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March: heirloom tomato salad with baked ricotta and olives


You'll need

400 gm piece ricotta, cut into 5cm-thick wedges 160 gm (1 cup) Kalamata olives 1 tsp dried Greek oregano (see note) To taste: extra-virgin olive oil 6-8 assorted ripe heirloom tomatoes To taste: red wine vinegar To serve: basil and crusty bread

Method

  • 01
  • Preheat oven to 190C. Place ricotta wedges on a baking tray lined with baking paper, scatter over olives and oregano, drizzle with olive oil and season to taste. Bake until ricotta is golden (10-15 minutes) and cool to room temperature.
  • 02
  • Thickly slice tomatoes, arrange on a serving platter, drizzle with olive oil and vinegar and season to taste. Crumble over baked ricotta, scatter with olives and basil and serve with crusty bread.
Note I like to use a variety of heirloom tomatoes, such as black Russian, tigerella, and yellow pear, so there’s an interesting contrast of colours and flavours. Greek oregano, also known as rigani, is more aromatic than the dried oregano sold in supermarkets. It’s available in dried bunches from Greek delicatessens. If unavailable, substitute dried oregano.

This recipe is from the March 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

Tomatoes
What do I want from a tomato? I want a tomato that is perfectly ripe, bursting with rich, sweet flavour. I’ve learnt that many of the best-tasting tomatoes are heirloom varieties (or at least those grown especially for flavour), grown outdoors in real soil as opposed to hydroponically, with full exposure to the sun and the rigorous conditions of summer, without too much rain or water – give tomatoes too much water and they will look plump but lack flavour. A tomato such as this can be a revelation, so completely satisfying and delicious. I made a perfect and simple lunch recently from tomatoes just plucked from a garden, still warm from the sun, and served on toasted sourdough with salt flakes and fresh, green olive oil. This is what I am always searching for, that perfect tomato experience, because when it’s good, it’s so good.

I know this is a tall ask, though. I have learnt over the years how not to be disappointed when buying tomatoes. First, I don’t expect to find them in supermarkets. Supermarket tomatoes can be deceptive because they are a bright bold red, which makes them look full of promise, especially if they’re still on the vine. The problem is that more often than not these tomatoes are lacklustre, too firm and devoid of flavour. I recognise that supermarkets are convenient, but if you want great tomatoes you need to explore other avenues.

Second, I don’t expect to find perfect tomatoes out of season. You need to have a little patience for the right time of the year, and the right time is when they are in season in your local area. (In my area, this is not the beginning of summer.) When they’re in season, I buy them from farmers’ markets and from a few grocers and other market stalls that sell what I call real tomatoes.

This year I sent away for some heirloom seeds from the Digger’s Club, because there’s nothing more satisfying than picking tomatoes from your own garden. I ordered seeds for black, green and red zebras, black krims (big, fleshy, hearty tomatoes), black Russians, cherry Romas, striped Romas (both good for soups, sugo and general cooking), tigerellas, and Tommy Toes. Very exciting.

Because heirloom tomatoes come in so many different shapes, sizes and colours, they make beautiful looking salads when mixed together. They have all sorts of bumps and grooves – but their flavour! Big fleshy tomatoes such as the black krim and black Russian are very good stuffed with herbs, breadcrumbs, garlic and parmesan and roasted. Homemade pizza needs nothing more than tomatoes, olive oil, herbs and prosciutto. I like small prawns cooked quickly in olive oil with garlic and parsley and tossed with pieces of tomato and cappellini pasta. Or gazpacho, all rich and spicy and peppery.

Towards the end of the season I’ll buy cheap boxes of ripe cooking tomatoes to make sugo for later in the year, and perhaps some chutney, and then I’ll farewell tomatoes till next season.

Eggplant
The eggplant is quite an exotic-looking vegetable, and I find its shiny purple black skin very alluring. In cooking terms it does nothing if left to its own bland devices, but when fried, roasted or grilled it is a wonderful carrier of other flavours, which can completely transform it.

I adore fried eggplant in dishes of almost any kind – think of eggplant dusted with flour, fried and layered with sugo, basil leaves, parmesan and buffalo mozzarella, then baked; or simply fried in thick slices and splashed with sherry vinegar, with thin slices of garlic and mint leaves. Try fried eggplant in a soft white panino with basil, prosciutto and fresh ricotta, or added to sugo with penne and grated pecorino. Eggplant are right at home with Middle Eastern flavours, as when they’re charred over flames until the outside is an ashen grey, the inside is infused with a pungent smokiness, and the texture is creamy. I like to flavour this with ground cum

At A Glance

  • Serves 4 people
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At A Glance

  • Serves 4 people

Additional Notes

ALSO IN SEASON

FRUIT
Almonds, chestnuts, figs, gala apples, hazelnuts, honeydew melons, Jonathan apples, pears, pistachios, raspberries, rhubarb, rockmelons, walnuts

VEGETABLES
Avocadoes, borlotti beans, capsicum, celery, chillies, fennel, leeks, olives, onions, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, zucchini

SEAFOOD
King George whiting, ocean jacket, sea mullet, southern garfish, southern rock lobster, tiger flathead, western rock lobster, yellowfin bream

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