Sun (or oven) dried tomatoes

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Every year when we visit the South of France, I sun dry tomatoes, and while the plump, ripe and halved plum tomatoes sit under the sun’s rays for a couple of days, I mull over the options for preserving or consuming them when they reach my preferred level of dryness.   I tend to call a halt to the process before reaching the truly leathery feel of shop-bought sundried tomatoes, preferring to go for the still slightly squidgy feel where it’s clear there is still some ‘juice’ inside the shrivelled, red exterior.   This year I just bottled my dried tomatoes, stuffing them into a jam jar with a teaspoon of herbes de provence and then topping them with enough extra virgin olive oil to cover the entire contents.

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Our stays in France of a summer come to an end all too soon and the sun-drying opportunities in Dorset are few and far between.  Arriving home in mid-August this year, with tomatoes finally ripening locally, I was keen to dry more fruit so I resorted to using my oven for the purpose which, whilst not seeming nearly as romantic as the natural process, produced surprisingly good results.  For me, this is great news because I like nothing better than opening a jar of preserved summer tomatoes in the depths of winter to give a punch of richness to soups, casseroles  and pizzas.

To oven dry your own tomatoes, simply take a kilo of ripe, plum tomatoes, cut them in half lengthways and place them on a baking tray, skin-side down.  I sometimes sprinkle a pinch of herbes de provence over the tomatoes at this stage.  Bake the tomatoes for four hours in a low oven at 120°C but keep an eye on them to ensure they don’t burn and try to pour off any escaped juice.  After four hours the tomatoes should still have the aforementioned ‘squidginess’ and remain bright red in colour.  Leave them to cool and either bottle as set out above or try my purée recipe below.

Ovendried tomato purée

To make a standard sized jam jar you will need 200g oven-dried tomatoes (from a kilo of fresh, plum tomatoes).

200g oven-dried tomatoes, baked with a sprinkling of herbes de provence
120ml extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp salt

Put all the ingredients in a mini mixer and blitz them until they form a thick paste.  You could add a handful of pitted, black olives to supplement the flavour. Spoon the purée into a sterilised jar and cover with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil before sealing,   Keep in the fridge for up to two months.  Once opened, use within two weeks.  I particularly like to add a dollop to meaty ragus or you could spread some across a roll of puff pastry then top with sliced salami, grated gruyère and olives before baking in the oven for 20 minutes to give a crisp, flavoursome tart.

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(Tomato) soupe au pistou

IMG_20150903_171246The last few days of summer have found me busily preserving tomatoes for use during the winter.  Over in France the long, hot August days were perfect for my first attempt at sundried plum tomatoes which sat shrivelling in the garden sun for two days before being tightly packed into jars with olive oil and thyme. Back here in the UK we had a great crop this year and I batched up several cartons of homemade tomato sauce for the freezer which will be welcome reminders of warmer days during the coming winter months.

All this tomato growing and preserving couldn’t go by without attempting a few new recipe ideas in the kitchen and in a departure from the tried and tested, a provençale classic, soupe au pistou, was subject to a rather tomatoey twist.

Brimming with chunky vegetables from the region, soupe au pistou in various forms is made all year round.  Name a vegetable and you’ll probably come across it in this soup at some stage during the year: courgettes, squash and broad beans in summer; pumpkin, turnips, and cabbage in winter.  Tomatoes, carrots and onions are always present, and the soup is rounded off with a generous scoop of haricot beans and tiny pasta shapes or rice. The final, essential element is the delicious Niçois sauce called pistou – pesto without the nuts – a spoonful of which is added to the soup as it is served.

My version of the soup is heavy on tomatoes and lighter on other vegetables, but the finishing touches of haricot beans and pasta remain.  For the pistou, the aforementioned sundried tomatoes replace green basil, and this gives a real richness to the dish.  Add a hunk or two of crusty bread to go with it and you’re away!

(Tomato) soupe au pistou
Serves four for lunch or as a starter

1kg large, ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped*
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely sliced
1 stick of celery, finely sliced
1 litre of fresh vegetable stock
200g washed swiss chard or spinach (optional)
100g small pasta such as conchigliette, coquillettes or ditali rigati
200g dried haricot beans that have been soaked overnight then simmered until soft
A handful of thyme sprigs
Three bay leaves
1 tsp sea salt and black pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying

* To peel the tomatoes, scoop out the core with a sharp knife and cut a cross in the bottom of each fruit.  Place in boiling water until the skins start to peel back.  Remove and place in a bowl of cold water.  The skins should now peel off easily.

