Almost as important to me as a decent kitchen, a little herb garden of my own, no matter how primitive, is something I value hugely. Having things growing in pots or soil that you can take a snipping or an absentminded handful of as you pass has such a positive influence on your cooking – it’s the difference between the cautious, parsimonious cellophane packet of herbs from the supermarket (used once, in a very particular, planned dish); and a wild, madly flowering plant that keeps on growing and giving and going to seed, encouraging you to keep on thinking of creative new ways to use it throughout the changing seasons of the year.
Nowadays, we are well versed in the various herbs that are widely available to us. We know that there are different types of basil, some of which are better for Italian cooking and others for Asian, and many of our supermarkets sell both. We know that some people have a genetic dislike of coriander; that you should tear rather than chop soft herbs so that they don’t bruise. That flat leaf parsley is better for Middle Eastern cooking than the curly version and that dried herbs are no replacement for fresh.
Herbs are now a huge part of our culinary environment, but it wasn’t always so. Writing in 1965 in her Summer Cooking handbook, when fresh herbs were only available to purchase in a few specific shops in London, Elizabeth David [who I’ve been reading a lot of lately] commented that ‘fresh basil, so rare in this country, is too precious for so much as one leaf to be allowed to go to waste’ and urged her readers to ‘ask your local greengrocers for such commodities as fresh chives, tarragon & fennel. By creating a demand we may end up getting the supplies we need’.
Although there are no shortage of these herbs that we now see as everyday essentials today, David’s strong insistences still resonate with me. Herbs are all that is good about cooking & should be respected for that reason – they bring out subtle, hidden flavours in shoutier ingredients; they demonstrate a generosity in flavour & spirit, especially when strewn in quantity through salads or vegetable dishes; they’re impermanent & seasonal (basil is as right in summer as sage is in winter) and they urge you to think about what would be the most suitable accompaniment to the exact dish you’re cooking right now. They’re an invitation to live in the moment, however briefly, and they fill our spaces, dishes & homes with their clean, enlivening, bright fragrances. How could I ever take them for granted?
So although it may look like this post is about tomatoes, it is actually about the herbs that they’re cooked with that makes this particular dish sing & makes the tomatoes taste more tomatoey. As David notes about basil, ‘it is well known that it brings out the flavour of tomato salads and sauces…Once you have become a basil addict it is hard to do without it…all the dishes with tomato sauce need basil as a fish needs water and there is no substitute‘.
Makes enough to serve 4, either as an antipasti or mixed through pasta
Delicious as a fancy antipasti option, confit tomatoes also work beautifully as the star of simple pasta dishes. Their flavour concentrates amazingly as they cook, and they keep their shape really well throughout roasting, making them a bit more elegant than ordinary roasted tomatoes. This recipe does use a fair bit of oil, but you’ll be able to use it afterwards & it’ll have the most incredible essence-of-tomato quality.
2 pkts cherry tomatoes (a mix of colours, shapes & varieties works well)
125ml olive oil (cheaper, light coloured blended olive oils are fine for this)
Large handful of fresh herbs – basil, thyme & rosemary work well, but whatever you fancy – oregano, Greek basil & chervil?
1 large clove of garlic, peeled & thinly sliced
Salt & pepper
Preheat your oven to 150°c. Halve the tomatoes and lay skin-side down in a large baking dish, leaving a little space between each tomato so that they don’t just steam as they cook. Lay the garlic slices & herbs around the tomatoes and drizzle with the olive oil. Season with salt & pepper. Roast in the oven for around an hour and a half, spooning the oily juices over the tops of the tomatoes once or twice. Once cooked, fish the confit tomatoes out of the dish gently using a spoon & set aside on parchment. Remove any stems from the tray and carefully pour the oil left behind into a jug for future use.
There are lots of great ways to use confit tomatoes – here are just a few ideas…
- Mix half a tub of ricotta with the juice and zest of half a lemon, salt, pepper & some of the remaining oil and stir into drained spaghetti, reserving a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce. Top with herbs, pepper and lots of the confit tomatoes
- Serve the tomatoes on hunks of sourdough toast with poached eggs & basil for brunch
- Mix the tomatoes with some of their oil and add chunks of feta, olives and some torn mint to serve with a pre-dinner apéritif
- Served alongside white fish that’s been cooked en papillote with wedges of fennel bulb & baby potatoes
- Use just the remaining oil in a River Café-style spaghetti dish. Chop raw tomatoes with black olives, preserved artichokes & flat leaf parsley and add to a dish. Crush 2 cloves of garlic with salt and add to the bowl along with 3 tablespoons of the tomato confit oil and black pepper. Leave to macerate while you cook the spaghetti then stir into the pasta once it’s been drained.
Some of the herbs I made the confit tomatoes with (notably the beautiful purple basil) came from a stall at the Notting Hill Farmer’s Market called ‘Nigel’s Lettuces & Lovage’, which had an incredible selection of some of the more obscure herb plants like savoury & chervil, and all at very reasonable prices, so I’ll be going back next Saturday (9am-1pm) to pick up some more choice specimens for my growing herb collection. As well as plants, there are also egg, dairy, meat, British tomato & coffee stands in this comfortably sized, friendly, family-focused market.