A tomato is a tomato is a tomato right? Those matt red orbs bagged up on supermarket aisles are the fresh ones, the reduced and intensified ones in the tubes form the puree and the others are chucked in a blender and then tinned. If you’re being well fancy and putting together a 1990s antipasti, then a jar of those oily sundried things look great with a nifty rocket salad and some balsamic vinegar. This is pretty much what I thought during my teens and early twenties. The time that I was positive beyond anything else that I HATED tomatoes.
I’m not sure at what point the revelation happened. There was no epiphany as such. But somewhere along the line I worked out that the main problem wasn’t tomatoes as a whole, but just the tomatoes I was used to eating (hiding under a napkin). I think it must have coincided with learning about the impact that salt has on everything. Suddenly the most basic of ingredients were transformed, and somehow started to taste like they were supposed to. And instead of thinking that those squishy, soft tomatoes were past it, I worked out that they were just the ones to seek. Chopped roughly with a liberal amount of wonder-seasoning and some oil, I was scratching my head at why I’d been so avidly avoiding tomatoes all of this time.
I first ate panzanella totally by accident. Katie and I had been seeing each other for a short matter of months, and had enthusiastically hopped by plain and train to the depths of Tuscany, still unsure if we’d come back talking. It had been a magical whirlwind trip filled with the long, rolling views of Siena and pizza gorging in bustling piazzas. But we hated Florence, all blood and sweat from Caravaggio, mosquitoes and wall-to-wall tourists. We escaped one evening to a quiet eatery across the river where our waitress delivered a stodgy tomato salad. It was delicious, but we just couldn’t work out what all of the soggy stuff was. Then it dawned on us, bread. It certainly beat the bouncy veal and nondescript mushroom gnocchi that we had consumed to that point.
The concept for this recipe was not a difficult one. At work we had a batch of magnificent, solid bass and a box of ripe, jewel-like heritage tomatoes. Crab is best friends with both of these, especially the brown meat, which brought everything together with a deep richness. A few torn up bits of bread, some good oil and basil leaves and the dish was there.
For the seabass:
2 wild seabass fillets, from 1kg plus fish. Scaled, trimmed and pinboned.
A squeeze of lemon juice
For the brown crabmeat:
4 tbsp good quality, fresh brown crabmeat
50g ciabatta, crusts removed
1 lemon, juice only
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Cracked black pepper
For the bread:
2-4 thin slices of ciabatta, depending on size of the loaf
1 ripe tomato, crushed
½ a garlic clove, grated
For the dressing:
3 red chillies, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, grated
1 shallot, finely sliced
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp dried oregano
1 lemon, zest only
1 small handful of basil leaves, torn
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
For the semi-dried tomatoes:
3 medium tomatoes, cut into quarters
For the asparagus:
6 asparagus spears, peeled and trimmed
A squeeze of lemon juice
For the tomatoes:
3-6 ripe heritage tomatoes, a mixture of sizes and colours, sliced and chopped into different sized pieces
4 tbsp good quality, unpasteurised white crabmeat
A handful of basil leaves
First make the chilli oil for the dressing. Set a small saucepan to a high temperature and pour in a little olive oil. Fry the red chillies until starting to char on the outside, then turn down the temperature and add the grated garlic, shallot, dried fennel seeds, oregano and lemon zest along with a pinch of seasoning. Continue to cook gently for another few minutes until everything is softened. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool slightly, then pour in the rest of the oil and the torn basil leaves. Stir to combine. When completely cold, cover and allow to infuse overnight.
Strain the chilli oil through a fine sieve and discard the flavourings. Create the dressing by pouring the white wine vinegar into a bowl and slowly whisking in 5-6 tbsp of the flavoured oil until emulsified. Taste and season if necessary then set aside.
For the semi-dried tomatoes, preheat the oven to the lowest possible temperature – about 50⁰C or thereabouts. Line a small baking tray with greaseproof paper and drizzle with a little oil. Arrange the quarters of tomato on top and sprinkle with a little salt. Slide into the oven and roast for 3-4 hours, until intense in flavour but still fairly soft. Turn off the oven and allow everything to cool down. When cold, coat with a little extra virgin olive oil and set aside.
To prepare the brown crab meat, spoon the crab into a food processor and add the ciabatta and lemon juice along with a little seasoning and blitz well. With the motor still running, slowly pour in the olive oil until everything is emulsified. Taste and adjust the lemon, salt and pepper levels if necessary, and let down with a little water if too thick. Spoon into a bowl and set aside.
Slice the heritage tomatoes into a random mixture of different-sized pieces and arrange in a bowl. Spoon over a little of the dressing and allow to sit for 5-10 minutes.
Set a heavy griddle pan onto a high heat. Drizzle a little olive oil onto the ciabatta slices and sprinkle over some seasoning. When the pan is hot, fry the bread for a few minutes on each side until they begin to char. Use a pestle and mortar to finely crush the tomato and garlic together then spread onto a plate. When the bread is toasted, transfer on top of the crushed tomatoes and allow to soak up the juices for a few minutes.
Brush the asparagus with oil and season. Cook on the same griddle pan as used for the bread, frying at a high heat for a few minutes until beginning to blister on all sides. Transfer to a plate and squeeze over a little lemon juice. Keep warm.
Set a heavy frying pan to a medium-high heat and add a generous splash of oil. Pat the sea bass fillets dry with a piece of kitchen roll and season all over. When the pan is hot, place the fish skin-side down in the pan and cook for 3 minutes. During this time, use a spoon to continuously baste the top of each fillet, effectively cooking it through both sides at the same time. Finish with a little lemon juice.
To serve, arrange the slices of ciabatta and some pieces of fresh and semi-dried tomato on each plate. Dot on a generous amount of the brown crab puree. Position the fish on top of one of the pieces of ciabatta. Scatter the asparagus spears, white crab meat and basil leaves around the plate and finish with a good amount of the dressing.