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Tara O'Brady

It has been an exceptional year for tomatoes. At least, in my experience.

I spent the middle of summer travelling abroad; in Lisbon one night, we had one of the simplest, yet most straightforwardly effective dishes of recent memory. Seated in José Avillez’s Taberna, at a table tucked just to the right of the door where hopeful diners-to-be waited for their chance, we were presented with an unassuming plate of beefsteak tomatoes and slivered onions. Cut into rounds and arranged slightly overlapping, like scales, the tomatoes were dressed with a speckled oregano oil and a crunchy scatter of sea salt. The effect was far from subtle. The tomatoes, at peak ripeness, were meaty. The flesh dense and satisfying, the sharpness of the onion punctuating their intensity perfectly.

Another day, we were ambling our way through the winding streets of Salamanca, Spain in search of lunch. After a circuitous route brought us back to where we had begun, we picked the closest restaurant, which happened to be a gem. At Casa Paca, we sat outside with a piercing rosé and more of the menu than what was logical. The pan con tomate was solidly good. As were the boletus mushrooms with egg, various salads and thick white asparagus with aioli. The artichokes, grilled over charcoal, were lively with a citrus vinaigrette, yet grounded thanks to a luxuriously savoury Rossini sauce. They vied for favourite dish, but another tomato contender clinched the title. Cooked whole, slowly and at low heat, the Bull’s Heart tomatoes were stripped of their skins and delivered in their unadorned glory, upon a mingling puddle of two sauces – one, a stark white cream into which Durius cheese, similar to a provolone, had been melted; the other, a dark green ripple of parsley oil. We lifted the tomatoes to our plates, then spooned the sauces over. With fork and knife, we made quick work of them, scooping up the remnants with chunks of stodgy white bread. The tomatoes tasted wholly of themselves, and somehow more so.

I feared spending so much time away from home would mean I’d miss the best of Niagara’s growing season, but my concern was misplaced. I came back to farm stands full to bursting, and the tomatoes here easily rivalled those I’d had on my travels. There are those traditions of August when it comes to tomatoes. We had the requisite run of tomato sandwiches, squashed between slices of soft bread with mayonnaise and crumbling aged cheddar for me, and toasted and open-faced for my husband. We branched out and had a fling with the tomato toast from New York restaurant Estela, and the cookbook of the same name; a simple tartine that’s a bit of a starlet at present, with good reason. Chef Ignacio Mattos skillet toasts pumpernickel, or something seeded and similarly dense, rubs the tranches with a nub of garlic, spreads on a milky Fromager d’Affinois (brie could be substituted), then lays tomatoes on top. The magic lies in the proportion. The bread isn’t too thick, the garlic merely a suggestion, the cheese relaxes into the crumb and the tomatoes are front and centre.

After that, it was on to a tomato tart, a familiar standby, with a standard pie dough lining the tin and a layer of caramelized onions atop. Whatever tomatoes happened to be on the counter follow, and plucked thyme and gruyère to finish. Baked until bubbling and bronzed, the tart was equally enjoyed hot or cold, with a salad one day, and a fried egg the next.

After all that industriousness, I still found myself in possession of a basket of cherry tomatoes. Bought on whim at the market, they were a habitual snack whenever I passed by, but I could see their days were numbered and their ranks not dwindling anywhere close to fast enough. Thus, I set upon a quick tomato chutney.

This is a small-batch, low-effort version of tomato jam – no chopping, short cooking time and very little by way of babysitting at the stove.

It is considerably more limber than others of its style. It also has about half the sugar, so will not get that jellied jam quality, especially as cherry tomatoes have more water and seeds than other varieties. Usually, what are considered “paste” or “sauce” tomatoes would be utilized here – San Marzano, Roma, Big Mama, and Amish are examples – for their intense tomato-ness. You can, of course use them instead. Dice and core first, adding a splash of water to the pot to keep things lush.

The chutney is a balance of sharp and sweet, with a vibrating heat in the background. Easily spreadable, use it on a burger or to accompany most grilled meats – sausages, chicken, pork and steak. It makes for a lovely vermillion smudge in a grilled cheese, or served beside a crumble of chévre. It works unexpectedly well with bacon on the plate at breakfast, and equally in a sandwich on the go.

Burst Cherry Tomato Chutney

Makes about 1 cup

  • 1 1/4 pounds cherry tomatoes
  • 1/3 cup sugar, golden or granulated
  • Zest from a lime, peeled in large strips
  • Juice from a lime, about 2 tablespoons
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced, or to taste
  • 2 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane
  • 1 tablespoon microplaned ginger
  • 3/4 teaspoon medium-grain kosher salt
  • Half a cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • A pinch of ground allspice or clove, optional
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes, optional

Tumble the tomatoes into a medium, non-reactive, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Tip in the sugar, then drop in the lime zest, and pour the lime juice over. Stir in the jalapeno, garlic, cinnamon stick, ginger, salt, cumin, coriander, allspice (if using) and chili flakes. Set the pot over medium heat, and stir regularly until the tomatoes begin to burst, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir often as the juices come to a boil.

Turn the heat down to maintain a simmer and cook the compote until thickened and starting to stick to the bottom of the pot, but not jammy, 35 to 40 minutes, depending on the tomatoes. Stir habitually throughout cooking. Pluck the strips of lime zest from the relish and discard, along with the cinnamon stick. Decant to a glass jar or similar, cool, cover and refrigerate. Use within the week.

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