Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Importance of Tomatoes

   The importance of tomatoes to our cultural and culinary world is so great it nearly goes unrecognised.  The vast myriad of sauces, preparations, signature dishes, home cooked favourites and processed goods which contain this South American fruit are incalculable.  At times, we need to step back from an ingredient and examine it at its very best, raw and untouched state.  The colours, shapes, varying sweetness, acidity and fragrance of heritage, (heirloom across the pond) tomatoes are unsurpassed.  The versatility of beefsteak, the honeyed hit of cherry, the earthy aroma of any fresh tom from the vine.  The varieties are endless.  Green Zebra have a firmness that hold up to breading and frying, Beef Hearts are meaty and robust, Goldens adding a great colour twist and San Marzanos the classic.  The older I get as a chef, the simpler I prefer my cooking.  So; if I can present a stripped down Caprese but use an unusual mix of tomatoes, I’m keeping it real but still giving the diner a unique experience.
    Tomatoes were once regarded with much suspicion in Britain, even poisonous by some.  By the mid-18th century they were a near staple and British tomatoes in season, (possibly not this one) are some of the very best.

The Importance of Caprese

An Italian classic.
The simple combination of fresh tomatoes, basil, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil and seasoning will be with us until the end of time.  The first picture here reflects Caprese at its most base principle, contrasting with the other offering, an altogether posher affair.  In the latter, the very best of heritage tomatoes have been tossed with extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and Cornish sea salt flakes.  Arranged carefully and dotted with basil cress from Teign Valley Micro Herbs, fresh buffalo mozzarella and little quenelles of basil pesto.
Take care when buying mozzarella. Price usually dictates quality and buffalo is far superior to cow. Those 80p rubber balls at your local hypermarket aren’t worth the bother, spend a bit more for the real thing and always serve at room temperature.
Pesto shouts of summer and is a great condiment. Easy to make, stores well and flexible for all manner of pasta, bread or salad combinations.

To make:
3 good handfuls of fresh basil leaves
½ garlic clove
3-4tbsp Parmesan cheese
2-3tbsp toasted and cooled pine nuts
Olive oil
Simply blend to a paste, drizzling oil to your desired consistency.
Top Tips
-Seasoning. So important. Tomatoes love sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper.
-Room temperature. Always. A tomato served fridge cold is a near crime in my world.

The Importance of Sauce

It would be near ridiculous to include a recipe.  Everyone should be able to whip up either a fresh or cooked tomato sauce to their taste with olive oil, chopped onions, garlic and seasoning.  One of the most effective concoctions and one of the very simplest.  There is no excuse to buy jarred sauces.  Period.  A fresh tomato sauce takes mere minutes.  A cooked, thirty or so.  Tomatoes have a powerful flavour, high liquid content and soft flesh that breaks down easily to aid in the thickening to a superb and unmistakable mouthfeel end.  The key is to use fresh ripe tomatoes or quality canned.  Napolina plum tomatoes would be the only ones I use from the hypermarket.  In the restaurant we use Caesar.  Whether it be puttanesca, arrabbiata, Mama’s secret recipe or ketchup...tomato sauce is the queen of all the mother sauces.
The classic Tomates a la Creme first graced the pages of Edouard de Pomiane’s unique and charming book, Cooking in Ten Minutes, and has been handed down through the ages by Elizabeth David and Simon Hopkinson.  A near sauce itself; here I have utilised the best of heritage tomatoes. The end result just keeps the integrity of the tomato with the added luxury of near caramelisation. The acidity of the tomato cuts the heaviness of the double cream beautifully.

Tomates Heritage a la Creme
For a starter or side dish for 4

8 medium size ripe tomatoes (a nice mix of heritage if you can get them)
2tbsp Butter
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
8tbsp double cream
Basil leaves

1) Cut the tomatoes in half through their middles.
2) Season the tomatoes well and let sit for five minutes.
3) Heat a frying pan, melt the butter and lay out the toms, cut side down.
4) Cook for a few minutes, jabbing a few punctures in the upturned bottoms.
5) Turn carefully with a palette knife, (try to avoid tongs for most things) and cook for another    5-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the tomatoes.
6) Turn again and add the cream between the tomatoes. Add the basil to the cream.
7) The cream will bubble and reduce very quickly, mixing well with the leaked tomato juices.
8) Serve immediately.

The Importance of Concasse

The simple act of cross hatching the bottom of a tomato and carefully digging out the root with a sharp knife from the other end is one of the first things one learns in a professional kitchen.  Plum, San Marzano or Roma are best for this due to their supple, tapered shape and the subsequent 30-40 second blanching in boiling water, ice refreshing and skin peeling is a job I have performed countless times.  For a time; top chefs tired of using this technique, but we had to return in the end.  There is no substitute for the silky and acidic hit of tomato concasse.  Its most famous incarnation being heaped on Italian bruschetta, the tomato concasse became somewhat restaurant weary with its uniform inclusion into every sauce and garnish in the chef’s repertoire.  A good long rest from the table and a begrudging nod to its irreplaceable position has brought it back to my daily mis en place.  Here I have tried to do a very simple dish of fried cod with a chervil butter sauce, the classic tomato concasse presented very old school- dotting the sauce, and a uniform petal gracing the crisp top of the cod.  The flaky, buttery fish with silky, just-so-tart peeled tomato is heavenly.

