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.
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 cumin, lemon, creamy yoghurt, pine nuts and mint and top it with a puddle of olive oil and pomegranate molasses.
Modern eggplant varieties lack the bitterness of older ones, but I still prefer to salt eggplant before cooking because it draws out excess moisture and enhances other flavours. I believe it also reduces the amount of oil required to cook the eggplant. Look for eggplant that are shiny, very firm, heavy for their size and not wrinkly or blemished.
Most states in Australia are suitable for growing table grapes, but the main areas are Sunraysia and the Murray Valley in Victoria and the Riverina in NSW. I spent a year living in Mildura and it is a spectacular sight to drive into the outskirts of this region where all of a sudden the dusty, dry red earth gives way to row upon row of lush green grape vines grown for both wine and table grapes. Even more beautiful are the old wooden racks still used by some grower families to sun-dry the grapes underneath the great endless blue sky along the hot, flat land around Mildura. I still buy my favourite sun-dried muscatel clusters from the Garreffa family of Tabletop Grapes to serve with cheese. Some of my favourite fresh eating grapes are the black muscat, the flame seedless (a medium-sized red grape) and the delicious sun muscat, which has a lovely raisin flavour.
Grapes and quail go very well together – grill the quail on the barbecue with a touch of rosemary and olive oil, and serve it with a salad of grapes, roasted hazelnuts and rocket. Red grapes can be baked over thick slices of ricotta, salt and oil for an easy lunch. When grapes are abundant I like to make a dessert of a buttermilk panna cotta with a grape and hazelnut syrup. Make your panna cotta (yoghurt or cream and vanilla bean would work as well as buttermilk), then make a sugar syrup, cool it and add roasted chopped skinned hazelnuts and halved red grapes. Delicious.
Something to look out for in Asian markets is the mangosteen, a beautiful looking fruit. Its creamy white flesh has a luxurious texture and is quite sweet and exceptionally delicious. The white petals of flesh are housed in a hard, thick purple-brown casing with a distinctive flower stem on top. The trees take many years to fully mature and bear fruit and the picking is done by hand because the fruit is quite fragile, so the price of mangosteens is fittingly high.
Before the mangosteen is fully mature the outside casing is a patchy red-brown; only with maturity does it become dark purple. Look for fruit that has a light sheen to the outside and no brown bruising or blemishes. Fruit should be stored in the fridge and eaten quickly.
I like to enjoy mangosteens simply as they are, or in a tropical fruit salad, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll make mangosteen sorbet for a very special dessert.
With her warm-weather garden in full production, Brigitte Hafner is making the most of tomatoes, as well as enjoying eggplant, grapes and mangosteens.