In praise of the glo­ri­ous tomato...

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - Pa­trick Skin­ner

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

onion,

peeled

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.

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