Monthly Archives: July 2012

Best to wait

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a tomato fortune must want to stuff some. She might also like to slice a couple thickly for beside her mozzarella, chop some roughly for her salad, skin a kilo carefully for her sauce and crush others enthusiastically for her pappa al pomodoro. 

It was a rash and wholly impractical decision to buy an entire tray of tomatoes from the market, especially given that I was already hot, bothered and well-laden with two kilos of potatoes, a melon the size of a rugby ball and sweaty baby who was doing his best to wiggle out of the sling. It was a deeply unpleasant walk home, the sun beating down, the potato bag cutting into the crook of my arm, the wooden tray issuing forth splinters, my pitiful triceps quivering like softly set jelly and Luca squirming and crying. I considered abandoning some of my load at the corner of Via Marmorata! But then he stopped crying and giggled, so I decided to keep him. The courtyard of my building has never seemed so long or sun soaked. I cursed all 32 steps and flung open the door before dropping everything, including myself, on the cool tiled floor of the living room.

I sat on the floor for some time while my son – resisting sleep – gleefully bashed tomatoes, first against his mouth and then against the floor. The tomatoes were firm, but not that firm! So we crawled from the living room floor to the kitchen floor and ate the casualty squashed on toast rubbed with garlic, doused with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Well I ate – and noted that I could live contentedly for days on just bread, tomatoes, oil and salt (and the odd anchovy) –  while Luca smeared enthusiastically and squealed before sleep got the better of him and he conked-out on my lap.

But enough of this rambling! Lets talk about stuffed tomatoes.

I’ve had the misfortune to encounter some pretty dreary stuffed tomatoes in my time. I’ve also – thanks to a respectable number of holidays in Greece and now seven years in Italy – eaten some good ones. Some very good ones in fact, particularly here in Rome where they are called pomodori al riso (tomatoes with rice.) Romans adore their pomodori al riso. They make them at home of course, but are just as likely to buy them from a canteen-like tavola calda or the local forno (bakery) where vast trays of stuffed tomatoes surrounded by a sea of diced potatoes are baked in the bread ovens until their red flesh is tantalizingly wrinkled and intensely flavoured, the rice moist, plump and tender and the potatoes golden-on-top but soft and sticky underneath, the delicious consequence of wallowing in the oily, tomatoey juices that collect in the tray.

Pomodori al Riso, like much of Rome’s traditional cooking, are without frills, simple, judicious and delicious. Excellent tomatoes are hollowed out and then this jumble of pulp, flesh and seeds mixed with rice, garlic, basil, olive oil and salt to make a stuffing. After a good rest, the stuffing is spooned back into the tomato shells which are then nestled amongst some diced potatoes on a shallow tray before being baked. Then - and this is vital – the baked tomatoes are left to rest for an hour or two in which time the flavors settle, the rice swells and the oily juices from the pan soak back into the tomatoes and potatoes. Good stuffed tomatoes do indeed come to those who wait.

Romans know not just to wait, they also know that the key to good stuffed tomatoes is the right tomatoes. Of course stuffing is important too! As is the kind of olive oil, the type of rice (arborio,) the basil, the garlic, the potatoes and the baking. But the key is tomatoes that burst with sun and flavor, whose sweet fruitiness is balanced by just enough acidity, whose deep curves are as firm and fleshy as Monica Bellucci’s, tomatoes that smell of the tangled vine they grew on. They must be the right size too, about the size of a squashed tennis ball.

Having chosen your tomatoes, you need to slice a lid from the stalk end of each one. Then, in order to create your vessel, you must scoop out the pulp, seeds and flesh from each fruit. A teaspoon is the best tool for this job, be careful not to pierce the outer flesh and skin. Now remember, wateriness is the enemy, so sprinkle a little salt in the cavity of each tomato and set them cut side down on clean tea towel to drain while you set about making your stuffing.

Examine your bowl of pulp, seeds and flesh! Are there any particularly tough, white bits of core? If so, remove them and then blast the jumble of tomato innards with an immersion blender or snip energetically with a pair of scissors (I love to snip energetically) until you have an even pulp. Then add the rice (a generous tablespoon for each tomato plus two for luck), some finely chopped garlic, tons of torn basil, an unruly quantity of good olive oil , black pepper and a fearless quantity of salt to the pulp. Stir, taste, add more salt (it should be courageously seasoned) and leave the mixture to rest – and again this is vital – for at least 45 minutes. At this point, I too like a 45 minute rest, preferably with a cup of iced lemon tea, three biscuits and an episode of desert Island discs.

