Saturday, July 31, 2021

SEARCHING FOR THE BEST TOMATO

 

Nine local varieties of tomato, in search of the best.

A friend complained that she couldn’t find good tomatoes—right now, at the height of tomato season! I took up the challenge—to find the best tomato. I bought a lot of tomatoes at my local, village market and set up a cata, a tasting. 


Top row, from left: Daniela, Castellano, Ensalada, Rama. Second row, Canario, Roma, Raf, Kumato and Corazon de Buey. The cherry tomatoes are just for pretty; I didn't include them in the tasting. 


I had nine different varieties (plus cherry tomatoes). Using local (Málaga, Andalusia) nomenclature they were Daniela, Ensalada, Kumato, Canario, Castellano, Corazon de Buey, Raf, Rama and Roma. 

I soon discovered that the local names are not all actual varietals. “Rama” just refers to tomatoes “on the vine.” “Ensalada” just means “salad tomato;” it may or may not be the same as Valenciano, which may or may not be a Rutgers tomato.  Nor do the names correspond to American names. Buying locally, I did not have access to varieties from other regions of Spain.


The Castellano variety was the largest specimen (between 14 and 16 ounces). In spite of the name, it is grown locally, is quite similar to the famed tomato, Huevo de Toro (bull's ball), which I was unable to find in my market. The Castellano is sweet/tart, fruity, soft and juicy, thin-skinned. It is easily damaged in handling, so is not widely distributed.

This Corazon de Buey--"ox heart"-- is a puny specimen. It comes from my garden, where the plants were twice dug up by rooting wild boar and stressed by tomato rot. Like the Castellano, this variety doesn't travel well. It has leathery skin, but peels easily. It's juicy and very sweet.
 
The Daniela variety, widely commercialized. Large, round, red, it is gorgeous. It will keep a couple weeks without deteriorating. 

Where I live, this variety is called Ensalada. It's large and frequently comes to market while still quite green. Local cooks like the green fruit, cut into gajos, wedges, dressed with olive oil and lots of salt. I pick out the ripest (reddest) of these tomatoes and let them mature a couple days more. They are juicy, sweet/acid balanced. This was the second largest tomato, weighing from 8 to 12 ounces.

The Kumato is a protected cultivar, developed in Spain, unusual for its darkened red color. It is tough skinned (best peeled) and has a winey, tart flavor, very firm texture. 

Deeply ridged, the bright red Raf tomato is very pretty. It has an intense flavor and is quite firm. Developed in Almería, the name stands for resistance to Fusarium, a disease that affects tomato plants.  

Rama tomatoes come to market dangling from the vine. They are medium-sized, very red and long lasting. The rama, or branch, is useful for hanging the tomatoes, the best way to keep them.

Two varieties here, on the left is the Canario, a small round tomato extensively grown in the Canary Islands. On the right is the Roma, or tomate pera, "pear" tomato, known in English as the plum tomato. It's grown year-round under plastic and, besides being a fine cooking tomato, is a reasonably good salad tomato in the winter when other tomatoes fare poorly.  

The tasting plate--nine varieties, no salt, no oil, plain toast to nibble between tastes.



Was this beauty the best tomato we tasted? It's probably the variety that so disappointed my tomato-loving friend. With its smooth red skin, no lumps or blemishes, it looks like the perfect tomato. 

Maybe somewhere it's as good as it gets. The Daniela is bred to stand up to industrialized picking, packing and shipping. Besides looking good, it has a long shelf life. 

No, along with Rama and Canario, the Daniela was the least good tomato we tasted. They are insipid in flavor, mealy in texture. Not what you want to make a great gazpacho.

And the winner is--- This wasn't a fair fight. The best tasting tomato was not one purchased at the municipal market. It was the stunted Corazon de Buey from my own garden. Of the market tomatoes, I liked best the Castellano (bigger than Beefsteak!), the Ensalada and, surprising to me, the Kumato. All three had the most intense flavors, best sweet/acid balance. The Ensalada, in fact, is my go-to tomato for salads, gazpacho, sandwiches. 

Tomato Salad with Cheese
Ensalada de Tomate con Queso




This salad is best if the tomatoes are sliced and dressed with vinaigrette shortly before serving. The longer they stand with salt, the more juices they give off. Of course, the juicy version of tomato salad is pretty delicious too; served with bread for dunking.
 
