In case you didn't know, ciabatta is Italian for slipper, the type of slipper that keeps your feet warm and in which you shuffle, rather than the kitten-heeled, marabou-tuffted sort. The crust is crusty, the loaf is flattish with a small drop in the centre, the interior is soft but slightly chewy with large holes (for trapping thick butter). If you were to have any left over long enough to go stale, it’s perfect for tearing up into a panzanella – half salad, half soup of super ripe tomatoes. It is of course a combination to highlight perfect tomatoes.
In our inner suburban garden, Roger has planted 46 tomato plants, about 6 different varieties in all. Some are from obscure, smuggled seeds and shaped like a large chilli. (If I told you from where, I'd have to kill you.)
The ultimate "poster boy" for the destruction of flavour in commercialised food is surely the tomato. The skin is tough, the flesh is acidic, the colour insipid. (I'm sure you're not fooled by what are called "vine-ripened" tomato.) I'm seeing at my local, very good greengrocer, tomatoes of different colours, striped tomatoes and some very gnarly, funny shapes. Some are called heirloom. Unfortunately, even they all taste pretty much the same. So what can you do if you can't grow your own?
Doctoring a poor tomato... Let's analyse the symptoms.
Tough skin - Removing the skin is easy and really helps. Put a small slash in the skin and drop into water that is just below boiling. Count to three and remove with a slotted spoon and drop into cold water. Skin will come off easily. Really worth doing.
Acidic - Picked when unripe (although it may look red & ripe). It hasn't developed its natural sugar. When slicing or chopping for a salad, sprinkle with sugar, perhaps 1/2 tsp for every tomato (or more).
Flavourless - as above, lightly salt. Salt highlights flavour and used well, is not the ogre it once was. It also helps soften them.
Result - a better tomato. You can call them "confit" tomatoes.
So simple so perfect but here are some quantities. It's very much a guesstimate sort of recipe and I recommend you keep notes until you can just "sense" it.
50gm bread, preferably stale ciabatta. You'll soon work out the size of a slice. (Don't go health-foody and use wholemeal IMO, although no-one will really complain.)
150 gm ripe tomato (medium size), peeled if shop bought.
1/4 medium red onion, finely sliced (or substitute similar amount of spring onion)
6 leaves of basil, torn, not cut. (Use more or less, depending on your source.)
1 tsp red wine vinegar & 2tbsp EV Olive oil
Seasoning to taste.
Cut the bread into small cubes (1.5 cm square, or bigger, or smaller) and lightly dampen with water.
Cut the tomatoes (doctored or not) in similar cubes. Keep all juice and seeds.
Mix these with the onion.
Allow it all to sit and mingle for an hour, so that the tomato juices are soaked into the bread and it's nicely soft.
Add the basil, check and adjust the seasoning. Allow to sit for a further 1/2 hour (or more) before serving in a beautiful deep bowl.
Needless to say this recipe is very forgiving and flexible. Don't tell the purists but there are suggestions out there of adding a few rinsed capers, chopped anchovies, garlic, leaves of flat parsley, black olives, even, heaven forbid, some cubes of cucumber. (I wouldn't.)
The best I've ever tasted, made of course with perfect tomatoes and good bread, came from Gay Bilson, legendary "chef emeritus" and restaurateur of Barowra Waters Inn and Bennelong, someone with impeccable taste buds, where the tiniest cubes of a little celery were added to give crunch. I've stuck to that ever since.
Hoping for a beautiful photo in a week's time - not quite enough ripe tomatoes on the vines.
*The bread was made by Barbara Santich simply because it's fun and she can.