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
- 8 firm, fruity, fleshy and flavorsome medium-sized tomatoes
- 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
- 1 kg potatoes