It’s the time of year when I sit at my desk with a bowl of variegated cherry tomatoes at my side. As I ponder the text in front of me, my hand automatically reaches out for yet another of the sweet-tart treasures. Such inspiration they deliver! Red ones, yellow ones, and the ones with a sort of dappled striped surface, orange with red streaks down the side. Then there’s that curious pungent somewhat spicy fragrance of fresh, raw tomato, hard to describe but recognizable in certain kinds of olive oil, especially Spanish picual when it’s well-made (which it often is not). Olive oil descriptors include tomato, green tomato, and tomato leaf, all distinctive, all carrying that memory of late summer and tomatoes.
So what to do with all these tomatoes pouring into the kitchen? First, make pomarola, the Italian country housewife’s pantry staple throughout the year—just red ripe tomatoes (plum tomatoes are best, San Marzano or Roma), either peeled and bottled whole or crushed into a sauce for pasta or a base for soups, maybe with a little chopped garlic or a sprig of basil (best are the blossoming tops of basil shoots) added at the last minute.
You’ll find instructions for bottling whole tomatoes and tomato sauce in my book, The Essential Mediterranean, page 273.
But I wanted something a little more challenging than just a tomato sauce and I found what I was looking for in Ismail Merchant’s wonderful cookbook Passionate Meals (Hyperion, 1994). Ismail, whom I met when I lived in New York, shared a handsome old mansion-house with his partner, James Ivory, in the Hudson valley town of Claverack and there he used to make the most sumptuous Sunday lunches to be enjoyed while sunlight flooded through the high windows of the dining room. (In my memory, this often happened in winter with snow on the ground but a bright sun warming the room.) There too, I imagine, he and James and their co-conspirator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala came up with films like Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day, provocative, evocative, elegant and often brilliantly acted too. But it’s for his cooking that I miss him.
Spicy Tomato Chili Ketchup (A Sort-of Tamatar Chutni in Ismail’s words)
This is a variation created by combining two slightly different recipes. It makes about 6 to 8 cups (3 to 4 pints):
- 2 organic lemons
- One 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
- 1 garlic clove, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
- 5 pounds ripe red tomatoes, preferably plum tomatoes
- 1 cup white wine vinegar
- ¾ cup sugar or more to taste
- sea salt to taste
- 2 teaspoons ground red chili (I used piment d’Espelette)
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed in a mortar
Rinse the tomatoes, cut them in quarters, and set aside.
Cut the lemons in half and discard the seeds. Chop the lemons coarsely and transfer with all of their juice to a food processor. Process until the lemons are finely ground, then add the ginger and garlic and process again to combine thoroughly.
Put the tomato quarters in a large saucepan with the vinegar, sugar and all the seasonings. Scrape in the lemon-garlic mix and add 2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally to mix everything together well.
Simmer for about 2 hours, stirring frequently to make sure the tomatoes don’t catch and scorch on the bottom. Use a flame tamer to keep the heat under the saucepan as low as possible. The tomatoes will give off a lot of juice at first and then start to cook down to a thick, almost syrupy consistency, but they must cook slowly, never boiling, always just barely bubbling and simmering. At the end of 2 hours, you should have a sauce as thick as ketchup.
Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, then taste. At this point you may want to add more salt, more black or red pepper, or more sugar—the sauce should be well balanced between tart and sweet, with the spices adding fragrance.
When the flavors are right, return the sauce to the heat. Have ready 8 one-cup (half-pint) glass canning jars. The jars and their lids should be scrupulously clean, not just washed but rinsed with boiling water. Stand the jars on a wooden surface and fill each one with the simmering sauce. (You may not need all eight.) Screw on the lids and set aside to let the sauce cool down. When the jar lids ping, it’s a sign the seal has set. I store the jars in a cool dark cupboard but if you wish to be super-safe, store them in the refrigerator.
Tart Tomato Tart (after Kate Hill and David Leibovitz)
The biggest problem with a tomato tart is the tremendous amount of juice tomatoes exude as they cook. While this is desirable in a tomato sauce or tomato soup, it is not very pleasant in a tart where the juice just soaks into the crust and makes it soggy. It’s best to use dense paste tomatoes (San Marzano or Roma, for example) and to blot the slices on paper towels to rid them of excess moisture.