Tomatoes with especially tough skins are best peeled. Your choice. Slice the tomatoes not too thick, not too thin—3/8 inch is about right. 

I like queso fresco de cabra, a fresh, soft, white goat cheese, for this salad. It’s very mild in flavor and not very salty. Feta or fresh mozzarella could be used instead. 

3-4 tomatoes
4 ounces fresh white goat cheese
Vinaigrette for Tomato Salad (recipe follows)
Croutons (optional)
Maldon salt flakes

Use very sharp knife to slice tomatoes.


If desired, peel the tomatoes. Cut away the stems and slice the tomatoes crosswise. Cut large slices in half. Spread the sliced tomatoes on a platter or divide between 4 individual plates.

Slice the cheese and cut it into 1 ½ -inch pieces. Tuck the slices between the sliced tomatoes. Spoon the vinaigrette over the tomatoes. Sprinkle with croutons, if desired. Sprinkle generously with salt flakes.

Vinaigrette for Tomato Salad
Vinagreta para Tomates

For this vinaigrette, I used Picual, a single varietal extra virgin olive oil, instead of my usual blended oil. It’s pungent, with a bite that complements the sweetness of fresh tomatoes. I added vinegar in moderation. Tomatoes are good with no vinegar at all, but a small quantity of vinegar helps to emphasize their sweetness. There’s not much salt in the dressing, but be sure to sprinkle the tomatoes liberally with flaky salt to serve. Garlic is optional; you may prefer to leave it out.

The vinaigrette can be made in advance. Keep it, covered, at room temperature up to 8 hours. Add the parsley immediately before using the vinaigrette.

1 small clove garlic, minced or crushed
¼ teaspoon salt
2-3 teaspoons Sherry vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

In a small bowl combine the garlic, salt and vinegar. Whisk in the oil. Stir in the parsley immediately before using the vinaigrette.

Toasts with Tomato
Pan con Tomate

Spread grated fresh tomato pulp on toasted bread. Add olive oil and sliced ham.

For pan amb tomàquet in Cataluña, you rub toasted bread with tomato, but in Andalusia, for pan tumaca, you spread the toast with lots of grated tomato pulp. Drizzle generously with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with salt and you’ve got a perfect breakfast or snack. Add thinly sliced serrano or ibérico ham (omit the salt) and it’s sensational.

Sliced bread or rolls, split open
Tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt, if needed
Sliced serrano or ibérico ham

Use thickly sliced country bread, baguette, split bollos (crusty rolls) or molletes (soft buns). Toast the bread slices or split rolls in a toaster, on a ridged grill pan or under the broiler. 
Grate tomato, discard skin.

Grate the tomatoes coarsely, discarding the skins. (Approximately 1 medium tomato for a 7-inch bread roll.)  Spread the tomato pulp on the toasted bread. Drizzle generously with oil. Sprinkle with salt. Lay sliced ham on top. Serve rolls open-faced or as sandwiches. 








Lots more ideas for how to use tomatoes here.

The festival of the Tomate Huevo de Toro (Guadalhorce, Málaga) runs all through the month of August. See a list of restaurants featuring special menus with this outstanding tomato here.



Saturday, July 24, 2021

COOKING WITH NICO

 

Grandson Nico with his poké bowl. (Photos by Daniel Searl)

“Can you show me how to make poké bowl?” asked Nico, my 13-year-old grandson who had come to visit for a week. “What’s a poké bowl?” I asked. Nico showed me a photo of the bowl he had enjoyed in Segovia, the first stop on a trip around Spain with his parents. 


Poké is a Japanesy-Hawaiian dish, a combo of seafood, chicken or tofu and salad vegetables on seasoned rice. But, what’s it doing in Spain? Apparently, poké bowls are popular. The restaurant in Segovia, Selfish Poke, bills itself as “Hawaii meets Segovia” and claims the food is so good “you won’t want to share.” 

I’m guessing the “build your own bowl” style appealed to Nico, who is an eclectic but finicky eater. He’s crazy about cuttlefish but eschews (some words for you to look up, Nico) cooked green beans. At the restaurant he opted for raw tuna with algae salad, corn kernels and sliced avocado served over rice with a ponzu sauce.