Thursday, 5 July 2012


Along with wild garlic, I see samphire as the gateway drug to foraging.  Abundant, obvious and full of flavour, samphire is a British seasonal staple that fell from favour but has made a full recovery to feature prominently on top restaurant menus.
Firstly, there are two forms of samphire.  Rock samphire is the broader leafed, fuller flavoured and rather spicy version that was once highly prized and lends itself well to pickling.  Scarcer than in its heyday and moderately difficult to harvest from cliffs and rocks along coastal regions, it is an ingredient well worth seeking when out on a seaside walk.  The more singular flavoured and coral like marsh samphire has taken over in popularity due to abundance and ease.  It has a fantastic colour when blanched in boiling water for a minute or so, a lovely crunch and a sea salty freshness that dictates its pairing with all manner of fish dishes.  It also compliments lamb, salads and a great last minute addition to a chunky seafood chowder.  Marsh samphire was also a very popular source of soda for glassmaking, hence its other name- glasswort.  Collected by hand in the summer months from the edges of tidal creeks, marsh samphire truly is one of those easy, free foods.  Whatever your preference, true samphire and glasswort should be considered two of the real heroes of the South West larder, harvested for nothing and eaten with pride and gusto.

Here we have a few dishes that showcase what a great additive marsh samphire can be as a flavour enhancer similar to a caper or gherkin, a colour booster and an integrity injector to any menu.

Heirloom Tomatoes, Ricotta & Samphire

Getting in with someone that knows their tomatoes and plants a wide variety of old school viners is a must.  It really lifts even the simplest of capreses to have a cross section of shapes and colours to a simple tomato dish.  Some seasoned ricotta is dotted about the tomatoes that have been tossed in sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  My love affair with celery leaf is well documented and is unsurprising in its inclusion. Mwah.  Note: Bear in mind when working with samphire, it is salty.  The seasoning of the other ingredients may need to lowered somewhat to compensate the overall mouthfeel.

Warm New Potato Salad (But not as you know it)

The usual potato salad is a rather depressing thing. Drenched in poor quality mayonnaise, over cooked watery potatoes and a few scattered onions.
Sweet and earthy new potatoes such as Cornish Earlies or Jersey Royals have a nuttiness that should be accented rather than hidden.  Whether you prefer waxy or floury, give a new potato a bit more love and put your thinking cook’s cap on.  Here, I’ve interspersed the samphire with shaved fennel, ruby grapefruit, radish, orange, goats’ cheese, soft herbs and, (surprise, surprise) celery leaf to bash together a radiant summer melange of colours, flavour bursts and texture contrasts.  Begging to start off a meal with a crisp white or rose.

Salmon ‘Mi Cuit’, Pickled Beetroot & Citrus

This is a dish very dear to our hearts at Southernhay House.  My apprentice Nick Clifford; along with fellow apprentice from our newly opened neighbor, Chapter Magdalen, placed third this year in the UK Young Seafood Chef of the Year this past April.  This was their intermediary course and it really is a winner.  The salmon is cooked sous vide, showcasing the velvet texture of the oily fish and is aptly garnished by lightly pickled candy beets, citrus segments and blanched samphire.  Visually stunning and a real treat to eat.  Well done lads on your first ‘signature’ dish.

Devon Mackerel Teriyaki, Noodle Salad & Samphire

I love teriyaki. It really is such a handy thing to have tucked away in the fridge.  A nice break from the usual condiment, shelf life is near eternal and it just tastes damn good on almost everything. Cold or hot, thick or thin teriyaki is superb with fish or meat, the only trick is to bear in mind when cooking with this sugary sauce, the primary ingredient can easily burn.  Your goal is a nice crusty char but use care.  Here, I’ve brushed the mackerel fillet in the sauce and quickly cooked in a hot pan with a little sunflower oil.  The egg noodles are dressed with lime juice, soy sauce, sesame oil, spring onion and of course, samphire.  The arrangement of the lightly pickled carrot and cucumber beneath is visually effective, yet very tasty and in keeping with the rest of the dish.  A few sesame seeds, a bit of applicable cress, drizzle voila.
200ml soy sauce
100gm brown sugar
1 crushed garlic cloves
1 star anise
1 small knob of peeled ginger, roughly chopped
1/2 zest and juice of a large orange
-Combine the ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a boil and and reduce to the desired thickness.
-Gently coat meat or fish before frying or grilling and add more as needed/desired throughout cooking or depending on the size of ingredient.

Artichokes, Broad Beans, Goats’ Cheese & Samphire

This is another one of those, ‘have a look about, see what’s good and colourful, toss it all together and enjoy.’ The only set recipe would be that it looks and tastes fresh and summery. Young globe artichokes have been charred and combined with blanched broad beans, Vulscombe goats’ cheese, oven roasted beefsteak tomatoes, new potatoes and butter beans.  Mixed together in a big bowl with a lemony olive or rapeseed oil, seasoning, soft herbs of choice and, of course the hero of the day...samphire.  Very Mediterranean, tasty and a winner to keep the ever angsty vegetarians at bay.

Note: As with all foraging, care needs to be taken regarding the natural environment. Correct picking; ensuring the crop returns, trod lightly, and ensure you have 'right of way' concerning wild crops. Check with your local authority or nature groups if unsure.

An edited version of this article featured in Devon Life Magazine 2012.