Once both you and your stuffing are well rested, spoon the stuffing into the tomato shells you have sat in a lightly greased oven dish or lipped oven tray. The tomato shells should only be 3/4 full giving the rice space to expand and swell as it cooks. Put the lids on the tomatoes (I went cross-eyed trying to the reunite the eight lids with the eight tomatoes. There were some swingers.) and scatter some diced potatoes around your red globes. Another slosh of olive oil wouldn’t go amiss. Now maneuver the dish into the oven – which you have conscientiously remembered to pre-heat to 180° – for about 45 minutes – an hour. Remove from the oven and then wait. And wait.

I waited 2 hours before eating one of my tomatoes. It’s hot in Rome and even hotter in my kitchen so my Pomodori al riso were still quite warm. They had collapsed further, slumped really, like me on the living room floor, making them seem even more wrinkled. Good wrinkles though. The rice was as plump as Luca’s bottom. I was glad I’d been so heavy handed with the seasoning. A pool of sticky, oily, tomatoey juice had collected in the bottom of the dish and I made sure to turn the potatoes in it.  I also had spoonful of ricotta di pecora beside my tomato which was entirely unnecessary (the ricotta that is) but very nice.

(As usual) I have been procrastinating and faffing over this post for weeks! Thank goodness for Jo’s post which, like so many of her posts, inspired me and guided me.

Pomodori al riso Tomatoes stuffed with rice

Serves 4

  • 8 firm, fruity, fleshy and flavorsome medium-sized tomatoes
  • salt
  • 8 leaves of fresh basil
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 10 tablespoons of risotto rice (I use arborio)
  • a very generous 100 ml extra virgin olive oil plus a little more for the potatoes
  • pepper
  • 1 kg potatoes
Cut the tops off the tomatoes and set them aside. One by one, hold the tomatoes over a bowl and using a teaspoon, scoop out their insides – flesh, seeds, and juice – and let it all fall into the bowl. Sprinkle a little salt in the cavity of each tomato and then place them cut side down on clean tea towel so any excess water can drain away.
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Pass the tomato flesh, seeds and juice through a food mill or blast it briefly with an immersion blender. Peel and very finely chop the garlic and add it to the tomato. Rip the basil leaves into small pieces and add them to the tomato. Add the rice and olive oil to the tomato. Season the mixture very generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir and then leave the mixture to sit for at least 45 minutes.
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Peel and chop the potatoes into 1″ dice. Put the potatoes in a bowl, pour over a little olive oil and sprinkle over a little salt and then using your hands toss the potatoes so they are well coated with oil.
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Sit your empty tomatoes in a lightly greased oven proof dish.  Spoon the rice mixture into the shells so they are 3/4 full. and then put the lids back on the tomatoes. Scatter the diced potato around the tomatoes. Slide the tray into the oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft and just starting to shrivel and the rice is plump and tender and the potatoes are soft and golden.
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Allow the tomatoes to sit for at least an hour before eating.
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Filed under olive oil, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, recipes, Roman food, summer food, tomatoes, Uncategorized

Oh I do like

…to be beside the seaside, oh I do like a sardine for my tea, oh I do like to roll my spuds in may-on-naise, and some fine green sauce, Tiddely-om-pom-pom! 

My Dad was 70 on Saturday and so, agreeing a week of merrymaking was in order, we are all – all being the celebrated one, Mum, my brother Ben, Kate, their little boy Stanley, my sister Rosie, Paul, their little girl Beattie, Luca and I – staying in a farmhouse in Penare in Southwest Cornwall. Even the pretty persistent rain hasn’t dampened our spirits (actually that’s a lie, it drenched our spirits on Wednesday, thank god for the fudge) or appreciation of the pure loveliness of this part of England.

Secluded, seductive wood-fringed pebble beeches and tiny, unspoiled coves punctuate the undulating coastline. Serpentine cliffs provide a craggy and fierce backdrop to white-sand beaches and the turquoise ocean. Vast gorse and heather covered moorlands are dotted with hairy buttercups and grazing ponies. There are quaint shops in every town, village and hamlet whose sole purpose is selling clotted cream fudge. The ratio of pubs to people is excellent. Dark-green pastures and lush, often magnificent gardens thrive and thrill in Cornwall’s unique damp, warm and almost tropical micro climate.

We’ve been threading our way through leafy lanes over babbling brooks (Really! proper bona fide babbling brooks) in search of tiny fishing villages where we take alternating gulps of salty sea air and local beer. We’ve been to Lizard lighthouse, Roskilly ice-cream farm, Helford, Kynance cove, Gillan cove (where we happened upon a keg of beer on the beach with a note attached inviting us to help ourselves) and St Ives, which is, despite the crowds, twee shops and nostalgia for its artistic heyday, as luminous and lovely as the art it inspired.

