Tomatoes, Leek and Bell Peppers
by Ellen Kelly
Illustrations by Eden Thompson
As compensation for our all-too-brief summers, we’re frequently rewarded with extra sunshine and bounty as our days sadly begin to shorten. Peppers, squash, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants – and so much more – fill our markets and gardens to bursting.
The nightshade family plays an interesting and key role in so much of this abundance. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes all share this somewhat unusual family connection. Thankfully, people no longer regard tomatoes and peppers with the suspicion they received in Europe when they were first introduced from the New World.
Our relationship with the supermarket TOMATO has changed considerably in the last few years. Once all that could be found was the dreaded anemic coloured, papier-mache textured fruit we all felt compelled to purchase if only for a bit of colour. Happily, we can now find tasty, bright-coloured greenhouse-raised tomatoes even past the usual season. Thank goodness the dark days are over.
Aside from ratatouille (see page 14), my go-to with fresh seasonal tomatoes is a simple soup that casts the fruit in the starring role. Where I would normally not bother to peel tomatoes, I do for this soup. A quick blanch in boiling water does the trick. Start by sautéing 1/2 c. chopped onion and 1/4 c. celery, with a minced clove or two of garlic, in olive oil and butter over medium heat until soft. Season with salt and pepper. Add about 4 c. peeled, chopped ripe tomatoes, juice and all, and 1 t. lightly chopped fresh thyme leaves; continue to cook for 10-15 minutes. Pour in about 1-2 c. good chicken or vegetable stock (depending on the juiciness of the tomatoes) and season again. At this point, you can purée the soup or leave it chunky. Cook for an additional 15 minutes and finish with a little heavy cream if you like it pink.
BUY: Look for tomatoes on the vine or at least fruit that still has the calyx attached. The leaves should be fragrant and pliable; any brittleness suggests they’ve been on the shelf for a little too long. The skins should be shiny and tight and the fruit heavy for its size.
TIPS: Never store tomatoes in the refrigerator. Like eggplants, their flavour is diminished considerably when kept cold. Only resort to the fridge if the fruit is over ripe or split and won’t last on the counter.
DID YOU KNOW? There are many more varieties available now. Watch for Cherokee Purple, Sungold, Yellow Peach, Black Plum and Amish paste to name just a few. They are rainbow coloured and vary hugely in taste, definitely worth experimenting with.
And what kitchen can survive without an allium in one form or another? Fall brings us this culinary essential in all its glory, not the least of which is the too often forgotten, delicate and subtle LEEK.
Once known as “poor man’s asparagus,” especially in France, leeks are just as expensive as asparagus these days. Leeks can be found most of the year, but it’s the smaller leeks that are more available in the late summer, early fall. These tasty slender alliums are perfect when oven-braised with cream. Trim and clean several small leeks (less than one-inch diameter). Tie them in a bundle and parboil them in salted boiling water until tender. Remove the bundle, cut the string and allow to drain and cool to room temperature. Butter a pretty baking dish and arrange the leeks, covering them with a mixture of three parts heavy cream to one-part good stock, with a dab of Dijon mustard whisked in. Dot with butter and season with salt, freshly ground black or white pepper and, optionally, a touch of freshly ground nutmeg. A sprig or two of fresh thyme on the top is a nice addition. Bake uncovered at 375°F. for about 35-40 minutes, until the cream begins to coat rather than cover the leeks.
BUY: Look for leeks that are firm and stiff with white stalks or “shanks” and dark green or blue-green leaves. Buy leeks with their roots attached, they’ll keep longer.
TIPS: Although the white shank is the most-used portion, the well-cleaned roots and the coarser green leaves are excellent additions to stock. The many layers of the leek hide fine sand and dirt; be sure to clean them well. Stand trimmed leeks (with a slit up the side) upside down in cold water for an hour or so to allow the sand to filter out.
DID YOU KNOW? This tall, striking, noble-looking plant (with names like King Richard and Lancelot) is the proud symbol of Wales.
In 1912, the pharmacist Wilbur Scoville invented a scale that ranks chiles and peppers by heat units; BELL PEPPERS are at the bottom of that scale. Known more for their sweet juiciness than any piquancy, this large, hollow fruit lends itself to many applications.
My favourite thing to do with an abundance of red, yellow and/or orange peppers is to fire up the grill and roast and peel them. Using long tongs, place the whole pepper directly on the grill and turn as the skin chars and blackens. Put the peppers in a bag or covered container to steam and cool a bit before peeling off the outer papery skin. Remove the stems, seeds and membranes before putting the pieces, large or small, into small bags with a splash of good olive oil, a basil leaf or two and a crushed garlic clove. These little treasure packets can be frozen and used in many ways all winter – salads, soups, stuffing, stews and more.
BUY: Bell peppers should be firm and unblemished with tight skins. Wrinkled skins indicate a loss of moisture. Buy fruit that’s heavy for its size, an indication of a juicier, thicker-walled pepper.
TIPS: When dicing and slicing peppers, open them up and cut into the inside wall instead of the shiny surface; your knife will find better purchase and you’ll be less likely to cut yourself, especially if using a dull knife.
DID YOU KNOW? Some people claim raw green pepper upsets their stomachs. This makes sense since green peppers are in fact unripe and have a distinctive flavour that many people don’t care for even if they don’t cause them any gastric distress. Being unripe, they are also not as easy to char and peel as red, orange or yellow peppers.
Ellen Kelly has written about food, among other culinary pursuits, for years and is a regular contributor to City Palate