Lots of recipes using fresh tomatoes say to blanch and peel them first, but I can never be bothered. Is this culinary sacrilege, and does it actually matter? – Ian, Glasgow
Perhaps the most important factor determining your response to Ian’s query is how you learned to cook. National culinary treasure Simon Hopkinson, for instance, had a classic old-school chef training, and he definitely isn’t one to cut corners on tomato prep – or on just about anything else, for that matter. And with good reason, he insists: “I always skin, because the skins are said to turn bitter over time, when quietly stewed, for example.” That’s why you never see unskinned tomatoes in a tin or jar, he adds.
“If you’re adding coarsely chopped tomato to a stew or vegetable medley – ratatouille or caponata, say – not to skin would be foolish, because those horrid little curled tomato skin ‘needles’ will be riddled throughout the dish.” Not only are these deeply unattractive, he says, but they get stuck in your teeth, too, and no one wants that.
Hopkinson is such a stickler, he even peels tomatoes before passing them through an old-fashioned food mill, or mouli-légumes, even though that catches most, if not all, of the skin and pips in its blades anyway. It’s not as if there’s a whole lot of effort involved, he says: “It takes at the very most five minutes to skin six ripe tomatoes. Boil the kettle, put the tomatoes in a bowl, pour over the boiling water, count to 20, drain, then cool under a slow-running cold tap, peeling as you go. There’s no need for any of that ‘bowl of iced water’ nonsense.” Not to skin, in Hopkinson’s book, is not to care.
Chef and restaurateur Stevie Parle, on the other hand, takes a slightly more laid-back approach – a graduate of the River Café, he now runs two feted Italian restaurants of his own, Pastaio and Palatino, both in London. “As with everything in cooking,” he says, “you should do whatever you want. But if you don’t peel, you will get tough bits of skin floating about in whatever you’re making. If it’s just one or two tomatoes-worth in a soup, for example, you can just fish them out, but if it’s a beautiful, slow-cooked fresh tomato sauce for pasta, they’ll kind of ruin the effect.”
That doesn’t mean Parle’s necessarily a peeler: “The fresh plum tomatoes we get in the UK are as nothing compared with the fully ripe ones that go into jars of hand-peeled San Marzano. But those are crazy-expensive, so I often just use tinned, especially at home.” That said, he adds, “tinned ones usually come drowned in that horrible, thick, tomatoey purée stuff that’s full of sugar, vinegar, preservatives and wotnot, so I wash it off in a sieve. Yes, it’s a bit wasteful – don’t @ me – but you do end up with pretty decent, ripe, peeled cooking toms.” His basic rule of thumb is fresh and skin-on if using tomatoes raw and tinned for cooking.
Turkish-Cypriot chef Selin Kiazim is even more in Ian’s can’t-be-faffed-to-peel camp, but then eastern Mediterranean cooking tends to be a bit more rough and ready than its la-di-da western counterparts. “It’s such a hassle!” she says at her latest venture, an offshoot of her Shoreditch restaurant Oklava at new London food court Arcade Food Theatre in Centrepoint, which opens on 22 July. She admits very occasionally to peel really big tomatoes for salads – “I just like the way they absorb the dressing” – but even then, she’s not obsessive about it: “I just pare them with a little knife, like my grandmother did.”
And if you feel you really have to peel your tomatoes, for a sauce or soup, say, Kiazim advocates a typically rustic, no-nonsense approach: “Just cut them in half and grate them on the large holes of a box grater.” You’ll be left with a neat pile of pulp, and life’s way too short to throw a wobbler about the odd bit of skin that may creep through.