Those of us fortunate enough to have space for a greenhouse, a sunny patch of garden, allotment, or indeed – in my case – a brilliantly-bright conservatory, are rubbing our hands in either glee or tense anticipation. Months of tending, cutting out pesky suckers, watering, feeding and tying up are about to pay off with a motherlode of eagerly-anticipated tomatoes.
Our three tomato plants are comically tall owing to my reticence in taming their lush growth. We finally cut them back (despite there being plenty of gorgeous wee bracts at the top) when they reached about 8 feet tall. The lower growth is straggly and unkempt-looking but the top is heavy with glossy green orbs, tinged with the red – and black! – they will become. I’ve picked a few early fruits and eaten them straight off the vine – salty-sweet, and very juicy.
I know you lucky folk in warmer climes have been there and done that with much of your summer crops – beans, peas, watermelons, zucchini, yada yada – but in the cooler and wetter UK our waiting is possibly that much sweeter.
For just a little while longer I will be buying my tomatoes from the market – Lidl often has good, flavoursome fruits. Sometimes I throw caution to the wind and treat myself to posh ones from an organic shop. Shop-bought is not a bad option at this time of year, but in general supermarket tomatoes are grown for uniformity, colour and travel-worthiness. Certainly not flavour, unless you pay a small fortune.
Outwith the summer growing season these wonderfully versatile and beloved of fruits are picked half-ripe, gassed to delay ripening, popped on a plane or in refrigerated lorries (or both), and quickly “brought on” before appearing on the shelves, perkily pretty but tasting of not very much. “Wooly water” is how I would describe out of season tomatoes. What an utter disappointment.
The sheer joy of growing your own tomatoes is one of many reasons to give it a go – resources and opportunity permitting. And you don’t have to have a garden: balconies or a generous windowsill can be just the perfect spot for some of the small, tumbling varieties.
Reasons to grow tomatoes are numerous. First of all the taste: choose the right variety for what you want to do with them and you will be rewarded with a tomato far superior to that found in the supermarket. The sheer variety now available to the home gardener means that you can get a few plants to cover sauce duty and raw-eating duty. Rescued and rediscovered heritage varieties really up the eating ante. And the colours! Black, striped, yellow, purple, orange, and all hues of red. The plant itself is a reason – the heady stems, the distinctive and – to me – very intoxicating leaves.
Some of you will remember the 90s craze for perfumes that were natural, one-note aromas – grass, laundry, blackcurrant leaves (which I think smell of cat’s wee!), and tomatoes. I never bought any of these but of all of those nature-identical fragrances, tomato was my favourite. To me it smelled of Tennessee summers spent on my grandparent’s farm – picking, sorting and ultimately eating loads of tomatoes. Even just brushing past the plants in my conservatory can take me back to my seven-year old self, under the oak tree, sat at the rickety trestle table, coring tomatoes for my Mimi to later turn into jars of simple tomato sauce, or even just pulped and canned as they were. I still have a thing for seeing rows of homemade preserves, whether vegetable or fruit. It makes me feel safer somehow.
I guess in my small and not so skilled way (she was a natural gardener. I am not) I am trying to recreate that feeling for myself; coaxing nature to give me something from my childhood, a time I now realise was so much simpler, and indeed healthier. I find gardening of any description seems to slow time for me. And at my age, that is a good thing indeed.
Of course tomatoes are appreciated not just for their taste and beauty, but their nutritional value too. The superstar is lycopene, a powerful carotenoid antioxidant declared by its strong colour. But the less showy vitamins C and K, fibre, potassium, other carotenoids (such as beta-carotene) and biotin make a strong case for having tomatoes on most days of the week. Have a look here if you want to know more about the health benefits of tomatoes.
Today’s recipe celebrates ripe tomatoes. If you are buying tomatoes to make this sweet and smoky relish, pick firm but ever so slightly yielding fruits, heavy in the hand and an intense, even red. And please don’t store them in the refrigerator. Instead, set them on a windowsill to suck up a little more sun, or on a plate to glow prettily until you use them.
Smoky Tomato and Aubergine Relish
To make this super easy I tend to separately chop the onion and tomatoes in my food processor, using the pulse button, stopping while both are in small pieces. This really needs eating within 10 days but I don’t see that as a problem. I make double and share it with others in smaller jars. xx
3 tbsp olive oil
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely minced, or grated with a Microplane-type grater
1 small aubergine/eggplant, small dice
1 1/2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp chopped rosemary leaves
1 tsp smoked chilli paste (I like Gran Luchito brand) – taste at the end and add a little more if you like OR 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
2 bay leaves
500g (just over 1 lb) ripe tomatoes of choice, chopped (if they are particularly juicy drain some of the liquid off)
2 tbsp best tomato puree (optional, but may be necessary if the tomatoes aren’t ultra ripe)
2 tbsp dark brown/Muscovado sugar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
Pinch of sea salt
Optional: a touch of lemon juice towards the end to “brighten” the flavours
Special equipment: a large, heavy saucepan (not aluminium) and a quart jar or several smaller jar
Method: Heat the oil over a low flame. Add the chopped onions and garlic, cooking until softened – about four minutes. Increase the heat slightly then add the diced aubergine, thyme leaves, rosemary, smoked chilli paste or smoked paprika, the bay leaves and a pinch of salt and cook until the aubergine is soft and has lost its rawness. Tip in the tomatoes, tomato paste (if using) and the sugar, and gently simmer for 45 minutes to one hour, stirring occasionally, until the relish is reduced down too a near-porridge consistency and is spoonable. Add in the vinegars and heat for further five minutes. Cool, bottle and use within 10 days.
I recently served this smoky-sweet relish with a borlotti bean, zucchini and sweetcorn frittata (shown) at a cancer nutrition class where the combination was appreciated. At home, Rachel and Andrew have asked this to become a regular summer feature. If you haven’t had beans in a frittata – replacing the potatoes that are the norm – it’s a fabulous addition and full of filling fibre.
Other uses for smoky tomato & aubergine relish: as a pizza topping (see my pita bread one), with grilled fish or chicken, as a bruschetta or garlic bread topping, as a sauce for pasta or zucchini noodles, as an arancini filling, with cheese and savoury crackers (like my fennel flatbreads), to top soccas/farinata, as a savoury pancake filling. A dollop stirred into a creamy pasta dish or a vegetable gratin would also be really lovely.