How to turn tasteless winter tomatoes into richer, sunnier, more flavoursome specimens

“The one I make the most is a zippy little number with mint and capers.”

Nigella Lawson, Cook, Eat, Repeat

Having spent eight years living in Greece the Chief Taster has very high standards when it comes to tomatoes. He says, correctly, that winter tomatoes grown in northern climes have no taste.

But you really can’t go for half a year without the odd tomato salad. What to do?

Well, the answer is a two-fold approach.

First, do things to bring out the bashful flavour of the tomatoes.

Second, add flavour in.

Bringing out the bashful flavour

First, should you keep your tomatoes in or out of the fridge?

After you have bought your tomatoes, whilst they are still intact, consider keeping them out of the fridge. Keep them, instead, in a cool, dark place. The theory is that keeping them at a too low temperature reduces their volatiles (the chemicals that give them a sweeter, more complex flavour). For a more detailed explanation, follow this link. However, in practice, it might well not make that much difference – follow this link for the counter argument.

Or perhaps it depends:

  • If your kitchen or the weather is warm maybe you should opt for the fridge
  • If the tomatoes are already ripe and you want to stop them getting over ripe, again, maybe the fridge is the best place
  • the type of tomato makes a difference. As a very helpful post on the Australian NEFF website explains:

“Tomato varieties with a higher pulp to flesh ratio, such as cherry tomatoes, also tend to fare better in the fridge than fleshier counterparts like roma tomatoes. “

Whatever you do, you need to bring your tomatoes back to room temperature before you use them. That really does make a difference to the flavour.

Other measures to bring out the flavour of tomatoes

2. It may seem obvious, but the tomatoes need to be cut in half, so the seasoning can get to the inside flesh.

3. You need to add salt, and a little bit of sweetness, and allow it to soak in. The sweetness can be soft, dark brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, or any kind of fruit molasses (which isn’t molasses), try pomegranate or date.

4. Then you need to allow time, ideally not in the fridge (this really will make a difference), but in a cool, dark place.

Measures to take to add flavour

For Christmas I treated myself to a copy of Nigella Lawson’s latest tome, Cook, Eat, Repeat, and that was where I got the idea for this tomato solution salad. I’ve made some changes, and additions, and it passes the Chief Taster test – quite an achievement.

  1. Add a dried herb – Nigella uses mint, as they do in Cyprus, which is refreshing; oregano and tarragon are also contenders. If you are doing this in the summer.

2. Add capers.

3. Just before serving add pickled red onion. Or, alternatively, you can add pickled shallot. Or make it a double red salad and add pickled beetroot.

4. And a hearty, full-of-flavour (I would go for peppery rather than fruity) olive oil.

5. Sprinkle over some Ras el Hanout.

To transform it into a lunch

If you have any leftover chicken, slice it really thinly and add that together with some dry fried chopped walnuts, and a slurp of walnut oil. Or serve with salami or prosciutto.

Which tomatoes to use

Tomatoes still on their vine retain a bit more flavour. I have a theory (which I can’t prove) that, in terms of supermarket, winter tomatoes, baby plum are a better bet than cherry, and the rest are also rans.

How to cut baby plum or cherry tomatoes (or grapes, pitted olives etc) in half quickly

There’s a very quick way to do this, although it works better with the round cherry tomatoes. Find two plastic lids (eg of tuperware or ice cream containers). They need to be the same size. Sandwich the cherry tomatoes in one layer in between them. If you have a lot of tomatoes or your lids are small, you may need to do this in two goes. With one hand hold the top lid firmly down. With the other, using a serrated knife (it might have to be your bread knife) simply cut between the lids horizontally. Simples! For a better idea of how this works, look at this video. If you can’t find plastic lids, this can also be done using two plates, but it is less successful.

Making the pickled red onion

This recipe only uses half a red onion. But pickled red onion will keep in the fridge for a few days and is useful for pepping up all sorts of things. So you could double the amount of vinegar and use the whole onion. Nigella uses red wine vinegar, I think because it helps retain the colour of the onion, but I think sherry vinegar brings out the sweetness of the onion.

When you’ve used the onion, there will be vinegar left over – use it to make a mustardy dressing.

how to pickle red onion

How to desalinate the capers

Capers come either in brine (horrible) or preserved in salt (much better… but salty). You can get rid of a lot of the salt by rinsing under running water, and then leaving them to soak in plenty of cold water (at least twice the volume of the capers) for a couple of hours. To be extra thorough you should repeat the whole process. Set them outside to dry (or use a cool oven), keep them in the fridge and use within a week.

There is also another method which I have never tried – rinse in running water then soak in dry vermouth. If you try that, I would be very interested to hear how you get on!

Again, obviously, you can desalinate the whole jar of capers, and use those that remain in all kinds of other things.

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