Searing fresh tuna.
Nico and I shopped for fresh tuna at the local market. We came home with two thick tuna steaks. As we intended to eat the tuna raw or very rare, I popped it in the freezer for 24 hours which destroys any possible parasites. Before assembling the bowls, I seared the tuna on all sides, leaving it rare inside. We cut it into bite-size cubes. 

I had several kinds of seaweed in the cupboard, so I made a seaweed salad. I made ponzu sauce using the recipe in Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art, by Shizuo Tsuji, but substituting PX Sherry for mirin, a sweet cooking wine, in the recipe.

While Nico was out playing basketball with his cousin, I made sushi rice, using Spanish Valencian short-grain rice. It’s washed and steamed, then seasoned with rice vinegar and salt.

Cucumber curls to garnish.


I cooked romano green beans cut into short lengths and asparagus tips for the rest of us who do like cooked vegetables. Nico grated carrots and curled cucumber ribbons. I put out an Asian-inflected cole slaw (rice vinegar and a little sesame oil). Even though raw, Nico was having none of it. Cherry tomatoes, yes. 



Nico and I laid out a poké bowl assembly board. Here’s what we had.

Build your own poké bowl.
Vinegared rice
Seared tuna, cut in dice
Cole slaw
Romano beans
Asparagus tips
Cherry tomatoes
Grated carrots
Slivered onions
Cucumber twists
Chopped red bell pepper
Strips of nori (seaweed)
Seaweed salad (recipe follows)
Ponzu sauce (recipe follows)




Nico went first, spreading rice in the bottom of the bowl, adding tuna, carrots, seaweed salad, peppers. Even a few cooked vegetables, just for the beauty shot. He ladled on some sauce. Except for missing corn kernels, he was very satisfied with our poké efforts. Once he gets back home where he can buy ponzu sauce in a bottle, he should easily be able to replicate the poké bowl. 


Nico builds his poké bowl--first, a scoop of sushi rice, then cubes of seared tuna and seaweed salad.


Nico chooses cubes of tuna, seaweed salad, cherry tomatoes, red bell peppers, grated carrots and a few green beans, just for color (he didn't plan on eating the beans).


Seaweed Salad
Ensalada de Alga


You can buy jars of prepared seaweed salad or you can easily prepare it yourself with dried algae. Use a single seaweed, such as wakame, or a combination. I used wakame plus a little kombu and sea spaghetti. 

The seaweed is edible after simply soaking in water to rehydrate it. But I prefer it cooked, as well. Soak the sea spaghetti and wakame separately for 10 minutes and cook each in simmering water 10 minutes more. Soak kombu 10 minutes and cook it for 35 minutes.
 

1 ½ cups rehydrated and cooked seaweed (about 1 ounce dry)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons Sherry vinegar
Salt, to taste
Toasted sesame seeds, to serve
Sliced cucumber, to serve

Drain the seaweed well. Place it in handfuls on a cutting board and chop or shred it. Put the seaweed in a bowl. In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, soy sauce, sesame oil and vinegar. Mix with the seaweed. Taste for salt and add if needed. Serve immediately or refrigerate, covered.

To serve, sprinkle the salad with toasted sesame seeds and garnish with sliced cucumber.


Ponzu Sauce, Spanish Variant
Aliño Ponzu

Instead of mirin, a sweet Japanese cooking wine, I used PX Sherry in this recipe. Put it in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil to cook off the alcohol. Cool before adding to the sauce. The authentic Japanese recipe for ponzu says to mature the sauce, refrigerated, for 3 months. I made it the day before we used it. 

1 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1 cup soy sauce
¼ cup PX Sherry, alcohol cooked off
Small handful of bonito flakes (optional)
2-inch square of kombu (kelp)

Mix all the ingredients and let stand 24 hours. Strain the sauce and discard the solids. Refrigerate.




More recipes with algae (seaweed), a product gathered and processed in Spain here.

Another Japanesy recipe: Spanish-Style Sushi.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

CELEBRATE CHOCOLATE!

Chocolate.

Did you celebrate World Chocolate Day (July 7)? Oblivious of the occasion, I nevertheless was moved to make a chocolate dessert. Visiting friends presented me with a lovely gift, a 1 ¾ -pound block—like an ingot--of dark chocolate. I couldn’t just let it sit there to be chipped away in bits.


