The essence of Mediterranean cuisine - tomatoes

Mediterranean gastronomy is so unimaginable without tomatoes that they are used to prepare delicacies all year long. Tomatoes form the base of cult šalša (a tasty light stew made of tomatoes, onions, and spices is a popular sauce in Croatia, particularly in Dalmatia) and other fascinating sauces that make our everyday cooking special indeed. Tomatoes possess an unobtrusive sweet-sour taste which makes them easy to pair with virtually all other ingredients, while umami components tomatoes abound with have encouraged chefs around the world to include them in all courses. You can try tomatoes in appetizers and desserts. They’re also used to make the most popular cocktails.

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Although they’re originally in season during summer and autumn, greenhouse technology has made fresh tomatoes available all year round. There are so many different ways of conserving tomatoes that you can really enjoy them during all 12 months of the year. If you’re only into seasonal ingredients, you can dry them, make tomato paste, sauce or šalša that can be frozen, make tomato juice or prepare marinated tomatoes in olive oil. That way you get to preserve tomatoes and enjoy them all year round.Image author: Thinkstock

Tomato experts are aware of numerous varieties with each variety being different in size, shape, colour, flavour, amount of seeds or juice and then there’s a also a great deal of indigenous varieties that have been prevented from fading into oblivion by hard-working gardeners. The tomato’s characteristics determine how it is to be prepared so some varieties are used exclusively to prepare salads, while others are used to prepare šalša sauces, grilling, stuffing or as decoration.Image author: Thinkstock

When it comes to preparing tomatoes, it’s really hard to single out a particular speciality considering because there are plenty to choose from. Fresh tomatoes are ideal for preparing cold dishes ranging from sandwiches and salads to colourful canapés in which tomatoes go great with courgettes, cheese, anchovies and cucumbers. In a nutshell, whatever you choose, you won’t make a mistake. You can stuff tomatoes with minced meat or use them in casseroles with other vegetables, they’re the trademark of focaccia and pizza, while tomato sauce or šalša is the secret ingredient in almost all kinds of dishes ranging from goulash, fish stews, pasta, soups to meat and fish specialties. The list just goes on and on.Image author: Thinkstock

Modern technology used in professional kitchen has enabled classic ingredients to be prepared in a healthier and more creative way. This led to a boom in new recipes, flavours and menus which are hard to resist. Top Croatian restaurants shared a part of these menus with us. We kicked off our culinary journey in Split where a genuine culinary revolution is taking place headed by restaurants such as Zoi. Zoi is definitely one of the restaurants falling into the category of the new wave of Split’s fine-dining scene. Their work has been recognised by Michelin, which included the restaurant in its map. Chef Ivica Katić showcases the charms of Mediterranean cuisine in a fine-dining manner to his guests on a daily basis with tomatoes surely being one of the main ingredients.

  • Tomatoes are a staple when preparing most dishes, they form the basis of Mediterranean cuisine. Even though local farmers still haven’t specialised in growing certain tomato varieties used in restaurants, we do our best to purchase home-grown produce as much as possible. Choosing the right tomatoes is paramount. We use cherry tomatoes and San Marzano tomatoes at the restaurant. We use San Marzano tomatoes in šalša sauces because their flesh is thicker, they have a more pronounced flavour and don’t contain a lot of water. Our main tomato specialities include tagliatalle with steak, beefsteak with tomato sauce, lamb chops in ground šalša sauce and tuna steak with tomato, olive and capers šalša sauce. Šalša is prepared by boiling San Marzano tomatoes first, then we peel off the skin and remove the seeds so that only the flesh remains. We place scallions in olive oil so that they turn yellow, then we add the tomatoes, cherry liqueur that kick up the umami or aroma in šalša, then we add nutmeg, olives and capers. The šalša sauce is served semi-cold, we pour it over the tuna steak, while we serve roasted peppers and quinoa underneath the steak - Katić points out.

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Restaurant Augubio Congo, which is also located in downtown Split, offers classic Mediterranean cuisine so tomatoes are frequently used to accompany dishes. Restaurant manager Ante Čulo shared their marinated tomatoes recipe with us and we also learned how get to the tomato essence through preparation.

  • Our menu is always seasonal so it’s changed accordingly. This year’s summer menu often features marinated tomatoes. They’re prepared by placing cherry tomatoes in a jar containing olive oil, whole cloves of garlic, fresh basil and thyme. It would be best to leave them to stand for a day at least or possibly even longer. We serve the marinated tomatoes with fish specialties such as ceviche or scallops. We also have an interesting specialty, white tomato soup prepared using tomato essence. First we boil the tomatoes in plain water and salt, then we mix them in a blender and strain them though a fine sieve or a gauze. The remaining red purée is discarded. The passed essence is then left to simmer for an hour or two. Finally, we thicken it using cooking cream and add olive oil and white truffle oil. The soup is served with homemade grisíns and milk and Parmesan cheese foam - Čulo explained.

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At restaurant "Mediteran in Primošten the name itself gives us a clue as to what specialties we can expect when it comes to the menu, while the French guide Gault&Millau awarded their work. Local Dalmatian cuisine is definitely an invitation, while chef Pero Savanović, who also prepares a great deal of tomato dishes, is the best person to tell us about how Dalmatians have brought tomato preparation to whole new level.

  • Tomatoes are one of our most important ingredients, we use them to prepare cold appetizers, soups and sauces. They’re mostly prepared fresh. Dalmatian šalša, i.e. tomato sauce, is a base for tomato soup, as well as a large number of dishes. We put onion, garlic, parsley, Mediterranean herbs such as thyme, oregano, a dash of rosemary and a teaspoon of sugar in olive oil and let it all turn golden. Once it’s all done, we pass the tomatoes and add a handful of fresh basil - Savanović describes.