Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Essence of summer

It's a common complaint that fruit and vegetables these days don't have taste; that they're bred for their looks and shelf life rather than flavour. Perhaps it's the rose-coloured glasses of adulthood but so many fruits and vegetables don't seem to have the intense, juicy flavour that I remember from childhood. I think the biggest disappointment is tomatoes. I'm so sick of eating watery, tasteless tomatoes that I've actually gone right off them. I eat canned tomatoes by the truckload in stews, casseroles and soups but fresh tomatoes are much rarer in my kitchen.

One of the favourite food memories from my childhood is the fresh tomato sandwiches at my mother's Saturday afternoon tennis matches. Once all the tennis players had eaten, the kids were allowed to devour the leftovers. I always went straight for the tomato sandwiches: fresh white bread, smeared with butter, filled with fire-engine-red slices of tomato and finished with a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. It's been years since I ate a tomato that could compare. I told this story so often, and lamented the state of modern tomatoes so much, that the first thing my husband Adam made for me when we grew our own tomatoes last year was a fresh tomato sandwich. So simple, yet so divine!

Whenever my parents come to visit, they bring bags full of home-grown produce from their vegetable and herb garden: huge bunches of basil to turn into pesto; handfuls of parsley to flavour dumplings to simmer on top of a beef stew; bunches of tangy spring onions for my stir-fries; leafy green silverbeet to chop into frittatas; and, this visit, a kilogram of Dad's first tomatoes for the season, as well as a handful of baby red onions. The tomatoes were plump and juicy, a little blemished on the skin, but glowing with flavour. I boiled them with some water for an hour and strained the juice to make an intensely flavoured stock for risotto, one that had the essence of tomatoes rather than the texture or colour.

This recipe had been given to me last year by a work colleague, John, an infrequent cook who found the recipe years ago in The Age's Epicure section and used it at a dinner party to impress his friends with his cooking skills. I have been waiting for the right amount of fresh tomatoes to make this recipe. Melbourne supermarkets might be open 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and you might be able to get most fruit and vegetables every month of the year, but this recipe calls for fresh tomatoes at the peak of their season. Sometimes you have to ignore modern-day convenience to get old-fashioned flavour.

The preparation of the stock is slightly unusual, but the end result is an absolutely delicious risotto, and the quantities are easily halved if you have, like me, only a kilogram of tomatoes available.


Serves 8

2 kg (4 1/2 pounds) ripe tomatoes (big, juicy ones, not the fleshy roma types)
water or vegetable stock
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
50ml (1/4 cup) olive oil, or 25g (1 ounce) butter
400g (14 ounces) arborio rice
150g (5 ounces) cold butter to stir in at the end
200g (7 ounces) parmesan
sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Score tomatoes and place in a non-reactive heavy-based pot. Add about 100ml (3 1/2 ounces) water and heat slowly, with the lid on tightly. After about 10 minutes, the tomatoes should be cooking in a clear liquid. Don't stir and let the tomatoes cook for about 40 minutes at a gentle simmer.

Strain the liquid through a fine sieve. Don't crush or press the tomatoes but use their own weight to allow the clear juice to drain through. The remaining liquid should be a clear broth with an intense tomato flavour. Don't reduce any further, as you will lose the freshness of taste. Set aside. Dilute with one-third water or vegetable stock.

Heat the olive oil or butter in a pan and saute the shallots and garlic for a few minutes, until they are soft but not coloured. Add the arborio rice, making sure each grain is coated with the oil or butter, and heat through. Add the stock in small batches, stirring after each addition. You may need to add extra water or stock until the rice is cooked.

Once cooked, stir in the butter and parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper. Rest for three minutes with the lid on. Stir once and serve.

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