Like Romeo to Juliet, Bonnie to Clyde and Bert to Ernie, Matt Preston makes the case for the everlasting (delicious) love between cheese and tomato.
The cheese and tomato love affair.
IF THREE mildly frustrated tweets are enough for the online media to declare that the internet was “up in arms” about someone’s actions, then the reaction to my column on the joys of potatoes and cheese last month caused a maelstrom.
Most of the tweets (I think there were five or maybe six, making this a genuine “uproar”) seemed to be a little perturbed that potato was not the natural partner for cheese – in much the same way that I would not be the natural partner for Kim, Angelina or one of the Woodies.
Onion maybe? Grapes possibly? Pickles, definitely! But above all these, cheese apparently belongs with tomato better than everything else. Even if we leave out the internet’s obsession with the Capri salad (tomatoes, mozzarella, basil in its most basic form), there is a rather good case to be made that this may well be true. Let me lay it out…
Whether it’s little polpette meatballs bobbing in a tomato sugo dusted with a finely grated pecorino, or your tomatoey Aussie bolognese with a good shake of parmesan, the double umami hit of cheese and tomato is more than a little magic. I’d even argue that a good mac ’n’ cheese can be lifted with the brightness of halved cherry tomatoes cobbling its cheesy top. This was my mum’s original way to stop us putting tomato sauce on our macacroni cheese, but even now a good glob of ketchup is the guilty secret for more than a few foodies who ought to know better. Cannelloni, lasagne and many pasta bakes, plus a classic eggplant parmigiana or chicken parma/ parmie, all also benefit from this liaison.
CHEESE AND TOMATO SANDWICH
Fresh, or even aged a little so the tomato juice soaks into the bread turning it soft and blushing slightly, any cheese and tomato sandwich is a thing of beauty. The cheese brings salt and savouriness that enlivens bright, fat slices of super-ripe tomatoes. Turn this into a toastie and things hit new heights as the cheese goes all melty and the tomatoes turn to an almost-pickle like sludge without losing their freshness.
Sure, the original nachos were just jalapenos and grilled cheese on corn chips (or to be more accurate, fried bits of stale flatbread), but these are so much better with a tomato salsa or even just cubes of tomato cheek added to the mix before baking. (Keep the seeds to season your guacamole to go with it, as the gel around them has so much flavour).
TOMATO TARTE TATIN
I feel there is something intrinsically wrong about pairing tomato with a custard, whether in a dessert or a quiche – it’s something about eggs and tomato. Or is that just me? I can’t think of any great egg and tomato dishes unless herbs or cheese are also in play. Far better to enlist the help of goat’s cheese and make a savoury tomato tarte Tatin decorated with dollops of goat curd. Use a parmesan pastry to intensify this marriage.
Roasting tomatoes dehydrates them, making them more intense and sweeter. Do this to a few punnets of cherry toms then try tumbling a couple of handfuls of them over a wedge of baked ricotta with slivers cut from a few sweet, pink anchovy fillets. Quicker is to split them in half, remove the seeds, dust with a little caster sugar and pop them under the grill. These toffee tomatoes are excellent with the milkiness of gently warmed haloumi or served on an ’80s-style chicken breast stuffed with a herbed soft cheese like Boursin.
Italians, Greeks and Americans are all united in their love of fried cheese. Try serving wedges of crumbed and fried taleggio with a simple fresh salad of heirloom tomatoes and finely sliced shallots, or nuggets of crumbed and fried soft goat’s cheese with a thick tomato relish, smoky with a little smoked paprika and fragrant with lots of garlic. This relish would also go rather well with cheesy Spanish croquetas, or golden Sicilian arancini balls that have a shot of stringy mozzarella at their centre.
Whether you are making a Greek salad with feta, tomatoes, cucumber, olives and dill; a French-style tomato salad with fresh tarragon and crumbled ashed goat’s cheese; or ricotta, plum and tomato salad with chervil and an acid-forward vinaigrette, it is the perfect balance of sweetness, acidity and juiciness of the tomatoes that goes wonderfully with the saltiness and creaminess of those young cheeses.
While the sweet-sour intensity of the tomato sauce on a Neapolitan or New York-style ‘marinara’ – as in ‘fishermen’s’ – pizza is pretty ace, add milky local mozzarella and it becomes a dish fit for a queen: the ‘margherita’. For me, this is the pinnacle of pizza perfection.
I love light ricotta gnocchi with little more than a fresh Napoli sauce (tomatoes, onions, garlic) and a little parmesan. (This goes equally well with potato gnocchi, but I’d rather not mention potatoes and cheese again.)
We all know they’re officially a fruit, so maybe that will make it less of a shock when I suggest poaching peeled cherry tomatoes in a sugar syrup to use on top of a cheesecake. Just reduce the sugar in the cheesecake mix and pump up the salt in the base to balance it out.