Saturday, February 25, 2012

Heirloom Tomatoes and a Tomato Caprese with a ‘Tadka’ twist...

They literally jumped out at me off the shelf in all their colourful glory - Green, black, yellow, purple, orange... tomatoes! Yes, you read right, I did say tomatoes!  And there was no way I could have walked away from them! Heirloom tomatoes are tomatoes that have existed–without genetic modification or hybridization for generations grown from seeds that are passed from farmer to farmer. Now being grown by Trikaya Agriculture they are available all over Mumbai.

Heirloom tomatoes at Trikaya Agriculture Farms. 

The tomato is not indigenous to India, its arrival in Indian cuisine is suggested to be as late as 1850 by food Historian K.T.Achaya, who further enlightens that it took another 30 years for their incorporation into Indian cuisine. As a result, Indian cuisine is still evolving its relationship with the tomato. Things have changed so much! I remember as a child, when the morning newspaper announced that the tomato prices were at an all time low, how Moti Mummy my grandmother, would decree that it was time to put down a year’s worth of tomato puree and ketchup to store for the season when tomatoes would not be available. That was because tomatoes were seasonal then. But they were also an ingredient that was treated gingerly. We eat a LOT of them; of course, they are an essential ingredient, in the Indian kitchen alongside onions, garlic, chillies, potatoes and coriander. But most regional cuisines will have distinctly different dishes for tomatoes and even onions and garlic. A parallel menu almost, and they will never be part of food cooked for rituals or offering to Gods in Hindu traditions (as far as I am aware, do correct me if I am wrong.) 

Your parents might tell you of misshapen tomatoes they grew up eating; I faintly recall eating them as a child. But today all we see is the hybrid red tomato and the occasional unripe green tomato in season. I have never seen tomatoes in different colours. My friend Samar of Trikaya Agriculture had sent me these heirloom tomatoes when he was trying to grow them for the first time last year but they were mostly just red or pink. That day at Natures Basket they were available in all their colourful glory. And unable to resist, I bought them all! 

At home, as I washed them, I could not help marvelling at the sheer variety! All sorts of wonderful colours from the Red Giant and Red Globe (which are black in colour),, Green Zebra, Orange Banana, Yellow / Green Brandy Wine, Great White, Green Maldovan, Cream Sausage, in irregular shapes to long and perfect round shapes and sizes that range from that of a grapefruit to that of large grapes Black Cherry tomato, Sungold Cherry Tomato to miniature Spoon Tomatoes perfect down to the little spidery crown and so named because they are the size of peas and lots of them can fit in an average tablespoon! 

And I knew exactly what to do with them. There was no doubt in my mind that messing around too much with them would be temerity as it would take away from their beauty! So I focussed on one of the most classic ways to serve tomatoes - an Italian Caprese salad. With a slight Tadka ... literally! And what a lovely time I had. I chilled the washed tomatoes whole until it was almost time to serve, then I took a large plate I have that shaped like an artists  palate (an so appropriate to what I was about to do) I then proceeded to paint it over with the colours of tomato! Laying streaks of sliced up larger tomatoes out first, Green Maldovan, Orange Banana, Red globe and wedges of Green Zebra filling in gaps with halved black and gold cherry tomatoes and sprayed it all tiny spoon tomatoes and drizzled crystals of sea salt all over the platter so the crystals made their way into all the nooks and crannies between the tomatoes and into their crevices as well. Dabs of fresh mozzarella, torn off in bite sized chunks went on next, their juices trickling down and mixing with those bleeding off the tomatoes. I added small basil leaves over it all and then applied the finishing touch a ‘Tadka’ of a generous few glugs of olive oil in which I had fried lots of garlic to golden crispness with basil leaves. As I drizzled it over it spread quickly, sensuously gilding the beautiful tomatoes gently warmed the mozzarella and making its way right down to the bottom of the plate to add to the juices collecting there, to be soaked up with good bread when all the tomatoes are gone!
'Tadka' Heirloom Caprese Salad a la Rushina (Time: 10 minutes; Serves: 4-6)

2-3 large heirloom tomatoes in different colours
12 cherry tomatoes in different colour
½ cup spoon tomatoes
100 g fresh mozzarella (the Mozzarella balls packed with liquid)
Sea salt to taste
3 tbsp Extra Virgin olive oil
1/3 cup garlic, chopped fine
½ cup loose packed fresh basil

The beauty of this dish is it will go well in any serving ware; I do it on a large platter or a large glass salad bowl. If using a bowl arrange tomatoes in layers to show off their colours. Cut large tomatoes in round or halved thick slices. Place in serving dish as you go. Halve cherry tomatoes and add to bowl. Scatter spoon tomatoes over, whole. Now reserve tomatoes and heat olive oil in a pan. When hot add the chopped garlic and stir fry and cook till garlic is golden, add basil and fry for 20 seconds (do not overdo as Basil gets bitter and metallic if overcooked). Now quickly return to the salad, scatter sea salt over generously so it gets into all the crevices of the tomatoes, pinch of bits of Mozzarella off the ball and scatter over. Spoon the garlic basil oil all over platter. Serve with good multi grain bread.

This salad should cost between Rs. 250-350. I served it with a Mushroom soup and multi grain bread and chocolate cake with lime frosting and strawberries for dessert. The entire meal totalled Rs. 1000 for 4 people.
Other ways to use Heirloom Tomatoes -
Slow roasted tomatoes, or as a topping for Phyllo pizza Marinara style with Feta, Heirloom tomatoes and Basil scattered over (this can also use up leftover Mozzarella) Phyllo pastry prices have fallen to half and 1 packet is good for about 5 pizzas. 

Shopping list
Heirloom Tomatoes - Trikaya stall at Crawford, Nature's Basket outlets all over Mumbai and other large stores. Mozzarella - I use Indian brand Imperio which is enough for two uses) and is available everywhere.


Anushruti | Divine Taste said...

Eating the bread with the remains of a salad like this, in this case teh olive oil is one of my favourite parts. The Imperio cheese has class 2 preservatives in it! How I wish we had the luxury of good preservative free mozzarella!

Meenakshi said...

Thank you so so much for sharing this Rushina! I have been reading so much about heirloom tomatoes and their production in the United States, and was trying to find out more about what the 'heirloom scene' was in India. I have to buy some now!

Flavours said...

Thank you, Rushina! I remember seeing them at Nature's Basket last week. After your article, I have a mind to buy them ASAP.