As soon as it is hot, I am looking for tomatoes. They are one of the few things that grow with any success in my shady yard, and that is only due to a conscientious shepherding of their containers to follow what few rays puncture the green overhead.
I usually lean toward early varieties, in an admitted hope of keeping my garden industry to a minimum (green thumb, I have not). By the time my vines are depleted, the farm stands are more than full, and I can enjoy the rest of the season with ease.
Cooking outdoors as often as possible is my plan this summer, and to that end, I aim to make full use of my fires. I cobbled together this half-roasted/half-braised tumble of tomatoes and chickpeas to take advantage of the stages of my charcoal or wood-fed barbecue; if I’m grilling meat later, I’ll start the fire slow and maintain a moderate heat before stoking to full flame as a finale. Or, once the searing is done, I’ll let the fire settle to a gentle heat before sliding on the tomatoes. The tomatoes start exposed to the air of a low fire, concentrating their sugars, teasing out their full sweetness and both firming and softening their flesh – that is to say, as their water cooks away, the tomatoes go a bit sinewy, but lax. While that’s happening, there’s a saucepan nearby of garlic mellowing out in a bath of oil and herbs. When the two are introduced, the tomatoes soak up that oil, and lend their juices in return. All is tender, all is lush, to which is added meaty chickpeas for heft, and the fresh tang of young cheese for quietly thrilling contrast. Fresh lemon juice at the last adds perk. The dish easily acts a main, on its own, or as a sauce-cum-side to grilled meats – deeply charred hanger steak is a particular winner.
Some gentle notes: Plum tomatoes are a classic for roasting, yet I am partial to a mix of whatever’s burly and alluring at the market. Favour robust varieties; I love crenulated, solid beauties with the strength to stand up to long cooking. They’ll slump on the grill, yes, but never truly give up the ghost. If you’re not cooking your own chickpeas, you’ll need a 14- or 15-ounce can. Meyer lemons are especially good here. And, when it’s cloudy or you’re without barbecue plans, follow the same instructions in a 325 F oven.
Barbecue braised tomatoes with chickpeas
Serves 4 to 6
2 lbs sturdy tomatoes
Medium-grained kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed
1 ½ cups olive oil, plus more as needed
10 garlic cloves, peeled
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
½ teaspoon cracked coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon cracked cumin seeds
1 small dried red chile, optional
1 ½ cups chickpeas, cooked
2 tsps sweet paprika
4 oz. unripened chèvre, or goat’s milk feta, sliced or crumbled
1 small lemon or orange
Chive blossoms or edible flowers to serve, optional
Prepare a moderate grill. Slice the tomatoes through their equators. If desired, use a paring knife to trim the woodiest parts of their cores. Season the cut sides with salt and pepper. Drizzle the tomatoes lightly with olive oil, then set face up into a shallow, heatproof, non-reactive baking dish, with space between each – if its too snug, the tomatoes will steam, rather than roast, and you want to have some room for the chickpeas and chèvre later.
Tumble the garlic cloves into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Pour in the 1½ cups olive oil. Tuck in the thyme and rosemary, along with the coriander and cumin seeds, then the chili, if using. The garlic and all the seasonings should be fully submerged in the oil; add more oil if needed.
Place both the tomatoes in their dish and the saucepan onto the heated grill, with the saucepan in the coolest spot. Shut the lid and leave to cook. Check the oil now and again to make sure it never gets past a trembling simmer. Adjust its placement on the grill to keep it so. Once the tomatoes have begun to shrivel, with their cut sides drying and darkening, 35 minutes or so, spoon the oil over. Then add the garlic, herbs and dried chili to the dish. Try to hold back and discard the seeds. In the dish, the oil should still cover the cloves. Cover the grill and cook for 30 minutes more.
Nudge the tomatoes aside to make larger pockets of space; into those, spoon in the chickpeas. Loll them around in the oil, then sprinkle with the paprika. Dunk slices of chèvre alongside. Peel the zest from the citrus with a vegetable peeler into broad strips. Add these to the oil. Bake until the chickpeas and cheese are warmed, 10 to 15 minutes more. Season all with salt and pepper, squeeze the juice of the zested citrus over top. Garnish with chive blossoms and flowers and serve, ideally with some lightly dressed greens and a big, rustic boule.