July 7, 1550, was, supposedly, the date Hernán Cortes, Spanish explorer, introduced chocolate to Spain. Chocolate was originally consumed by the Mayans of Central America. The Aztecs discovered cacao when they took control of Mayan lands in trade expansion. Known as “food of the gods,” it became so valued that only the nobility was allowed to partake of it. Emperor Moctezuma served a chocolate beverage flavored with vanilla in cups of gold. The Spaniards were impressed.

Back in Spain, the Spaniards added sugar to the bitter brew and chocolate soon became all the rage with the nobility. From 1521 until 1600, Spain had a virtual monopoly on the trade in cacao from the New World. Only after that did the British, Dutch and French expand cultivation of the treasured cacao in other parts of the world (Indonesia, Africa, the West Indies). 

Spain still has a passion for thick, drinking chocolate. What is surprising is that they invented few desserts based on chocolate. Even if you spell it “mus” or call it “espuma,” chocolate mousse is still French. 

I’m making a chilled, no-bake chocolate tart. 

Easy to make, no baking required--rich chocolate tart.




 

Tart has a crunchy crumb crust, creamy filling and intense chocolate ganache topping.


Peanuts on top and peanut butter in the filling add depth to the chocolate.


No-Bake Chocolate Tart
Tarta de Chocolate sin Horno

This tart needs to be chilled at least 8 hours to firm it up. It also can be frozen. 

Use any dark chocolate (from 54 to 70 percent). If you’re using very bittersweet chocolate, you may want to add sugar to the filling mix. 

Galletas for crumb crust.
Unbaked crumb crust needs butter to set up firm, so this is one recipe in which olive oil doesn’t substitute well. Use plain cookies, such as Spanish galletas Marías, digestives, vanilla wafers or graham crackers to make the crumbs for the crust. 

A food processor works well for grinding the crumbs and mixing the cream cheese and chocolate for the filling.

Chop the chocolate to make melting easier. Melt it over hot water or in the microwave.

PX Sherry, a sweet, raisiny wine, adds a subtle fruity taste to the chocolate. If you don’t have it, use a tablespoon of milk to mix the filling.

For the crumb crust:
12 ounces galletas (plain cookies) to make 3 1/3 cups crumbs
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon peanut butter
½ cup melted butter (3 ½ ounces)

Grease a 9-inch springform mold. 


Grind the galletas in a food processor to make fine crumbs. (Save 2 tablespoons of the crumbs for the topping.) Add the cocoa powder to the crumbs and process again. Add the peanut butter and combine. With the processor running, pour in the melted butter and process until the crumbs come together in a ball.  

Spread the crumb-butter mixture evenly in the springform pan. Use a large spoon or flat plate to press it firmly. Refrigerate the crumb crust at least 1 hour before filling.


For the chocolate filling:
7 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
1 ½ cups cream cheese (12 ounces), softened
1 ¼ cups mascarpone (9 ounces), softened
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon PX (sweet raisin wine)
Pinch of salt

Place the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set it over a pan of boiling water. Heat the chocolate without stirring until most of it appears melted. Stir the chocolate until smooth and remove it from the heat. Let it cool before incorporating in the filling mixture.

Combine the cream cheese and mascarpone in the bowl of a food processor. Process until they are smooth and creamy. Add the peanut butter and process again. With the processor running, pour in the melted chocolate. Add the vanilla, the PX wine and the salt. 

Pour the chocolate filling into the chilled crumb crust. Spread it evenly. Cover the pan with plastic film and refrigerate at least 8 hours.

For the topping:
4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
½ cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons roasted salted peanuts
1 galleta

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Place the cream in a small saucepan. Bring it just to a boil. Immediately remove and pour over the chocolate. Let it stand 5 minutes to soften the chocolate. Then stir until chocolate is completely smooth.

Place the peanuts and galleta in a mini-processor and process until coarsely chopped. 

To finish the tart:
Loosen the sides of the tart in the springform pan. Release the side and carefully remove it. Place the tart on a cake dish. Pour the chocolate topping evenly over the top of the tart, letting excess drip over the sides. 

Sprinkle the top with the mixture of chopped peanuts and galleta. 

Return the tart to the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Thanks to Sharman Haley, who gifted me with a 1 3/4-pound block of dark chocolate. Sharman is the granddaughter of the founder of Brown & Haley (Tacoma, WA), makers of Almond Roca and other chocolates.

More recipes with chocolate: