Tomatoes, bell peppers & much more

Summer is a firework of colours, an explosion of flavours, much zest and vigour which one could simply not resist. It feels powerfully in the air and this abundant energy is so inviting, captivating, and invigorating. It tells a story full of sun and life. I adore the month of August especially in the last couple of years as it unfolds my creative flare and desire to do things, and bring beauty to my day, to others’ too. Perhaps this is my most favourite month, I was reflecting these days, when the vibes are not vacation, just the opposite, stimulating me to dive deeper and bring new things to life. I feel this creative and ripening energy in the Nature too. Its fruits, vegetables and herbs are full of ripe juices and textures, dense in inviting sunny flavours. To cook and share a wonderful, simple, and delicious food with the world. 

The tomatoes are one of my big loves. Along with the artisan bread and extra virgin olive oil they rank top on my ingredients love list, always with me at home. Fresh or as a homemade preserve for my winter sauces. So, this story started with a beloved tandem ~ tomatoes and bell peppers. And here come a few tasty ideas to share with you. Three recipes, three cooking techniques to illustrate the versatility and mastery of extra virgin olive oil in the kitchen. This is the ideal cooking fat for all styles of food preparation since it brings not only a natural, light, and clean flavour to the food, but also a health dimension with its unique and unparalleled composition. On one hand, the goodness of the prevailing monounsaturated Oleic fatty acid (Omega 9, in average 75%) which is stable to oxidation by nature, and on the other hand, the content of the beneficial phenolic compounds also preventing from oxidation make EVOO a perfect fat for all heat techniques. Its oxidative stability (the ability to resist to the unstable reaction of oxygen with food at prolonged heat treatment) is remarkably high, circa 34 hours vs. 2,5 hours for sunflower oil. Likewise, its smoke point of 190-210C makes it ideal to bake, simmer, fry, roast, sauté, etc.

EVOO is magical with its rich biodiversity of olive varieties (1275 recorded and studied), and therefore it offers a broad span of flavour and intensity profiles. It has a huge potential to pair ingredients and flavours, and to make very special flavour and texture bonds for a splendid experience of all the senses. I love it as it is my inspiration, but also a valuable helper when I wish to harmonise a dish for a final touch or bring more vigour and boldness to the dish flavours.

In summary, it is safe and healthy to cook with EVOO, unlike some myths that the oil is suitable only for salad dressings, sauces, and its cold application. The stable molecular nature (1 double bond in the fatty acid chain vs. 2-3 double bonds of the polyunsaturated fats e.g. Omega 6) and compounds with antioxidant activity makes it solid vs. degradation and emission of unhealthy substances. And more stable vs. the Omega 6 seed/ nut oils more inclined to oxidation and de-structuring. Let’s not forget that olive oil is the main cooking oil in the Mediterranean countries and many researches/observations of the population continuously confirm one of the highest health indicators and life expectancy globally. The Sun, olive oil and the MedDiet are the key to this reassuring health data and lower risk from many medicinal conditions and illnesses, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases, blood pressure and bad cholesterol LDL, Alzheimer’s and dementia, Diabetes type 2, overweight and waist fat, skin health.

Having clarified the safety dimension of cooking with EVOO, let’s talk about a delicious and inviting food bringing the summer sun to our table and plates. Summer is about lightness and freshness and here comes a salad and a dish on its own where EVOO gives this noble bonding of the veggies and cheese. I love it because it is a reflection of the rich colours and flavours of the season and very pleasing to the eyes and the palate.

Garden salad with white cheese “bonbons” & pistachio

Ingredients (4 serves)

~ 4 medium sweet ripe tomatoes with skins discarded, diced 1.5 х 1.5 cm

~ 6 green or orange-green summer bell peppers, roasted & peeled, split into stripes 

~ 1 handful fresh basil leaves (leave some whole ones for decoration, the rest tear in smaller parts)

~ 300 g white brine cheese (desalted), mashed 

~ 4 t.s. EVOO зехтин extra virgin with pronounced characteristics for the “bonbons” & 4 t.s. to season the veggies

~ pinch of freshly ground white pepper (for both the “bonbons” & veggies) 

~ 5-6 t.s. raw pistachio, coarsely ground (I prefer a mortar & pestle vs. a blender)

Preparation steps

Shape generous bite-size balls (d=4 сm) from the cheese paste, seasoned with EVOO and some white pepper. Roll them into the ground pistachio for a richer mouth sensation.

Mix the diced tomatoes with the roasted pepper stripes, basil, EVOO, white pepper and blend them well. Split the salad into the serving plates and dust it with the remaining ground pistachio. 

Arrange 3 “bonbons” for each plate on top of the veggies and decorate with the basil leaves. A very pleasing presentation ~ both beautiful and delicious for the hot summer days! 

EVOO pairing for a final touch 

Here I suggest 3 EVOO profiles that make a wonderful match with the dish flavours ~ Hojiblanca from Andalusia in Spain with lots of deep sunny flavours of olive leaves and herbs, and a distinctive Pungency. Itrana from Campania in Italy for bringing a multi-layered vigour with its green herbaceous and artichoke notes, and a bold Pungency.  Chondrolea early harvest from Chalkidiki in Greece for adding completeness with its easy herbaceous and apple freshness and a medium Pungency.