We’ve eaten well, Cornish crab, whitebait with proper tartare sauce, hake baked with potatoes, almost perfect fish and chips, local lamb with new potatoes, Cornish yarg, Cornish blue, broad beans, butter lettuce and curly kale from the local allotments, raspberries with sugar and thick, yellow clotted cream, sea-salt and caramel ice-cream (that rivalled anything from my favourite gelateria in Rome), copious quantities of clotted cream fudge, treacle tart, gooseberry fool, gooseberry tart and on Tuesday evening sardines.

My brother Ben undertook the fishy investigations and arranged to pick up 18 freshly caught sardines from the Cadgwith Fishseller. I’m not sure we should have driven down to this exquisite tiny end-of-the-world fishing village wedged into a cleft in the silver-grey rock. But we did. ‘Bloody tourists‘ a local (a crusty old sea-dog no less) snarled as we snaked the car back up the long and winding road with our spankingly fresh fish.

This post should be tagged Bencooks as my brother took charge of both cleaning the sardines – slitting along the bottom of each fish from the throat to the rear vent, then pulling out the innards and rinsing the inside of the fish – and then cooking them – perfectly it must be said, charred on the outside, tender within – on the BBQ. He also made mayonnaise, by hand, whilst sipping locally brewed, optimistically named doombar beer.

I thought I’d already written about making mayonnaise, I’ve certainly rattled on about how much I like this glorious, creamy, silky- smooth ointment of egg yolks, oil and lemon juice, a home-made concoction incomparable to even the smartest commercially produced jar full . But having trawled backwards through my sporadic posts (my shoddy index of recipes was no help) it appears I haven’t. This then, seems like an opportune moment.

I avoided making mayonnaise for many years, believing it to be fiendishly difficult and liable to curdle, split or suffer some other terrible egg suspension/emulsion fate at any moment! Then one evening a few years ago, whilst leaning up against my friends kitchen counter, glass in hand, my tongue a-wagging, she whipped up some mayonnaise. Just like that. No fuss, no palava, no curdling. I peered into her bowl of glorious yellow ointment, ‘What was her secret?’ I whispered in case I really was mayonnaise jinxed and my voice split her master bowl. She looked bemused. There was, as far as she was concerned, no secret and certainly no reason for mayonnaise anxiety (which is rather like pastry and custard anxiety only worse.) Making mayonnaise was, with sound advice and practice, a pretty straightforward affair.

And so the advice: eggs at room temperature, a heavy bowl which doesn’t slide all over the counter, a small whisk, adding the oil (a mixture of groundnut and olive oil) very very slowly, whisking energetically between each addition and – the vital bit – practice. Lots and lots of practice, so you – and I know this might sound pretentious – learn feel the moment when the yolk and oil transform, seize really into an ointment, when the speed you add the oil is instinctive, when the texture feels right – feels like mayonnaise. And if it does split? Pour yourself a glass of wine and then add a drop of boiling water to the mixture. If that doesn’t work start again with another egg yolk in a clean bowl. Beat the yolk and then slowly whisk in the curdled mixture.

But enough talk of curdling, let the whisking begin.

mayonnaise

  • 2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
  • salt
  • 225 ml groundnut oil
  • 75 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a lemon or dab of Dijon mustard

In a heavy bowl (which doesn’t require too much effort or holding to keep it firm) start whisking the egg yolks with a generous pinch of salt.

After a minutes, when the yolks are thick and sticky, start adding the groundnut oil very gradually – by very gradually I mean drop by drop and then a very thin stream. Do not rush and keep whisking as you add the oil.

Keep adding the oil until the mayonnaise seizes into a very thick ointment, at this point you can relax and add the groundnut oil in a slightly thicker stream.

When you have added all the groundnut oil, add the extra virgin olive oil (again in a thin stream) and keep whisking until you have a smooth, silky and firm mayonnaise. You may not need to add all the olive oil. Add a few drops of lemon juice or a dab of mustard, whisk, taste and then, if necessary a few drops/dab more. Add salt as you like.

Dollop on Tiddely-om-pom-pom!.

May I recommend serving your home-made mayonnaise with freshly grilled sardines, waxy new potatoes, a spoonful of salsa verde and a slice of lemon. And for pudding (our tea this afternoon, my niece Bea was beside herself with cream induced excitement) raspberries with sugar and Cornish clotted cream. I hope you are having a good summer.

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Filed under Eggs, fish, food, In praise of, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, recipes