Paris food writer David Leibovitz spent time recently cooking with my friend Kate Hill who has a delightful canalside farmlet and cooking school (https://kitchen-at-camont.com) in the southwestern French countryside, west of Agens. They each offered a recipe for the tomato tart they made and each was a little different so I combined the two and adapted them with my own ideas.
I used Kate’s remarkably easy recipe for piecrust—remarkable because it comes together quickly, doesn’t require pre-baking, and has a great buttery flavor that complements the tart tomatoes. Even though the tomatoes called for are ripe and flavorful, there is or should be a natural acidity to tomatoes that is one of the things we love most about them—and the buttery crust balances that nicely.
Kate Hill’s Quick & Easy Pie Dough
Makes a single crust, enough for a nine-inch tart pan.
- 1 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
- 4 ounces (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut in chunks
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1 egg
- 2-3 tablespoons cold water, more or less as needed.
Have ready a cup of cold water with an ice cube in it.
Add the flour and salt to the bowl of a food processor and drop in the butter chunks. Pulse on and off until the mixture is crumbly but a little uneven; some bits of butter should still be visible. Drop the egg into the mix and process briefly. With the processor on, add a tablespoon of ice water. The dough should come together quickly in a ball.
If it still seems too dry, add another small amount, just a teaspoon or so, of ice water. Process by pulsing in order not to over work the dough. It’s a soft dough, Kate warns, and should be handled gently. The amount of water added will depend on the temperature and humidity in your workroom. If you add too much and the dough is sticky, you can mitigate that to a certain extent by gathering together all the dough on a breadboard and kneading in a little more flour. But, again, don’t over knead or over process—that will toughen the dough.
When you’re ready to roll it out, spread a sheet of parchment or waxed paper on your lightly floured rolling board and roll into a circle large enough to cover the bottom and sides of a 9-inch tart pan, preferably one with a removable bottom. Set the crust in the tart pan and trim the edges. (Use the trimmings to patch any holes in the crust.)
This is an excellent all-purpose piecrust. If you’re making a sweet pie, an apple or blueberry tart for instance, sprinkle a tablespoon or more of sugar all over the bottom before filling it. For this savory tomato tart, however, I mixed an egg with a spoonful of Dijon mustard to spread over the bottom, then set it aside to dry briefy before continuing with the filling. The excess mustardy egg got added to the pie.
For the filling:
- About 1 ½ pounds of red, ripe tomatoes (4 medium tomatoes)
- ¾ cup approximately of soft fresh goat cheese
- ¾ cup approximately of crème fraiche
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- A handful of minced fresh green herbs (basil, parsley, chives, lovage, thyme, whatever you have to hand
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped, plus 2 garlic cloves thinly sliced
- 1 egg
- About 1/3 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano or grano cheese
- Black pepper to taste
- pinch of ground red chili pepper
- Sea salt, if necessary (if the goat cheese is salty, you may not need it
- Extra-virgin olive oil for the top
- ¾ cup grated Gruyère, or similar cheese, for the top
Set the oven on 400ºF.
Slice the tomatoes ½ to ¼ inch thick and lay them out on a double layer of paper towels. Cover with another double layer and leave for about 30 minutes, or until the towels have absorbed a lot of juice.
While the tomatoes are draining, make the filling. Combine the goat cheese and crème fraiche and blend with a fork. Stir in the mustard. Set aside a tablespoon of the minced herbs and add the rest to the cheese along with the finely chopped garlic and the egg. Finally add the grated parmigiano, the pepper and ground chili pepper, and the salt, if necessary, to taste.
Spread the cheese mixture all over the bottom of the tart. You should have a layer that’s about an inch thick. Arrange the tomato slices over the top to make two or three overlapping layers of tomatoes.
Arrange the garlic slices in and around the tomatoes. Add a little black pepper. Brush some of the mustard-egg mixture over the rim of the piecrust and then pour any excess around the tomatoes. Transfer to the oven and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the tart from the oven and sprinkle it all over with the grated Gruyère. Return to the oven for another 20 to 30 minutes until the crust is golden and the tomatoes have softened considerably. Remove and sprinkle with the reserved chopped herbs. Set on a rack to cool. It should be served at room temperature or a little warmer.