It’s as good as a gift to happen upon a new way to prepare a well-known dish and find it makes a good thing even better. I had that pleasure this week when I was browsing through Mireille Johnston’s The Cuisine of the Sun: Classical French Cooking from Nice and Provence and noticed for the first time her technique for Tomates Provençale.
Johnston is a native of Nice, and I’ve found her recipes clear and reliable, especially when summer vegetables are at their peak. (She expects you’ll have the kind of lovely produce found in Provence.) Hers is my go-to recipe for socca, that amazingly tasty chickpea flour crepe that’s so good with aperitifs. So I tend to trust her, especially in the hotter months.
I have at least half a dozen other recipes for broiled or baked tomatoes in this style, all pretty similar. You mostly squeeze cut tomato halves upside down to get out some of the seeds and juice; top them variously, with garlic or onion, parsley or basil, breadcrumbs or grated cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper; then put them in the oven or under the broiler. With good ingredients, the dish is always tasty. But unless you squeeze the tomatoes so hard they almost collapse, they usually slump sadly in the oven and throw out gouts of boiling-hot tomato juice on the plate when cut. (Maybe yours don’t, but mine always did.)
Here’s the new-to-me thing. According to Johnston, “In the traditional recipe, the tomatoes are cooked on top of the stove before being baked, so that all their excess water is cooked away and they look transparent – like candied fruit.” I’d never heard of this, but it sounded intriguing. So, following her instructions, I set my halved tomatoes upside down on paper towels briefly to blot up a little juice, then put them into a hot frying pan, face down, with some olive oil. Instant splatter all over the stove! (Many things I cook love to splatter all over the stove.) After five minutes I salted the skins and turned the halves over – and began to worry. The faces were blackened all around the edges.
It looked as though the natural sugar in the tomatoes had caramelized and then scorched. Well, it was too late to do anything about it. I fried them three minutes on the other side (more blackening) and transferred them to a baking dish, surreptitiously scraping away a few black bits.
For the final cooking, I diverged from Johnston in one respect. She says to top the tomatoes with bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and olive oil, bake for 10 minutes, then, just before serving, sprinkle on minced garlic and parsley. I’m not so fond of raw garlic, so I added those last two items before baking. Here’s the result:
These were the best tomatoes provençale I’ve ever made. The preliminary cooking had intensified the tomatoes’ sweet flavor, and even the blackened edges were tasty – like the black bits of crust on a well-made Neapolitan pizza. Their relatively brief time in the oven let them hold their shape well, and they didn’t throw excess juices on the plate when cut. I can’t say mine looked really transparent, but they had a kind of shimmery translucence that was quite attractive. So, happily, I now have another go-to Mireille Johnston recipe.