What’s not to love about fresh produce at this time of the year? This almost-perfect summer weather has stretched on and on, creating fine growing and ripening conditions. Aubergines, courgettes, beans, herbs, tomatoes and sweetcorn are bountiful in market gardens and backyard vege patches, but although there’s a lovely selection to grace the table, my favourite is the outdoor tomato.
I didn’t realise careful watering was essential to growing perfect vegetables until I wandered through the farmers market with a friend who grows tomatoes (and more) for his restaurant. He pointed out that one grower’s large black russian heritage tomatoes were firm, fleshy and glowing with colour. “She must be giving them a mere cupful of water each day,” he explained, “for these large fleshy tomatoes split so easily if overwatered.”
Good tomatoes are available year-round, and I counted about 14 varieties at various market stalls in Matakana last weekend. So, even if you’ve never been to a farmers market, now’s the time to rise early and strike out to find outdoor varieties and other summer vegetables. I transported my haul of tomatoes home in a small cardboard box, as they’re never quite as robust as their hothouse cousins. My favourites are the black russians and the bright-orange cherry-sized tomatoes that almost glow in the dark. They’re the sweetest snacks I’ve ever tasted.
Summer produce inspires me to make large colourful salads for lunch or as a light first course. If the vegetables require cooking, I quickly blanch them before adding layers of other textures and flavours. Some of the ingredients I like to use are nuts, herbs, fresh cheeses cut into small chunks and the occasional slice of quality ham, prosciutto or salami.
Heritage tomatoes in varying colours and sizes can be used to create a beautiful platter. I also like to add a couple of varieties of beans, as in the following recipe where I have used sweet, tender flat Italian green beans and delicate little runner beans.
TOMATO, BEAN AND EGG SALAD
- 300g mixed green beans
- 750g ripe outdoor tomatoes in different colours and sizes
- 2-3 eggs, boiled for 7 minutes
- 2 tbsp pitted olives
- 3 tbsp good extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- fresh basil or parsley leaves
Trim the beans by removing the stalk end, then wash and plunge into a saucepan of boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Immediately refresh under cold running water, then stand them in a bowl of iced water to retain the colour.
Wash and dry the tomatoes. Slice the larger ones horizontally and cut the cherry-sized ones in half. On a flat plate, arrange the slices neatly and strew the beans over the tomatoes. Finally, peel and cut the eggs in half and place with the olives among the tomatoes and beans. Mix the oil and vinegar with the salt and pepper, then sprinkle over the salad. Finish with a scattering of herb leaves. Serve immediately.
Wine match: chenin blanc.
THE ESSENTIAL STEP in the next recipe is to fry the aubergine slices in oil until almost collapsed. I have never worried about salting my aubergines before cooking them, because at this time of year they should be vine-ripened, so without a hint of bitterness. Serve as an entrée or to accompany grilled chicken or lamb.
BAKED AUBERGINE, TOMATO AND MOZZARELLA
- 1 large aubergine
- 6 tbsp olive oil
- 2 beefsteak tomatoes
- 1 large ball of fresh mozzarella cheese
- 1/2 cup Italian-style tomato sauce (salsa or sugo)
- a handful of basil leaves or oregano
- freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Slice the aubergine into 3mm slices, then score the surface of each one with a sharp knife. Sprinkle them with salt. Heat the oil in a large heavy-based frying pan, and when hot add the aubergine slices. Fry over a gentle heat until golden, turning so both sides are coloured and the aubergine is soft. Remove from the heat and drain on paper towels.
Arrange the aubergine slices in a small ovenproof dish to cover the base evenly. Slice the tomatoes and place on top. Cut the mozzarella into thin slices and completely cover the
tomatoes to form another layer. Pour over the tomato sauce and add the basil or oregano with a little black pepper. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until the dish is sizzling.
Wine match: a light fruity red.
Fresh Italian cheeses
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood cheeses listed in Italian recipes is mozzarella. I blame the grated yellow cheese that masquerades as mozzarella in supermarket refrigerators. In my view, that one’s probably only good for a pizza topping to serve to undiscerning kids. It’s a far cry from real mozzarella, the soft ball of fresh white cheese that sits in a milky water that keeps it fresh for up to a week. Real Italian-style fresh mozzarella is essential in many savoury recipes, it is frequently hand-made from fresh cow or buffalo milk and it melts to become a stringy, stretchy cheese with a squeaky texture.
Some cheesemakers also produce bocconcini using the same method as for mozzarella. The only difference is that the cheese is formed into tiny balls rather than the tennis-ball-sized mozzarella. It’s lovely added to salads or served on cocktail sticks with cherry tomatoes and little basil leaves.
Recently, Italian cheesemaker Massimo Lubisco, who appears at the Matakana farmers market on Saturday mornings and selected other markets, has been making burrata. The process must be a real art, as burrata looks like a ball of fresh mozzarella, but once you’ve cut into it, the soft creamy centre oozes onto the plate. It’s delicious, and with a little salt and pepper is the sort of cheese you just have to keep on eating.
Massimo has also been making stracciatella, which is identical to the creamy centre of burrata, with its curd-like strands of cheese surrounded by a creamy liquid that tastes like fresh cream. I’ve been slathering it on my toast, then popping it under the grill for a minute or two to soften and brown slightly.