recipe

Credit: Photography: Earl Carter

Tomato, prawn, pork floss, burnt chilli and basil salad

At the risk of sounding obnoxious, I only serve tomatoes for two months of the year. Tomato season runs from December through to February, depending on the weather. We usually start getting tomatoes in the restaurant at the start of summer, and I always have my plants in by Melbourne Cup day.

A good fresh tomato that has been picked – and, importantly, not refrigerated – is a joy. Generally, I go for heirloom varieties because they bring specific flavours based on sugar levels and acids. They also have their own distinctive textures. A thick slice of an oxheart tomato, seasoned with salt and served on toast, is one of the best things you can eat. It’s pretty easy to persuade a person not to eat tomatoes out of season once they’ve eaten a tomato like that.

A good tomato only needs salt. If you’re putting sugar on a tomato, it’s probably because the tomato is shit.

This salad breaks away from the tradition of mozzarella and basil. I think it’s good sometimes not to be obvious. Here, I suppose, I was thinking of flavours I had tasted in Thailand: the saltiness of the prawns against the sweetness of the pork floss. Dried shrimps would also be good, pounded to a paste. The tomato is there almost as a relief from those more intense flavours and to counteract the heat of the chilli.

Some of the best tomatoes I’ve eaten came from a vegetable garden I inherited. Quite of their own accord, they just popped up every year. They had a big yield, which is rare for heirloom varieties, and were deliciously sweet. But maybe I’m just being romantic.

What I like to do with tomatoes, after I’ve sliced or peeled them, is to let them sit with salt and a splash of oil for a few hours to allow the flavours to develop and to draw out the juice. I will then throw in some torn-up toasted bread and make a panzanella salad.

It is criminal what gets called panzanella sometimes, in sandwich shops and at terrible barbecues. The bread should be sodden with juice. But I’ve seen panzanella salad made with pita bread, which doesn’t absorb anything, and cherry tomatoes, which have no juice.

Which brings me to tomato paste, although it’s probably best I don’t get started on that. Or sun-dried tomatoes. Or semi-dried tomatoes. Or focaccia. Or the 1990s.

Tomato, prawn, pork floss, burnt chilli and basil salad

Serves 4-6

– 600g assorted tomatoes

– 12 red scud chillies

– 2 tbsp grape-seed oil

– 6 whole, green prawns (U6 size)

– small handful purple basil leaves

– 1 tbsp pork floss (optional)

Dressing

– 1 tbsp Healthy Boy Brand soy sauce

– 1 tbsp rice vinegar

– 1 tbsp Japanese sweet ginger vinegar

– 2 tbsp grape-seed oil

Using a small blowtorch, quickly blister the skins of the tomatoes, a few at a time, and then peel off. If you don’t have a blowtorch you can plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for a few seconds and then put them straight into iced water to cool, before peeling away their skins.

Split the chillies lengthways, scrape out the seeds, then cut crossways into thin slices. Put the chilli slices and the grape-seed oil into a small saucepan and fry them very gently until they are curled and dehydrated. Decant into a small bowl to cool.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and cook the prawns for two-and-a-half minutes before plunging into a bowl of iced water to cool.

While the prawns are cooling, make the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients in a small bowl.

When the prawns have cooled, twist off their heads and peel away the shells. Make a shallow slit down the back of each prawn and carefully lift out the digestive tract.

Cut the larger tomatoes into slices, the smaller ones into wedges and leave the smallest intact. Cut the prawns into two- to three-centimetre lengths.

Gently toss the tomatoes, prawns and basil leaves with the dressing. Arrange the salad in a large shallow bowl. Spoon some of the chillies in oil over and around the salad and strew fluffs of pork floss on top.

Wine pairing:

2014 Larry Cherubino Laissez Faire field blend, Pemberton, Western Australia ($29) – Leanne Altman, sommelier, Supernormal

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 22, 2014 as "Tomato, prawn, pork floss, burnt chilli and basil salad". Subscribe here.

Andrew McConnell
is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

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