Another lovely summer dish is Imam Bayaldi which I tasted last month in a family taverna in Argalasti village, in Pelion in Greece. Its texture and baked flavours were so generous and EVOO was generous too. Back in Sofia I was contemplating how to preserve the abundant spirit of the dish yet to make it lighter as most of us prefer dishes not floating in oil (the case of the very delicious Imam Bayaldi of Mama Nikoleta). And this is how my interpretation started, applying my beloved cooking style of “joining” concentrated cooked flavours/ingredients together. I often prefer this way of food preparation because it concentrates the tastes and aromas of the products and does not give the watery feel which sometimes occurs when cooking all ingredients together from the start. It also saves time which is beneficial for our busy agendas. In this dish we have sautéing and baking as techniques and together they make it very special.

Imam Bayaldi

Ingredients (4 serves)

~ 4 medium aubergines

~ 4 yellow bell peppers (summer varieties, not so compact as a texture)

~ 2 large tomatoes (skin discarded & diced 1 x 1 cm)

~ 1 large, sweet onion, cut in slices

~ 1 handful parsley leaves, finely chopped 

~ pinch of sea salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste

~ 1 teaspoon of dried oregano & thyme

~ 3 t.s. simple EVOO for sautéing the onion, 2 t.s. simple EVOO for baking & 2 t.s. EVOO with pronounced characteristics for a final touch

Preparation steps

Bake the whole aubergines for 30 min. at 200C, on a cooking tray well wrapped  with a baking paper (I do not use aluminium foil at home, especially for high temperatures I wouldn’t recommend it). Place also the peppers in the oven and roast them for 15-20 min. until golden. Remove the peppers and keep them in a covered pot for 10 min., discard the skins and seeds after. Tear them in stripes.

In parallel, simmer the tomatoes for 15-20 min. at medium heat, to thicken. In a different pot sauté the onions for 3-4 min. to get softer. Join the simmered tomatoes to the onion, add the peppers, spices, and the dried herbs. 

Carefully cut the aubergines in halves. Remove the pulp to get 8 “boats”. Add the pulp to the rest of the veggies. Fill the boats with the mix. Place them on a baking tray on a baking paper. Drizzle some EVOO. Bake for 15-20 min. at 180C (the oven is still warm). I use lower heat + fan. In 50 min. the dish is ready.

Serve with the fresh parsley sprinkled on top and a drizzle of EVOO with pronounced characteristics. It pairs delightfully with some Stracciatella di burrata. I love it still warm (not hot) and cool during the day.

EVOO pairing for a final touch 

A Koroneiki from Greece is a great match, an early harvest with more herbaceous notes and an energetic spiciness, or a regular harvest with deeper and riper notes of dried herbs and hey. I would also recommend a Coratina from Puglia with expressive green notes of almond and artichoke in harmony with a bold Pungency.  

My third recipe is so fragrant and velvety, an interpretation of the Italian Pappa al pomodoro, with a signature pepper twist😊It always happens like this ~ I have an ingredient or two at hand and my imagination begins bonding the flavours, adding some extra ones for a completely new experience for the palate. In this case I had a sourdough bread with walnuts 3-4 days old and some roasted bell peppers, and a new recipe was naturally born.

Simmered tomatoes, roasted bell peppers (skins and seeds discarded), some oregano, sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste, some bread. The summer Mediterranean twist came not just from the bell pepper flavours, but also from adding some fennel seeds and roasted on the pan walnuts. A tablespoon of EVOO with pronounced characteristics per serve and the magic in the blender happens! To give you an idea for the proportions ~ for 4 serves ~ 2 large tomatoes, 4 summer bell peppers, 2 slices of older sourdough bread, ½ tea spoon of fennel seeds, 10 walnut halves, ½ tablespoon dried oregano, sea salt and white pepper to taste. 1 tablespoon of EVOO per portion and just a fine drizzle on top for beauty.

Here a Picual from Andalusia in Spain with an expressive Pungency and notes of tomato goes fantastically well. Also a fresh green herbaceous Chondrolea early harvest from Chalkidiki  complements harmoniously the flavours. Pairing the soup with a Cretan Tsunati early harvest from the White mountains is bold and beautiful ~ adding new green flavour layers of almond, dandelion leaves, and tomato, along with a kicking Pungency that brings a new cosmic sensorial dimension to the summer cream. 

EVOO and food pairing is like music ~ it is so personal and moving. It reflects one’s intuition, imagination and sensitivity to fragrances and textures, to flavours and palate sensations. And tells a lot about our relationship with food. I adore this easy flowing process of creation and bringing to life new sensorial experiences. I hope I will pass on to you some of those beautiful and tasty vibes.

I wish you a full delight for the senses!

~ we are what we live ~ we are what we eat ~ food for change ~