To say that I like collecting books would be as big an understatement as saying Carrie Bradshaw likes collecting shoes. New, old, hardback, used, paperback – as my payload grew bigger and books started pouring out of the bookshelf, the coffee table, the bed side table, the dining table and even the floor, my mother finally issued an ultimatum: either the books or I had to go. I stopped for a while but then as I moved away from home to work, the addiction started afresh. Staying in a different country did prove to be a bit of a deterrent, as I had to start paying extra for bags overloaded with my books, but it was not nearly enough. I shudder (and am secretly grinning at the same time) to think of a day I may have to move back home and my mother will have the chance to see the boxes of books I have accumulated in the meantime.
Of all my books, my cookbooks hold a special place in my heart. Although I am an addict, I am a discerning one. I won’t buy just any book – it has to grab me. For some people, cookbooks need to have photos – giant, mouth-watering photos of the food to entice them. While this is obviously an added bonus, it’s not a make-or-break deal for me. (I have only ever bought one book for the pictures alone, and that is The French Market, which has some of the most amazing photos I have ever seen in any cookbook.) For me it is the stories – of the people that cooked the food, of the places that inspired the food, of the anecdotes that surround the food. Any cookbook that starts with a title and follows it with a recipe with no background will immediately be put back on the shelf, for what is food without the stories that surround it?
My most recent acquisition is Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells bought from a store called (hold still my heart) The Cookbook Store. Yes, an entire store dedicated solely to cooking titles – what else could any foodie book-lover ask for? I had to break my self-imposed ban from buying books to get this title (all those airport charges were making it a very expensive addiction). The book is a collection of recipes from Patricia’s visits to some of the best bistros in France. This is simple, home-style cooking at its very best from kitchens all over France with stories of meals so fabulous, I can only dream of being there to sample them myself one day. The recipes are classic, but never clichéd and usually with a playful twist.
And if I wasn’t already sold (well, you can already see I was; admittedly, it doesn’t take much), the first recipe I cooked had me hook-line-and-sinker – Tomates Farcies Chez La Vieille or Chez La Vieille’s Stuffed Tomatoes. Apparently the Chez La Vieille bistro recently changed owners making me doubly glad I got my hands on this recipe, which comes together so simply that it belies the deliciousness that follows.
You first fry some shallots and garlic in butter till they are soft and golden and your kitchen is filled with a heady aroma. In the meanwhile, you cut off tomatoes near the stem, scoop out the insides (ok, that description is more suited to a Halloween theme) and blend this in a processor with several other lovely ingredients, namely ham, sausages, an egg and herbs. The beauty of this recipe is that you can replace these with whatever you have in your pantry at the time or adapt it to include your favorite ingredients. You then stuff the tomatoes, and if you’re like me, sprinkle mozzarella over the stuffing, replace the tomato caps and then bake the tomatoes over rice.
In my case, the process included an added step of removing the tomatoes from the oven after a minute because I realized that I had forgotten to put my beautiful shallots and garlic in the mixer with the rest of the ingredients. This elicited a cry of dismay – You missed out the best part! – from my cousin D who loves garlic even more than I do. I just sprinkled them over the stuffing, and I think I liked it even better that way (people who want to get technical may not point out that I didn’t have it the original way to compare). As the tomatoes cook in the oven, the rice absorbs the liquid and cooks with them, but I would soak it in warm water before, because mine could have been a little more tender.
The final result was tomatoes with their flavors so concentrated, I want to have them that way all the time. The stuffing complements their flavor perfectly and the garlic and cheese just makes it all complete. Try them for a simple yet scrumptious brunch, a summer lunch, and if you like tomatoes as much as I do, try them now (if I was stranded on a deserted island with only one vegetable to eat, it would be tomatoes. Yes, these are some of the things I think about when I have that faraway look while on the bus.)
And if my mom complains about my books, be sure that this will be one of the first things I cook for her (and also because I didn’t get to this Mother’s Day).
Chez La Vieille’s Stuffed Tomatoes
Recipe adapted from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells
3 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup (50 gm) long-grain rice (next time I would soak this in warm water an hour before cooking)
4 large, 6 medium or 8 small tomatoes
3 shallots, finely minced/chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely minced/chopped
5 oz (150 gm) boiled ham
5 oz (150 gm) sausage (use your favorite)
1 large egg
A small handful of fresh herbs (I used parsley, thyme and dried oregano)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup (50 gm) mozzarella
1. Preheat the oven to 425⁰F (220⁰C).
2. Use ½ tablespoon butter to coat a 10 inch straight-edged glass or ceramic dish. Sprinkle the rice on the bottom.
3. Cut a small slice off the tomatoes near the stem and scoop out the pulp and the seeds. No, don’t throw them away.
4. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a skillet and fry the shallots and garlic over medium-low heat until golden brown.
5. Place the ham, sausages, egg, herbs and tomato pulp and seeds in a food processor and whiz it until well blended. Season with the salt and pepper (go light on the seasoning, taste and see).
6. Stuff the tomatoes with the mixture. Sprinkle the shallot and garlic mixture and mozzarella over the stuffing and replace the tomato caps. (The original recipe has no cheese and the shallots and garlic are blended with the rest of the ingredients. Please do this if you prefer.)
7. Arrange the tomatoes over the rice (keep the rice close to the tomatoes and not scattered afar as it needs the tomato liquid to cook).
8. Dot with the remaining butter and bake in the preheated oven for about 25-35 mins until nicely browned.