For the pistou:

10 sundried tomatoes from a jar, drained of oil
30g finely grated parmesan
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
60ml extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of salt

Place the pistou ingredients in a blender and  blitz on full power for a few seconds.  Stir and blitz again until you have a smooth paste.  Put the sauce to one side or store in the fridge if it’s hot in the kitchen.

Sauté the onion, carrot and celery in the olive oil until they are soft.  Pour in the tomatoes and fry for a further five minutes.  Add the stock, thyme and herbs and leave to bubble for 20 minutes.  Then throw in the pasta and simmer again for ten minutes or so until cooked through.  Finally, stir in the cooked haricot beans and chard / spinach if using.   Remove the thyme stalks and bay leaves, then season with salt and pepper.

Pour the soup into individual serving dishes and top each one with a good spoonful of tomato pistou.  Ah, summer in a bowl.

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Tomates provençales

IMG_20150615_154514As we start to come into the tomato season, more in the Mediterranean areas than here in the UK of course, I’ve been turning my attention to tomato recipes. When tomatoes first appeared in Italy in the 1600s they weren’t adopted by peasants as a daily food because they weren’t seen as being as filling as other vegetables and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that tomatoes began to feature in Ligurian cookbooks. The tomato marched north after arriving in Italy and the French took to them more easily putting an aphrodisiac spin on them and calling them pommes d’amour.

Today tomatoes are widely used in the cuisine of both countries in salads, daubes, ragus, tarts, sauces and soups. They are routinely stuffed, sun-dried, preserved and roasted but one simple recipe that makes an appearance on my table several times each summer is tomates provençales. Perfect when served alongside an anchovy and garlic studded roast lamb, these crispy, herb-topped tomatoes are just as good served as a light lunch with a hunk of pain de campagne to mop up the juices. This tasty little dish seems to me to be the epitome of simple Provençale cooking, making the most of available ingredients in season and adding herbs and olive oil to impart a distinct regional feel.

Look out for the many colourful displays of tomatoes in the region’s markets at this time of year, pick up a bag for yourself and have a go.  This recipe is based on Mireille Johnston’s version in her book ‘The Cuisine of the Sun’.

Tomates provençales
Serves 4

4 large, ripe tomatoes
A handful of parsley or basil, finely chopped
2 tbsps breadcrumbs
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
Extra virgin olive oil

Slice the tomatoes through their middles and drain them, cut-side down on kitchen towel.  Fry the tomatoes, again cut-side down, in a little olive oil for five to ten minutes on a medium heat. Place them in a baking tray, cut-side up this time and sprinkle with the herbs, garlic, and breadcrumbs.   Season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and pop into the oven at 190°C for twenty minutes until the tomatoes are crispy and golden on the top.

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In pursuit of pan bagnat

IMG_20140818_085046For friends of ours who also lived in the area some years ago, any visit back to Nice involves a search for the perfect pan bagnat, and until this most basic of food cravings is satisfied, no trip is complete.  Inspired by their enthusiasm, we have become fans too and were lucky enough to have double helpings during our last stay. It’s always fun to see how each ban bagnat varies slightly from the next.

You may have already seen a photo of the pan bagnat we found at La Fougasserie in Nice this summer, but our base on this trip was Roquebrune Cap Martin and on my morning strolls down to the popular Boulangerie Rey & Fils I endured several mouthwatering encounters with their freshly-made, stuffed rolls which would stare out at me from behind the counter.  But I was only there for a breakfast baguette and so, morning after morning, I resisted temptation, and if you check out the photo at the top of this post you will see how difficult this was.  Towards the end of the week, however, I found proper, unfilled pan bagnat rolls for sale in Monaco – large ones and this is important. There’s a lot of filling to pile into one of these sandwiches.  With these perfectly designed, beautiful rolls appearing before me unexpectedly, I gave in.  It was time for the DIY pan bagnat.

So what is this irresistible speciality?   Its literal meaning is soaked bread, and years ago it was a salad using the same vegetables and fish we see in today’s ‘sandwich’.  Back then torn pieces of stale bread were thrown into the salad and they would soak up the olive oil, vinegar and the juice from the tomatoes.  Nowadays things have perhaps become more convenient and the aforementioned ‘croutons’ have been replaced by white bread rolls into which the same salad and fish mixture is stuffed.  Essentially pan bagnat is salade niçoise in a roll.  The fundamental fillings include tuna and/or anchovies, sliced tomatoes, black olives, sliced hardboiled eggs, and a variety of other ingredients according to who you believe: radishes, green peppers, spring or regular onions, broad beans, tender baby artichokes, gem lettuce, cucumber and basil all get a mention in someone’s pan bagnat.  The whole mixture is bound together with a generous slug of extra virgin olive oil and a splash of vinegar.

