In praise of the glorious tomato...
It is possible that there is not a home in Cyprus, or in any other Mediterranean country for that matter, without tomatoes in its pantry. It is also unlikely that there is any taverna worth its salt that doesn’t have a salad or cooked dish with this noble red fruit in it. It wasn’t always like this… The tomato is a Johnny-come-lately to our cuisine. It is a culinis a culinary wonder, too.
In the islands and highlands of the ancient civilisations of the central and eastern Mediterranean three thousand years ago, the cuisines were well developed, and we would recognise many of the ingredients served then in the homes of the well-to-do. Lamb, beef, goat, chicken, game, olives, leafy vegetables, figs and other fruits. There is evidence of olive oil, animal fat and fish oil and there was wine, and beer, too.
As the centuries unfolded, spices, coffee, tea and herbs – and pasta? – all came from the east, but it was not until four hundred or so years ago that other fruits and vegetables came from the New World, to add further essential ingredients to our cuisine.
In the sixteenth century, a Mediterranean market would have lacked not only tomatoes, but corn, peppers, potatoes, coffee, vanilla, chocolate and many other items in use in the kitchens of today.
The tomato was brought to Europe from South America, largely as a house-plant with pretty yellow flowers and red fruit, grown in the private gardens of the rich, where it was considered an indigestible curiosity. As a food ingredient it was regarded for several centuries with suspicion and it is chronicled that many considered the fruit poisonous. Old wives’ tales persisted into the 20th century – I remember my grandmother telling me that it had no food value and its seeds caused appendicitis. I am also old enough to remember when tomatoes were “seasonal”; that is to say for a few summer months only.
Today, the tomato is not only a ubiquitous, year-round adornment of our salads, sauces and a thousand and one cooked dishes, it is also good for you, especially when it is cooked. A noted English medical man and dietician, Dr Thomas Stuttaford, who writes and lectures widely upon these matters, considers that if a man drinks a small carton of tomato juice a day he has reduced the risk of prostate cancer by more than 40%. He mentions magic words like “flavinoids” and “anti-oxidants” as good things contained aplenty in the jolly old Tommy.
Stuttaford is a cheerful fellow, who considers alcohol in reasonable quantities is good for you, along with your tomato-based pasta sauces, tomato-laced pizzas, and, of course, onions and garlic. His final words of an address to a seminar several years back entitled “Wine and Health” are an encouragement to us all... In the eastern Mediterranean, I look with wonder upon people buying canned tomatoes, when fresh round tomatoes of varying sizes can be purchased all year. Fully ripe, their flavour in cooking is rich and sweet-sour. Cypriot/Greek food is mostly written about in places like the US, Britain and Australia, and the recipes generally use the canned variety, but I always advocate catering with fresh if you can. The difference is noticeable. Added to which, if you don’t like seeds getting into your teeth, you may peel and quarter fresh tomatoes and then remove them. The tomato flesh, chopped, is wonderful simply turned in hot cooked pasta along with chopped black olives, some olive oil and grated Kefalotiri cheese.
Our blessed tomato is a key ingredient in many lamb dishes. I have two beauties for you this week. The first I found in a delightful book by the great (and sorely missed) American food writer, James Beard, one of whose books (pictured) I heartily recommend, reminded me of something virtually the same I have cooked for over 50 years. It’s a recipe you cannot beat! 1 shoulder of young lamb (ask your butcher to remove the bone and roll and tie the joint for you. 2 medium-large onions, peeled and sliced. 1 medium sized aubergine, peeled and diced. 1 small can anchovies. 1 green sweet pepper, de-seeded and cut into strips. 2 cloves of garlic. 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled (and seeded between your teeth”!) 6 tbsps olive oil. 1 medium-sized courgette (about 20 cms long) thinly sliced crossways. 16 – 20 pitted black olives. Salt and Pepper.
if you don’t like “pips
3. In a large saucepan, suitable for both hob and oven cooking, brown the lamb on all sides in the olive oil on high heat.
4. Reduce the heat and add the aubergine, the green pepper, the cloves of garlic, and the tomatoes.
5. Put the lid on your pan and put it into a pre-heated oven at t over low heat or place it in your oven pre-heated to 170°C / 325°F oven for 1 hour.
6. Remove the cover and add the sliced courgette, the black olives, and 2 – 3 sprigs of chopped parsley. 7. Taste and correct the seasoning. 8. Put the pan back in the oven for about another 30 minutes or until the lamb is tender and the vegetables have combined into a rich blend.
9. On a large warmed serving dish place the lamb in the centre and surround it with the vegetable mixture.
Accompany with rice, or a bulgar-wheat (Pour-Gouri) pilaff. 1 kilo lamb 1 medium and sliced 30 g / 1 oz butter 125 ml / 4 fl oz olive oil 2 sprigs rosemary 25 cl /8 fl oz dry white wine 350 g / 12 oz ripe tomatoes 450 g / 1 lb new potatoes Salt and freshly ground pepper
/ 2 lb boned leg of
1. Cut the lamb into chunks. In a large flameproof casserole, heat the butter and oil and fry the onion over low heat until soft.
2. As soon as the onion is transparent, add the lamb and chopped rosemary.
3. Brown the meat evenly over moderate heat, then pour in the wine and cook until it evaporates, stirring regularly.
4. Season with salt and add the chopped tomatoes, peeled and seeded if preferred. 5. Cook over high heat for about 30 minutes, uncovered. 6. Scrape and dice the potatoes, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and add to the meat in the casserole.
7. Transfer the casserole to a preheated oven (350°F) and bake for about 40min.
8. Turn the lamb from time to time to prevent it sticking to the bottom. Serve as soon as the potatoes are browned and cooked through.