An ode to the humble tomato
Tomatoes have never been a moving force in my life. Far from a showstopper, they've always occupied a steady, stagehand-like presence: a necessary evil on a margherita pizza or thoughtlessly plonked atop a green salad. They say "eat the rainbow" and tomatoes are the first cab off the rank - a crimson pop of acid to balance out the fattiness of yellow cheese - the ingredient I'd much rather be eating. Tomatoes are a palate cleanser. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
I wasn't one of those kids who relished biting into a plump Roma tomato – adding a pinch of salt and gobbling it down whole, like a pie straight out of the oven. I don't favour simile in my sweets – I prefer them with the adequate amount of sugar and artery-clogging.
One August, off the back of a trip to Europe, I listened to my Aunt rave about the tomatoes in Greece: "The kids ate bucketfuls!' she reminisced. "Pulled off the vines and eaten then and there like apples." While I could appreciate the farm-to-table aspect of the experience, it certainly wasn't my cup of tea. I prefer my veggies quality checked and vigorously rinsed prior to consumption.
If I'm after a healthy snack, it's carrots and hummus. Maybe cucumber if I'm particularly dehydrated. A healthy meal? Pumpkin: hefty, solid, savoury. If I've chosen to eat a vegetable I'm not fucking around.
Perhaps it's the soggy, dijonnaise-soaked tomatoes of my primary school days that haunt me. Piping hot, straight out of the sandwich toaster and topped with enough ground pepper to make your eyes water.
Never would I ever reach for a tomato of my own volition.
It took trauma of a different kind for tomatoes to move into the front seat. As I lost my leading man there was an opening for a new kind, and somehow it's tomatoes that pulled into first place.
In the wake of heartbreak, it was those pops of red that kept me crunching. When I could barely stomach the thought of food, let alone something healthy, somehow it was the humble tomato I reached for time and time again. Like Christmas lights in my crisper, tomatoes have been a beacon of hope in my barren fridge, and given me my happiest food memories of the year.
Read on for the six times tomatoes brought me back to life. Or rather, brought a smile to my face in a year where it didn't feel like there was much to grin about.
1. Lovingly loaded bruschetta hand-delivered by a friend two days after a breakup. Diced truss mixed with finely chopped garlic and red onion. Garnished with basil and served on toasted sourdough. Eaten on the floor of my apartment between meetings while working from home. Breathing in aromats with tears sliding down my thighs.
2. Sautéed tomatoes made on my tiny stove on a quiet night at home. Hot oil, sliced garlic and chilli flakes conjure an arresting perfume. Grape tomatoes are squeezed over the pan to expel juices, then dropped in and left to soften while the pasta cooks. Pasta goes in - al dente - and mixes with the sauce and starchy pasta water, wrist flicking the pan to make the ingredients jump. Piled on a plate, topped with parmesan, pepper, salt and basil and eaten on the couch with Succession playing in the background.
3. A Caprese salad at a potluck Christmas lunch. Solanato toms meticulously layered with bocconcini and basil. Topped with flaky salt and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Everyone goes straight for this dish, so guests only gets a few pieces. I'm careful to ensure every ingredient is present in each mouthful, bringing out the flavours of the others. A mouthful of Italy.
4. Cherry tomatoes, Castello brie and a loaf of tiger bread, eaten alone on the beach in the evening after work. A self picnic of torn bread, pulled in half and stuffed with a chunk of cheese and a tomato. Washed down with San Pellegrino and a dip in the sea.
5. Paenzanella made for friends at a dinner party at home. Heirloom tomatoes cut in half or quarters, shallots thinly sliced, a handful of basil and parsley, oven-roasted chunks of sourdough, a burrata crowning the pile. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar drizzled all over. Served with large bamboo servers and eaten around the dinner table with candles alight, wine poured, and my very best friends.
6. A homegrown mini Roma tomato, carried by my mum to the beach house in a zip-lock bag. Still on the vine. Sliced in half on the kitchen bench and topped with a grind of salt. Plopped on my tongue and squirting around my mouth as I sink my molars in.
In other words, let my ignorance guide you towards the tomato-soaked promise land. It’s a destination you don’t want to miss.