder if the soup would taste any good if they got infused with all the smugness in the car on the way home.
Iced Tomato Soup with Basil Oil
Serves 8 as a starter. Best made the day before you need it.
20 medium tomatoes, the best, reddest, most flavoursome you can find – approx 1 and a half kilos
The following subsequent ingredients are sometimes entirely unnecessary, but have them to hand anyway in case your tomatoes aren’t quite as ‘tomatoey’ as you would like:
2 large red bell peppers (capsicums)
2 TBSP red wine vinegar
1 ½ TBSP sea salt flakes
½ tsp chopped, minced garlic
1 TBSP caster sugar
Plenty of fresh ground black pepper
1 cup best olive oil
Handful of basil leaves (removed from stalk)
Pinch of sea salt
A loaf of really good sourdough, a baguette or ciabatta are all good to serve with the soup
Get out the biggest bowl and pot you own. Fill both with water, put the pot on the stove and add as much ice as you can into the bowl of water. If you have lovely vine ripened tomatoes; wash the vines and keep for later.
Skin the tomatoes by piercing, plunging into boiling water and removing after ten seconds or less, when skin just begins to peel away. Plunge immediately into ice bath. Do this in small batches of tomatoes and wait for the water to come to the boil again before introducing the next batch. A small metal sieve is a good scooping implement for this job or even a Chinese style ‘spider’ spoon, but old fashioned slotted will do. Remember, you do not want the tomato to cook at all or the flavour will resemble tomato sauce. Peel the tomatoes in the iced water, cut out area where the stalk meets the tomato if it looks tough, chop and put into food processor. I use an immersion blender and an enormous jug to hold the tomatoes for this job, but a magimix or similar is just as good.
Taste, and decide what of the subsequent ingredients (if any) you need to add. I made our soup with half of the box of baby San Marzanos above. It did not need a single other ingredient…including salt!
If using; hold bell peppers with metal tongs over gas flame until they blacken and blister. Peel, deseed, chop and put into food processor with tomatoes.
Add vinegar, seasonings and pulse again. The seasonings are only a guide. Slowly add more vinegar, sugar and salt to taste, but remember that flavours are intensified after chilling and you can always season again just before serving.
Chill in fridge for at least good couple of hours before serving if you haven’t managed to make it the day before. Place the reserved, washed, vines into the soup before chilling. Most of the essence of ‘tomato-iness’ (I know…terrible… but couldn’t come up with any better word), in fact comes from the leaves and stalks of the tomato, and placing the vines into the soup helps to impart some of this wonderful aroma and intensifies the flavours. This isn’t a silly suggestion – I promise it really works.
Make the basil oil by blending the basil leaves and oil with a tiny pinch of salt (again, best done with an immersion blender).
If it is really hot outside you can serve the soup with ice cubes floating about. Spoon a drizzle of basil oil over the surface and serve with some thin slices of garlic rubbed toasted sourdough, a chunk of hot baguette or some fat slices of warm Ciabatta bread.
This one’s for N.
Panzanella is one of those dishes that feels like summer in a bowl to me. I can’t remember the first time I ate it, but I know that it has always been a favourite in our house. The River Café had it on their menu years ago and I do remember thinking that this was most definitely the way it was supposed to be eaten. I am pretty sure theirs was made with a Pagnotta style bread, quite hard to get hold of unless you are in Italy or France and near a very good bakery, or close to La Fromagerie in London (here you can buy it by the quarter – useful as they are enormous).
True Panzanella is a rustic country dish born out of a glut of summer tomatoes and yesterdays’ left over bread. They don’t have to be fancy baby San Marzanos, in fact I think there isn’t a tomato in the world better than an English one at the height of summer. If slightly over-ripe and warm from the sun, picked straight from the garden; all the better.
People argue over whether anchovies or nicoise (or taggiasche) olives ought to be introduced; whether expensive toasted bread or yesterdays’ more authentic old loaf is better; and whether it should be Baby Cherry, over-ripe English, Heirloom or Roma/Plums that should be used. And anchovies. Oh the debates over anchovies!
As far as I am concerned the ‘right’ ingredients to use are the ones that you have, or at least the ones that you like the best. On this particular day, I used large and very fresh Marjoram, and a couple of tiny soft thyme leaves, as well as a few leaves of basil. Undoubtedly not truly correct, but utterly delicious just the same. As long as you stick roughly to the volumes of ingredients below there are no serious rules – other than make sure you use very good red wine vinegar and the best olive oil you can lay your hands on. The picture above in fact looks as though there is as much (or more) bread than tomatoes, but actually it is about 2/3 tomatoes and 1/3 bread. Again though; the preference is personal and the volumes are flexible.
5 fat slices of Ciabatta, about 200g, or other rustic style day old (or older) crusty bread. You can put it in the oven for a few minutes once broken up for full effect!
500g peeled baby San Marzano tomatoes (for directions see Iced tomato Soup recipe)
1 TBSP red wine vinegar
3 TBSP best olive oil
½ tsp sea salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves crushed garlic
A good handful of basil, torn. Other herbs such as marjoram or oregano and thyme can be added too
If you can’t get your hands on baby tomatoes don’t worry – just buy the best, reddest and juiciest you can find. I always peel mine, but again this may not strictly be authentic. Not peeling is lazy and will not give you the best end result, but there are those that argue with conviction that tradition should rule. Cut the tomatoes in half if small or into rustic chunks if large.
Make a dressing with the oil, vinegar, S&P and garlic and pour over the tomatoes in a bowl. Give them a good stir and leave them at room temperature for about fifteen minutes. All the juices will start to flow from the tomatoes and begin to make a wonderful soupy mess at the bottom of the bowl. Give them another good stir and then slowly start to stir in the chunks of bread. I like to do this when the chunks are a little warm from a slight toasting in the oven. Make sure all the bread is well covered in the juices and don’t worry if it looks a little dry. Give it a stir every now and then and you will be surprised how much the bread starts to soften and become a wonderfully sodden mess of tomato and aromatics. Throw on the herbs and serve.
By the way, if you have a truly beautiful bread and can’t bear to tear it up, you can always cut fat slices, rub garlic and olive oil over them, and toast in the oven (or better still on a griddle) until golden. Then, spoon over a load of tomatoes and herbs for a really tasty bruschetta. A lovely lunch if served with a few greens and a cold beer.