We enjoyed our ‘homemade’ pan bagnat sitting out on the terrace with a view straight across the bay to Monaco, a glass of chilled provençal rosé proving to be a happy pairing.  Back here in the UK, it’s virtually impossible to find bread rolls of the right dimension so I’ve experimented with making my own – see below for details.  Some recipes talk about hollowing out the roll and weighting down the stuffed sandwich for two or three hours.  Do try it if you have the willpower.  I, unfortunately, do not.  Choose your own fillings from the long list already mentioned.  In lieu of pitted black olives which have a tendency to fall out of the roll while you’re eating it, I like to whizz up a handful of them with a little olive oil to make a spread for one side of the roll. And do add a squeeze of lemon juice if you dare.  I like to but traditionalists will tell you it is not the thing.

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IMG_20141115_124742Pan Bagnat Rolls

500g strong bread flour
15g dried yeast
5g salt
50ml olive oil
280ml warm water

Add the liquid to the dried ingredients and mix either in a food mixer with a dough hook or by hand.  Follow mixer instructions or kneed by hand for up to 10 minutes until you have a soft dough that’s not sticky.  Form into a ball, place in a large, oiled bowl and cover with a cloth.  Leave to stand in the kitchen, away from draughts, for an hour or until the dough has at least doubled in size.

When the dough has risen, cut it into four equal parts.  Form into round bread roll shapes.  Flour two baking trays and place two rolls on each – make sure they are well spread out on the tray as they will expand further.  Leave again, covered, for another hour.  After half an hour, pre-heat your oven to 220°C.

After an hour, the rolls should have risen considerably.  Sprinkle them with flour and place them in the oven.  Bake for 12 minutes or until nicely browned on the top.  Cool, assemble and enjoy…..

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Tomatoes, cobnuts and rocket – late summer pesto

IMG_20140903_160429It’s full-on tomato season here in Dorset, and hugely satisfying to see so much ripe, red fruit both in the garden and the greenhouse.  We might even be saved from the usual gallon of green tomato chutney this year.   Over the summer we’ve munched our way through successive pickings of wild rocket grown from seed.  The flavour is so fresh and peppery, the leaves so crunchy when just picked so it’s been a delight to mix up simple salads with this come again crop.  Out in the lanes behind the house, blackberries and cobnuts are suddenly ready for picking, but if yesterday’s blackberry hunt with the kids is anything to go by there will be more eaten along the way than brought home for cooking. Anyway, more on the blackberries in my next post.

One of the recent comments that came back when I asked friends and family what they thought of the blog was that I should probably write a bit more about pesto and pistou.  That is the blog’s title after all.  Good point.  So I’m sharing my recipe for oven-dried tomato, rocket and cobnut pesto, a great sauce for late summer and a tasty way to use up a glut of ripe tomatoes. The tomatoes take three hours to dry out sufficiently in a low oven but you could use jarred sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil if you’re in a hurry. Go for pine nuts if you can’t get cobnuts.  Kentish cobnuts are available now in the UK but the season is pretty short.

No need to serve the pesto with anything complicated. Simply scoop a generous spoonful over linguine, add a few rocket leaves and top with a dollop of ricotta or a few torn strips of mozzarella. Why not add a spoonful to a bowl of fresh tomato soup or spread some over a fillet of grilled salmon or chicken?

Let’s raise a glass to all this delicious late summer produce.  Mine’s a soft red to go with the pesto –  a Barbera from Piedmont I reckon and lightly chilled.  Salute!

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Late Summer Pesto

For oven-drying the tomatoes:

500g ripe plum tomatoes, sliced in half lengthways
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Place the tomatoes on a greased baking tray, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle generously with the extra virgin olive oil.  Bake in a low oven – 140°C – for three hours but do watch them to make sure they are not burning.  Remove from the oven when done and leave to cool.  NB You can also jar up these dried tomatoes, cover them with olive oil and add a selection of herbs such as bay leaves, rosemary and thyme, and then you have your own oven-dried tomatoes to use during the winter.

For the pesto:
(makes approx. 300g)

The oven-dried tomatoes from the above recipe or 150g sundried tomatoes, drained of oil
25g rocket leaves
50g cobnuts (about 150g before shelling), chopped and toasted (or the equivalent of pine nuts)
50g pecorino romano
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
75ml extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of salt

Place all the pesto ingredients in a blender and whizz until mixed.  Add more salt and oil as required.

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