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Deconstructing Tomates Provençales

"Why mess with perfection?" Jamie of Jamie and Julia

I began with this Baked tomatoes, crumbs and herbs from Nigel Slater in a recent Guardian newsletter. I thought it looked beautiful, and so typical of his recent almost nothing recipes. In fact it was even just one of his simple recipe posts with no lyrical introduction. As I looked at it I realised that it is really Tomates à la Provençales just arranged slightly differently, so I decided to look at how far you can go from an original before you do indeed have something quite different. As well as throwing out a few ideas from here, there and everywhere, including me.

I actually ended my research - an afterthought really - with Jamie of the Jamie and Julia videos. I watched him make Julia Child's Tomates à la Provençales (you can too), because he's fun to watch. Things don't always go to plan - as here when he didn't have enough stuffing and had to make another batch, and one of the tomatoes collapsed somewhat in the oven. They should possibly have been a little bit browner on top as well. Anyway at the end he wolfed down half of his tomatoes at speed, saying he would give them a 12 out of ten because they were so good, and he meant it because having now watched a few of his videos he is not always quite as generous. Often yes, but not always. So you have to believe they were good.

Of course it's not tomato season yet. I imagine some green thumbed people will be busy planting them now, or at least preparing their super productive veggie gardens. Not me. I really am not going to bother with tomatoes this year. Too much work for a very meagre and not very wonderful result. It is a dilemma though isn't it? Jane Grigson complained, back in1978: "The word tomato now embraces the best and worst of the vegetable world." And she went on to moan at length about the rock-hard, tasteless nature of commercial tomatoes. Well I think we have come a long way since then, but not far enough. What is on offer at the moment in the supermarket is not wonderful, besides being expensive, although cooking them always improves the taste. And, let's be fair, it's not the tomato season. But this summer I am going to try and resist my stinginess, otherwise known as thrift, and try and find really, really good tomatoes, like the ones you can buy in the Mediterranean lands. After all Australia has hot summers so should be able to produce good tomatoes. So I shall look at farmer's markets, at the more expensive supermarket tomatoes, and also I really, really will return to the Queen Vic market.

In the meantime, let me return to Tomates Provençales. I think there are two, maybe three slightly different dishes that we are talking about here. And let me say that I was surprised, when cruising my library, to find how many of my French books did not mention Tomates Provençales. Too basic perhaps?

Let's begin with Saint Elizabeth and her two different versions. This one adorns the cover of Elizabeth David on Vegetables, a compilation by her devoted editor Jill Norman. You can find the recipe online at The Guardian but like Nigel's it's really almost not a recipe. All you do is press garlic, salt and pepper into the slashed halves of tomatoes. Sprinkle on parsley, drizzle with oil and grill. "To be quite perfect, tomates Provençal's should be slightly blackened on the cut surface." No breadcrumbs involved. On the left is the picture from the Jill Norman book, on the right a version from The Guardian. So you can see a slight difference - mostly because various different kinds of tomatoes have been used in The Guardian version - a very modern thing I think.

Her second version is simultaneously, simpler and yet more complicated. Well barely I suppose. In this version you remove the seeds from the tomatoes, turn them upside down to drain for a while and then fill with a stuffing of parsley, garlic and olive oil, before serving as is. No cooking involved. And no breadcrumbs either. Elizabeth David obviously didn't go for breadcrumbs.

Richard Olney did however, and he also makes the whole process rather more complicated - sort of combining Elizabeth's two.

First you drain them as for her salad. Then you fry them - first cut side down, and then right way up - but briefly. Into the juices you throw the parsley and garlic, maybe a little lemon juice and then the breadcrumbs. Stuff into the tomatoes and bake in the oven. Take care the tomatoes don't collapse with this one.

The Food 52 website presents a similar recipe for Tomatoes provençal from Garlic and Zest, but they don't use parsley - they use thyme.

Other people stuff tomatoes with all manner of other things, but I ignored them because I think we are then moving into a more complicated dish that has more in common with all the various stuffed vegetable dishes that you find all around the Mediterranean.

I had almost given up on finding alternative versions when I turned to Ottolenghi who does his thing. These Herb stuffed tomatoes have a definite Provençal flavour, and they are fundamentally the same thing, but of course he tweaks the stuffing - more herbs, some capers, some olives and onion too. You cook the stuffing but you don't pre-fry the tomatoes. You just bake them. The recipe is from Plenty but you can find it on an Irish website called Redhenrun.

Interesting that not one of these recipes mention cheese. Jamie of Jamie and Julia, commented on that as well saying that he thought Julia would have thought about it, but then, as he said at the top of the page, "Why mess with perfection?" Interesting that not even Ottolenghi went with cheese.

I think of all of these Julia and Jamie are the winners - well perhaps after my Nigel original. I'm sure Ottolenghi's is delicious, but isn't quite right somehow.

So let me return to Nigel and his very basic version at the top of the page in which the stuffing has been deconstructed and then sprinkled on top. It turns out that he has an even simpler version similar to Elizabeth David's first version, which he calls Basil tomatoes and which can be found on a website called Hazelnut. Well the tomatoes are really simple, but you do have to make a sort of pesto to sit them in.

Now is that a salad? And it has to be said that any of the above could be served as a salad, either a warm one or a cold one, and here I shall move on to recipes that either say they are salads, or could be: Roasted tomato salad from Delia - I've made this in the past and it was very well received - but no breadcrumbs. Fried tomatoes with goat's curd from Ottolenghi - I suppose fried tomatoes are not quite the same thing, and we do have cheese here, but breadcrumbs and herbs are definitely involved. Still with Ottolenghi - Heirloom tomato salad with black garlic crumb - honestly it has all the same ingredients - plus ... and finally Juicy tomatoes with Parmesan olive breadcrumbs from Christian Reynoso on The New York Times website. Cheese again.

Then I started to ponder on what other things you could do if you deconstructed the recipe still further down to tomatoes, parsley (well herbs), garlic, olive oil and breadcrumbs, and of course, the possibilities are endless from tomato and bread soups (gazpacho, pappa al pomodoro; salads - well just go for it; tarts - just be careful they don't go soggy; sandwiches and wraps; dumplings ...

So I'll leave you with just one - which I think I have 'done' before - and still on Ottolenghi: Baked tomatoes with baguette on the Kaha Kai Kitchen website. Just change the emphasis slightly from tomato to bread and you have something quite new.

I think that the basic dish, is so basic that it doesn't appear in several books that you would think would honour it. Peasant food, that hasn't quite made it to the gourmet or trendy table, unless you attach the name of Ottolenghi and add a couple of things. Jamie, I have to say, does not seem to be interested.

I also haven't decided whether these are dishes - the cooked ones anyway - which would actually improve crummy tomatoes by cooking, charring, adding heaps of garlic, fresh herbs and olive oil. I mean what a combination. The answer to our prayers perhaps.

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