The Telegraph
Sunday , February 19 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Let’s talk tomatoes

I remember a conversation I had with a group of friends many years ago. We were discussing vegetables, and quarrelling over who liked what the most. The responses were what you’d expect someone thought there was nothing to beat okra, someone else was a die-hard eggplant fan, and quite a few thought the potato ruled. Then one friend came up with an answer that stumped us all she said she liked tomatoes.

Now the tomato, as far as I was concerned, was mostly an add-on ingredient. You cooked your okra, your eggplant and your potatoes with tomatoes to give your dish a nice tart touch. But to think of the tomato which is anyway a fruit as a vegetable in its own right set me thinking.

Clearly, it was there at the back of my mind even a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting and chatting with chef Hari Dhawan, who runs Casa Toscana, an Italian restaurant in Calcutta. Friends had been telling me about the restaurant, and I was keen to meet the chef. Somehow our conversation turned to tomatoes, which play quite an important role in Italian cuisine. How innovative is the tomato, I asked the chef.

He replied with delightful recipes of dishes where the tomato rules supreme. And while it’s an important ingredient in sauces for pastas and pizzas, what surprised me was the way it could dominate dishes. For instance, the chef cooks a tomato fondant with butter, castor sugar, white chocolate, flour, eggs and tomato juice. The tomato fondant served with vanilla ice cream surprises the palate with its uncommon mix of flavours.

Mediterranean Salad with Sun-Dried Tomato Dressing

The chef, I discovered, has an imaginative mind. What’s helped the graduate of Bangalore’s hotel management institute is the vast experience that he’s amassed in quite a young career. As a cruise chef he travelled extensively and in the process enriched his understanding of food from different regions. And even though he served a dish of Yorkshire pudding to the Queen of England during her India visit, his expertise is mostly in Italian cuisine, having worked with some top Italian chefs over the years.

Which is why, I suppose, when he thinks of tomatoes, he can come up with something like Caprese with Bloody Mary jelly: a salad prepared in the style of Capri, with a jelly that has all the ingredients of the cocktail Worcestershire sauce, celery sticks, vodka et al.

The good thing about cooking with tomatoes is the fact that we don’t have to go beyond the neighbourhood to get a good basketful. After all, tomatoes, which are originally from South America and are now grown almost everywhere in the world, have become an integral part of Indian cuisine. We use tomatoes for everything from maachher jhol and aloo muttar to baingan bharta and chutneys. I read somewhere that India is the third largest producer of tomatoes after (who else?) China and the United States.

Chef Hari Dhawan

Nowadays, of course, you get various kinds of tomatoes in the market. The tart, desi ones are all there, as are plum tomatoes. Chef Dhawan likes to use the plum tomato for his dishes, because he says it gives a sweet taste to the food.

For salads and sandwiches, of course, firm tomatoes work better than their juicier counterparts. The grape tomatoes bigger than cherry tomatoes but shaped like an oblong grape are good for salads too. For tomato salads, he suggests a dressing of honey, balsamic vinegar, basil, garlic and crushed pepper.

When it comes to sun-dried tomatoes, he prefers those that are bottled in oil. These, he says, have a sharper taste. And he uses the oil for salad dressings with good effect. He prepares a special salad with crispy iceberg lettuce leaves, mixed with pine nuts, ricotta cheese and sun-dried tomato.

I must admit I have a thing for tomatoes. I love sun-dried tomatoes for their slightly chewy and tangy taste. In pastas, too, I like a tomato-based sauce more than the white sauce.

Doctors and nutritionists maintain that a good diet is one that consists of colours red, yellow, orange, green and even blue. Tomatoes don’t just lend colour they add to the taste of the food, and do their bit for the body too. Don’t forget, the fruit-turned-veggie is high in vitamin C. So the next time you eat your pasta with tomato sauce, feel righteous. There’s goodness in there.       

Slow roasted tomato soup with Parmesan pudding
(serves 4)

• 3 tbs extra virgin olive oil • 2 minced garlic cloves • 20g basil leaves • 1kg fresh tomato • 2 tsp salt • tsp freshly ground pepper • 2 cups vegetable stock • 25ml cream • olive oil for drizzling (optional)

For the Parmesan pudding:

• 1 tbs butter • 3 tbs flour • 2 cups cream • 2 tbs milk • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese • 2 tsp salt • 3 egg yolks • 1 whole egg


Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with foil. Slice the tomatoes in half and place on the baking sheet with the cut side up. Drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic.

Roast in a pre-heated oven (at 120 C) for an hour. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes. Blend the cooled tomatoes with the vegetable stock in a blender until smooth. Transfer to a large pot. Heat it once again, checking the consistency. Remove from heat and stir in the cream.

For the Parmesan pudding, melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and stir to combine. Cook until a paste forms. In a medium bowl, combine cream and milk. Add the flour mixture, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil, add cheese and salt. Boil again. In a bowl, whisk together egg yolks and the whole egg. Remove from the heat and whisk the mixture into the egg mix. Lightly butter an oven proof dish and transfer the mixture into the dish. Bake for 25 minutes at 170 C.

Serve the soup hot with the Parmesan pudding.