When I first started cooking, I would follow recipes to a tee. I would make sure I have all the ingredients, measure them carefully and read the cooking steps over and over again. Over time, as I gained confidence (and laziness) in the kitchen, I almost never use the exact ingredients and steps stated in a recipe.
In fact, I always question recipes that require you to use five mixing bowls to make a cake. Do I really need to use five bowls? Will the cake be less delicious if I only use three bowls? I think we all know the answer. The same applies to the ingredient list. As I started to cook more often, I also learned about the flavour profile and pairing of each ingredient. For example, apple is best mated with cinnamon and nutmeg, and tomato loves to be paired with basil or oregano.
Though I would admit to a few disasters from my improvised cooking, most of the time, everything turns out to be alright. When I tried these herb-stuffed tomatoes, I did not have any onions, fresh oregano and parsley in the kitchen. I made a few adjustments based on what I had in the kitchen and garden. The result is a beautiful accompaniment to salads or mains. This is a deceptively simple yet rich in flavour dish to make. You can easily double or triple the recipe for potluck parties and picnics.
(Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty)
If you are a fan of vegetables, I will tell you to go buy Plenty now. Ottolenghi makes cooking with vegetables exciting. I have cooked through almost half of the book, and every recipe has turned out great. This is definitely one of the best cookbooks I bought (and for the record, I am not paid to say this).
Serves 4 as starter or 2 as main course (with a side salad)
4 medium, similar-sized tomatoes (the tomatoes need to be ripe yet firm so that they are able to hold the fillings and not disintegrate)
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
12 black olives, pitted and roughly chopped (I used Kalamata olives; use olives with pits as they have more flavour)
2 tablespoons olive oil
13g (or ¼ cup) panko
½ teaspoon dried oregano
A good handful of sweet basil, roughly chopped (you should yield 3 tablespoons of chopped sweet basil)
A small handful of mint, roughly chopped (I used spearmint; you should yield 1 tablespoon of chopped mint)
2 tablespoons capers, roughly chopped
Salt and black pepper
Slice off 1cm of the top of the tomatoes (you can discard the top or eat it). Using a small metal spoon, remove the seeds and most of the flesh of the tomatoes. If you have problems scooping the flesh, you can run a paring knife inside to dislodge it. You need to be careful not to pierce through the bottom and the side of the tomato (If you’re not a confident knife user, place the tomato on an even surface, grab hold of the rim with your fingers and run the paring knife that way. In this case, even if you pierce through the bottom, you will not slash your palm). You should end up with a clean tomato cup. Repeat for the rest of the tomatoes.
Lightly sprinkle the inside of the tomatoes with salt and place them upside down in a colander or on a wire rack. If you are using a wire rack, make sure it sits on a tray. This is to drain off any excess liquid left in the tomatoes.
Preheat the oven to 160oC.
In a medium-sized frying pan over a low heat, add in the 1 tablespoon of olive oil, shallots, garlic and black olives. Stir the mix occasionally and cook for 5 minutes or until the shallots start to soften. Once the shallots are softened, remove the frying pan from the heat and add in the panko, herbs and capers. Taste and add in salt and black pepper, if necessary. I didn’t add any more salt as the olives and capers are already quite salty.
Using a spoon (you can use the same one that you use to scrap the flesh), gently clean the inside of the tomatoes. Once cleaned, fill the tomato cups with the fillings. To ensure each tomato contains an equal amount of filling (did I mention I am a bit OCD), I would stuff them all at the same time. This means if I add in one teaspoon of filling for the first tomato, I would repeat for the rest. If I stuff the tomatoes one by one, I realised that the last one will end up with a lot or very little filling.
While stuffing the tomato, you can gently press the filling down. At the end, the filling should be at the rim of the tomato. If your filling for each tomato is slightly under the rim, it is okay. When the tomatoes are baked in the oven, they will shrink and push the fillings upwards.
Once all the tomatoes are stuffed, place them on a baking tray and drizzle them with the remaining olive oil on top. Place the tray in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened. Do not be overly concerned if the skin of the tomatoes starts to split slightly or has juice dripping out.
Once the tomatoes are cooked, you can serve them hot or warm. Oh, if you want to sprinkle a bit of cheese (Parmesan is great), go ahead.
*A small tip – I chop the shallots, garlic and black olives at the same time. You will need to cut the shallots into smaller pieces before you add in the garlic and black olives and chop them all together.