Tomatoes in summer? Groundbreaking. But actually this stuffed tomato dish is not just for summer, it’s really an all-year-round hero. Although it’s obviously lovely with July’s ripest tomatoes, I could totally imagine eating it on a chilly Friday night in November too, with the windows steamed up around us, three bottles of wine on the table and a heap of shoes by the door.
It’s the kind of dish I could imagine making for a loved one’s birthday dinner – and then remaking year after year, on special request. Or it could be for a catch up with friends. Or an annual summer treat, made with a holiday house’s basic kitchen bits.
And it’s an important recipe because it does ‘celebratory treat’ in the way steak and chips or chicken Kiev does, which is quite rare for veggie dishes. Or at least I think it’s rare, as a meat eater who enjoys vegetables more than meat but loves the ceremony of a roast, a burger, a barbecue. The appeal of a specific moment in time, shared.
Like a meat dish, this one has substance and presence and a range of flavours and textures – burnt on bits, sticky bits, tender bits. Unlike a meat dish, however, you don’t feel overly full after eating it. In fact, with enough wine on the side, you might feel like you could push the table back and dance. Which really is exactly how you should feel at a dinner party.
It’s not tremendously rapid to make but it’s not hard at all, and cooking it feels a bit like getting the house ready in the hours before a party – the quiet ministrations like filling tealight holders and folding napkins that get you ready and allow you to show your care, mentally, to the people who are coming.
This dish is a birthday party, this dish is a catch up with friends, this dish is a Friday night ritual. This dish is good times on a tray.
It’s a recipe from Rachel Roddy, an Englishwoman who writes for The Guardian about her life in Testaccio in Rome. She has just written an A-Z of pasta book which looks great, but it’s her Five Quarters cookbook that this recipe comes from and which I return to every summer, looking for a new way with broad beans or courgettes in the London heat.
The book gets its name from Quinto quarto, and according to Roddy, ‘the name of the distinctive style of cooking created by the workers of the Testaccio slaughterhouse during the 1890s. Partly paid in kind with offal – which makes up a quarter of the animal’s weight, hence the ‘fifth quarter’ – the workers (or their wives) found clever ways of transforming their wages into nourishing and tasty meals’.
‘If we develop the idea that the fifth quarter is made up of the things that are usually discarded, the Romans are masters of using them, like the starchy pasta-cooking water, a ladle of which is the key to bringing the pasta and sauce together; the bean-cooking water, which is often the foundation and flavour in classic Roman soups; old bread, which is dampened back to life and tossed with chopped tomatoes, salt and olive oil or used as a base for soup….‘
‘There are, of course, only four quarters. In cooking, I think of the fifth quarter as the other thing (or things), in addition to ingredients, that are needed when you prepare food: common sense, good taste, imagination and experience. It’s what you bring to a recipe by making it again and again until it is your own.’
This description is the essence of why this recipe works so well. It’s a humble recipe, using just tomatoes, rice, herbs and a few other store cupboard basics, and in fact the innards of those tomatoes, even more humble again. But despite its generously given, easily attained great results, it probably won’t really work if you try to rush it or skip steps. A lot of good things don’t.
Here’s Roddy’s description of the tomatoes:
‘Pomodoro al riso, like much of Rome’s traditional cooking, are without frills, simple and delicious. Good tomatoes are hollowed out, and the jumble of pulp, flesh and seeds are mixed with rice, garlic, basil and olive oil and salt to make a stuffing. After a good rest, the stuffing is spooned back into the tomato shells, which are then nestled among diced potatoes on a shallow tray before being baked.
‘This – and this is important – the baked tomatoes are left to rest for half an hour or so, during which time the flavours settle, the rice swells and the oily juices from the pan soak back into the tomatoes and potatoes. Good stuffed tomatoes do indeed come to those who wait’.
And elsewhere on the same topic:
‘Pomodori al riso are beloved in Rome in summer. People make them at home, but are just as likely to buy them from a bakery, where great trays of tomatoes, surrounded by a sea of potatoes, are baked in the bread oven until the rice swells, the shells slump, and the potatoes are golden on top and slightly soggy underneath. There is nothing flash about pomodori al riso.‘
‘I can buy pomodori al riso from a great bakery in Testaccio called Passi. I also make them at home in a well-practised kitchen routine: scoop, strain, season, wait, stuff, bake, wait and wait.’
‘Like so many simple dishes, the key is in the detail, with the little things done carefully. I’m not talking perfect piano scales here, but as Simon Hopkinson says: “The wish to cook nice things and to take time over them.”’
She recommends making sure ‘everyone has their fair share of both crispy and soggy potatoes. To drink, try a soft, unobtrusive but generous red’.
The only change I made to the recipe was to add some cubes of firm mozzarella to the top of the rice mix before cooking (I can’t imagine this kind of thing without a little stringy cheese), and more basil than she suggested. Both seemed like good additions, and I feel given her note on making the recipe your own, that she would approve. Enjoy!
POMODORO AL RISO
8 large firm, fleshy tomatoes (as fragrant as you can find)
2 garlic cloves, peeled & diced
A handful of basil
10 tablespoons of Arborio risotto rice
100ml olive oil, plus extra for the potatoes
4 large Maris Piper potatoes
Small handful of finely diced firm mozzarella (ie, the sort that’s tightly wrapped rather than the stuff in water)
Salt & black pepper
Cut the tops off the tomatoes and set them aside to keep. One by one, hold the tomatoes over a bowl and and using a teaspoon, scoop out their innards, all of it – flesh, seeds, juice – and let it all fall into a bowl. Sprinkle a little salt in the cavity of each tomato and then turn them over to let the liquid drain away.
Give the tomato innards (channeling ‘Fifth quarter’ vibes with the descriptions here) a quick blitz with a blender. Add the diced garlic. Rip most of the basil and add this too (keep the rest for serving). Add the rice and the olive oil. Season very generously with salt and black pepper (taste the liquid – it should taste really well seasoned). Stir, then leave it to sit for 45 mins if you have it, and 30 mins if you don’t. 20 mins as bare minimum!
Cut the potatoes into small chips. Season with salt and black pepper, sprinkle with olive oil and mix so that they are well coated. Preheat your oven to 180c/gas mark 4. Grease a large baking tin, dot the hollowed out tomatoes around it. Fill each one with the rice mix, top with the cubed mozzarella and put their lids back on. Surround the tomatoes with the chips. Bake for about an hour in the oven or until the chips are soft and golden (push any hard ones down and give them some surface area against the tin if they need it) and the tomatoes are looking shrivelled and delicious. The rice should be cooked at this point. Leave the dish to sit for about ten mins before serving, then have with salad, with a nice vinegary dressing.