I did not have the opportunity to enjoy this summer much. I grew to love summer over the years; it probably helps that I don’t have to endure any more the tropical heat and humidity in Milan, usually lasting about four months. It is difficult to resist the feeling of ripeness that pervades everything, the abundance of light in the sky and produce in the markets. But this year I was just too focussed and busy; it did not feel right. I have a sort of wiring, you see: summer needs to involve at least some holidays and laziness and outdoors. This particular summer was just full of events and fresh starts, worries and planning, and making sure everything goes smoothly. Not enough barbecues, not enough swims, not enough singing sitting around a campfire.
I am back to Germany for the rest of the month. The old apartment is mostly packed, but not completely ( I dug out my camera!), and it is still a clean and familiar environment I like to cook in. I am trying to enjoy this time, to let go of all anxieties, and to say goodbye properly to Germany, which of course involves eating indecent amounts of cake and bread, and taking full advantage of the great vegetables I find here. Yesterday I walked to the Turkish shop, and found some large, meaty and inviting tomatoes. I just don’t have the mental energy to try new, exciting combinations, but I do feel like cooking and (mainly) eating nice summery food. I resorted to an old recipe my mum makes every other week in summer. She has developed a series of favourites she cooks regularly, dishes that not only can be made ahead, but actually don’t mind being eaten at the oddest hours, and this one fits the bill perfectly. When cooking with hot weather the trick is to choose dishes you can cook hours ahead. If you cook right before dinner, the kitchen will just stay too warm to feel like eating anything. It is easier to cook in the early hours of the morning, when the sun is not that scorching yet; it also helps that our kitchen in Milan faces West, so it gets the full blaze only in the afternoon. Not that I get any of these worries in the middle of September in Germany, but still.
There are three basic ingredients here: bread, tomato and olive oil. This combination is quintessential summer in Italy to me. From those ingredients it is possible to obtain a variety of dishes, all of them nothing short of amazing, all of them among my favourites. Layers of stale bread, slices of tomatoes and a little onion, with plenty of olive oil, left to sit for a few hours, turn into a soft, delicious mess I loved as a child, called panzanella. A soup of ripe, sieved tomatoes, stale bread, plenty of garlic and olive oil, cooked to perfect creaminess and served cold with even more olive oil is possibly my favourite soup, pappa al pomodoro. Simple hard bread covered with chopped tomatoes and oil is the perfect lunch coming home from the sea, and there is a variety of regional specialities to choose from, from frese from Puglia to durum wheat biscotti from Calabria. When you think about it, even pizza could be interpreted as a variation on the theme bread, tomato and olive oil.There are more, but you get the idea. This trinity should sit on our flag.
This recipe offers quite a lot of room to play around. Typical additions include black olives, capers, anchovies, grated cheese (pecorino or Parmigiano), oregano, basil, chopped parsley, even a combination of all of these, quite likely. I like to add a chopped dried tomato or two here, just to boost the tomato flavour. The important thing is that you add something that stays quite dry; breadcrumbs should drink only the tomato’s juices and stay quite dry on the top. My mother usually makes a variety of tomatoes and bell peppers, cut in half. It is exactly the same procedure with bell peppers, but you need good, fat, tasty peppers for this – nothing comparable with what I find here.
Whatever combination you choose, the amount of olive oil is left to the reader: the more the tastier, but if you are worried about calories, well, this recipe is still something you can eat even without too much oil in it. The amount I give here is what I usually choose, a virtuous enough amount. When I want to impress guests I dial it up. For the tomato variety, any will work, provided it is tasty and ripe – and if you are fussy you probably don’t want a variety with too thick a skin, although they often are tastier. Big, round, regular tomatoes are easier to deal with but when I lived in Italy I loved this recipe made with oblong San Marzano. I often cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and cook them without lid, so the breadcrumbs develop a nicer crust. For the picture’s sake I left the lid on a couple of tomatoes, but the ones without lid were tastier. For breadcrumbs, in Italy it is something very easy to buy, even good quality pangrattato is cheap and ubiquitous. When I moved to the UK I was shocked when I realized breadcrumbs are the most expensive and lowest quality article. It is easy to make your own with some old, dried bread, if you have a food processor – but I don’t. Here in Germany I do find decent breadcrumbs so no worries here. This recipe is definitely one of our home’s vegan favourites – without anchovies of course, so here it goes to Claire‘s always inspiring event.
Ingredients: (serves 2-3 as a main)
6 large tomatoes
150 gr breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
small bunch of flat leaf parsley
100 gr black olives, pitted and roughly chopped
Optional: 2-3 anchovies fillets, 2-3 sprigs of thyme, 2 tablespoons of capers,2-3 sun dried tomatoes
Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally, remove all the seeds and a tiny bit of the central pulp. sprinkle with a little salt, and put cut side down to drip off the water. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200 Celsius. Take a large pan, put the olive oil in it, the crushed garlic and let go until the garlic sizzles. If using anchovies, add them now and let them melt in the oil. Add the breadcrumbs and toast until they are golden but not burned, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Meanwhile chop the parsley. when breadcrumbs are toasted mix in chopped olives, parsley and any other optional ingredient. Add a good amount of black pepper, more than you’d think you need, and salt. Taste and adjust, since the amount depends on what you have added to the breadcrumbs.
Using a spoon and your fingers fill in the tomatoes, pressing them lightly in. Arrange them on a baking tray, drizzle with a little more oil and bake until the top is crusty and golden and the tomatoes are wilted, about 30-45 minutes. If you want, arrange an olive or a basil leaf on top – a pretty topping if not using lids.
Serve at room temperature. Way better the day after they were made.