Cook school confidential: cooking with tomatoes

Cook school confidential: cooking with tomatoes

by Great British Chefs 23 May 2016

We teamed up with chef Paul Foster to showcase the beautiful flavour of British tomatoes to see how a few simple ingredients can be transformed into a perfectly balanced dish, and how home cooks can make the most of their incredible taste.

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Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

May marks the beginning of British tomato season and sees bright red, juicy varieties filling shop shelves across the UK. As part of British Tomato Week (16–22 May) we invited top chef Paul Foster – who is due to open his own restaurant, Salt, in Leamington Spa later this year – down to Le Cordon Bleu to host a masterclass showcasing just how good these homegrown fruits can be.

Fresh, ripe tomatoes are a world away from the out of season, watery and bland varieties that are all too often stocked in the supermarkets. ‘A good tomato has to be really red,’ says Paul. ‘You should also be able to smell them from a few feet away; they’re the ones you’re looking for. If they’re on the vine, even better.

‘I’m a massive fan of British tomatoes – at my last restaurant (Mallory Court) we used to grow our own and my cooking is all about using the best quality produce when it’s available,’ he continues. ‘As soon as tomatoes are in season I use as many different varieties as much as I can. It’s the freshness that makes British tomatoes the best and the fact that they’re picked at the right time; strawberries are only good in the country they’re grown in and the same goes for tomatoes.’

The dish Paul demonstrated was his Plum tomato tart with Parmesan biscuit, avocado and chorizo. ‘I actually designed it last year for a culinary exchange I took part in with Mexico,’ he says. ‘Tomatoes were at the height of their season over there and I wanted to create something that celebrated that. It’s quite elegant and delicate, like something you’d find on a tasting menu, and is all about totally balanced flavours.

‘You have a split pastry at the bottom made with Parmesan, which is like a shortbread with a crumbly, almost sandy texture,’ adds Paul. ‘On top of that there are two types of tomatoes; one compressed in an acidic sweetened vinegar, the other confited in butter and thyme which really brings out the umami. On top of that there’s a lovely cooling avocado emulsion – a bit like mayonnaise – then a slice of chorizo on top for some meat and spice.’

The contrast between the confit and picked tomatoes really brought to life just how flavourful the fruit can be. Cooking the peeled tomatoes over a very low heat in lots of butter (with the tomato stalks included for added flavour) lent them a rich, almost pizza-like flavour, while sealing the others in a vacuum bag with vinegar and brown sugar retained their freshness with a sharp, sweet taste. For quite a simple dish it looked and tasted stunning, which just goes to show that sometimes quality ingredients are all you need.

Paul tomatoes
Paul uses tomatoes whenever they're in season
Confit tomatoes
The confit tomatoes were cooking in butter with thyme and tomato stalks for added flavour
Vacuum bag
Sealing peeled tomatoes in a vacuum bag with vinegar and sugar sped up the process, but can be recreated at home with a ziploc bag

‘If you buy the very best tomatoes then you don’t have to do much to them,’ says Paul. ‘If you chop them up and cook them down into a sauce then it’ll taste great, but I think you’re missing out on some of the fresh flavours. The same goes for a concasse – you remove and throw away the seeds, which means missing out on half the flavour. The only thing I tend to remove is the skin, as it’s almost flavourless and unpalatable. Sometimes, when tomatoes are in peak season, all you need to do is just slice them thinly and dress them with salt, balsamic vinegar, oil and herbs and leave them for twenty minutes. That’s the best way to taste their fantastic flavour.’