The tomato has been said to be just one chromosome removed from the human being. (I know – I also know some people like that.) This must be very worrying for tomatoes. Looking at the human world around them, they must marvel that they are almost capable (but for a solitary chromosome) of the kind of evils their human cousins are able to indulge in.
The movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and its sequels, Return of the Killer Tomatoes, Killer Tomatoes Eat France and Killer Tomatoes Strike Back, come to mind, so perhaps there is something in it. The official blurb for the original runs: “The nation is in chaos! Panic sweeps the countryside! Vicious, man-eating Killer Tomatoes have escaped from an experimental Government programme, and have embarked on a rampage of wanton destruction!” I especially love the premise for the French episode: “The picture stars John Astin as Professor Mortimer Gangreen, an oft-thwarted (but never daunted) misanthropic mastermind bent on total world domination. With the aid of his Killer Tomatoes, he plans to foment a Second French Revolution – the garden variety!”
I don’t know if the one-chromosome-removed rule applies to all types of tomato. Given a choice, I’d rather be closely related to a plum tomato or those rosa or santa tomatoes, deliciously sweet with only a hint of tartness, than those ghastly, cheek-churningly tart little ‘cherry tomatoes’ which, thankfully, have gone out of fashion.
Great hulking jam tomatoes are often soggy and limp, and worst of all is that dressing-soaked sliced tomato you find in a salad bowl three hours into a party or braai.
But a tomato is, of all the vegetables out there, a splendidly adaptable fella, which is more than can be said of some people I know although it is generally one of the more pleasant traits of the human creature.
But they are wonderful things to cook. Tomatoes I mean. The only major cuisine I can think of which manages almost entirely without tomatoes is Thai, so I guess there is an argument for being able to get by in the kitchen without using any at all, given what a delicious cuisine Thai food is.
But for much of the rest, tomatoes are integral. The French adore them, especially in the south. Italy is awash with them. They’re a key part of many Indian curries, especially in the south. The tomato is probably the most common vegetable in South African cuisine, perhaps partly because we eat a world of dishes, both from the countries of origin of many of our countrymen and from the parts of the world that have become a key part of the global food movement.
Years ago, a South African friend who is half-Italian made for me a dish – in about half an hour – that was a tomato and red pepper sauce for pasta. But she didn’t just slice, cook and stir. She blanched the tomatoes, then removed their skins and pips, using only the flesh. She roasted the peppers until they were blackened, and removed their skins, and, again, their seeds. Then this got pounded with garlic into a sauce for perfectly al dente pasta, and I learnt, in one simple lesson in the early Eighties, that pasta is best if treated as simply as possible, and that the flavour of a tomato and a bell pepper improve remarkably with some heat applied before use.
Recently, during a much-needed and overdue mini-break, I was given a basket of farm-fresh tomatoes, red peppers and pimentos – the smaller, chilli-like ones – and sundry other vegetables by a friend who farms near Greyton. I tried a variation of that old Eighties recipe, but rather than blanche the whole tomatoes in boiling water to then remove their skins, I roasted them whole with the whole peppers and pimentos, and for that matter also with the whole onion and fat garlic clove…
Roasted tomato and red pepper tagliatelle
1 large onion, whole
1 giant clove garlic or 2 or 3 regular ones
6-8 ripe, medium tomatoes
2-3 red pimentos
4-5 red peppers
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
5 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
Pasta of your choice, cooked until al dente, drained and tossed in the prepared sauce
First make a cross in the top of each tomato with a sharp knife so that they don’t burst, with their juices splattering all over the oven. Make an incision in each pepper too, and a cross at the top of the onion. Toss the whole vegetables in olive oil and bake on an oven tray at 180°C. The peppers were first to be soft and soggy (surprisingly), followed by the tomatoes, so give the pair about 50 minutes, keeping an eye. Remove the peppers and tomatoes, and leave the onion and garlic clove to roast for another 10 minutes or so.
When the vegetables have cooled: chop the onion fairly finely, remove the skins and seeds from both the tomatoes and the peppers, cut into small pieces, and finely chop the garlic.
Place everything in a saucepan, add a good splash of olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and simmer, stirring and mashing the vegetables until you have a delicious sauce, only five minutes or so.
Cook the pasta (I used tagliatelle) in briskly boiling water until al dente, drain and toss into the sauce.
First published in Weekend Argus May 2012