Claudia Roden on the Sephardic Jews and their adoration of vegetables in her inspiring Book of Jewish Food.
Roden makes a (typically) excellent point, one I wish I had heeded (or perhaps, you know, actually read) sooner. The hollowing of vegetables into cargoes for filling, either simply or decadently, had always seemed overwhelmingly silly. As though I had better things to do in the kitchen. You know, serious things. It took a dish of zucchini and tiny, no-bigger-than-a-thumb, home grown crookneck squash, hollowed with the pointed tip of a wee teaspoon and stuffed à la the classic, swoon-inducing Imam Biyaldi to change that attitude from one of ostracism to deep and abiding affection. Those squash were followed quickly by some pilaf-filled peppers and, the following weekend, a Roden dish of small eggplants split and stuffed with a coconut and spice paste. Ugly - very - but Oh, My, God. Talk about glorious.
It seems that I have fallen, hard, for all things Stuffed.
Copied into my journal over Christmas at the table, between chatting and cooking with my mother in her bustling, book-lined kitchen, the Pomodori Ripeni di Riso from Italian Vegetarian Cooking by Emanuela Stucchi - a cookbook shot, prettily, by Gus Filgate in that soft-focus thing that was popular in the 90’s - kept a’ calling. The page seems to fall open to the recipe automatically each time I open the damn journal to write. Took it as a sign, I did.
I like the confidence shown in recipes copied by hand, the shortcuts that come with experience, the reorganisation of things on the page to suit your eyes. Copying recipes by hand makes you read closely, adjusting and notating as you go. I do hope the instruction to select ‘8 round, ripe, sun-soaked fat tomatoes’ for stuffing is mine. I'm particularly pleased with the fat part. Toms, well, they are fat right now. Fat enough to swell and burst their skins right there on the vine. Our recent crippling heat has done nothing to abate their lush growth. Who could ask for more in this dry, waterless new world?
Get stuffing. These are simple but superb.
Tomatoes Stuffed with Rice feeds 4-6
Or Pomodori Ripeni di Riso for the more romantically inclined. Feeds? Probably 6, but I have blokes here who eat everything in large quantities, so for us, it feeds 4. This blank canvas of a recipe is simple – almost stupidly so – but takes time. Set aside a couple of hours for soaking and baking. Caramelised onions added to the stuffing are good and you can alter the herbs, add pitted olives, nuggets of goats cheese…you decide. All good in my book.
8 round, ripe, sun-soaked fat tomatoes
Coarse sea salt
3/4 cup of Arborio (or similar) rice
1/3 cup chopped herbs (mixture of basil, oregano/marjoram, thyme, mint)
1 head of garlic, broken up but not peeled
Carefully slice off the tomato caps and reserve. Scoop out the seeds and pulp and place in a bowl, chopping any huge chunks into smaller pieces (scissors are helpful here for the lazy cook, which if I'm to be honest, I often am). Go carefully – don’t pierce the shells. Using the coarse sea salt, generously sprinkle their insides and turn them upside down to drain on paper towels.
Stir the rice, herbs and 4 tablespoons of oil into the reserved tomato goo. Peel 2 cloves of the garlic. Chop them finely and mix into to the rice. Season with a little salt and pepper and rest for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 180 C (375 F). Scoop out the salt from the tomato shells and fill each a little over halfway with the rice mixture. Arrange in a baking tray and pop their lids back on. Strew the remaining garlic around the tray.
Strain the rice and tomato juices into a jug. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and pour this mixture over the stuffed toms. Bake for at least 1 hour, perhaps a little longer, basting frequently. Glorious, glorious.