Stuffed tomatoes get a good deal of attention in vegetarian cookery books, with lots of fancy fillings and careful attention to presentation. In comparison, plainer, simpler and homelier oven-baked tomatoes are rather taken for granted.
Yet of the two, oven-baked tomatoes seem to me to be far and away the more appetizing. The taste of stuffed tomatoes is usually dictated by their fillings, while that of oven-baked tomatoes depends on their essential naturalness. When preparing tomatoes for the oven, the sole aim is to enhance their normal flavour and juiciness with olive oil and herbs. There are few purer ways of cooking tomatoes. They even retain their tomato shapes and colours, unlike their near relatives the burnt and squashed fried tomatoes so loved by fans of the traditional British breakfast.
Oven-baked tomatoes are also wonderfully adaptable, perfect for breakfast, lunch, supper or dinner.
The tomatoes available to most of us in the local supermarket come in three sizes: small, medium, and very large. Small varieties are mainly for fresh salads. They can be oven-cooked, but I don't really see why they should be. All too easily they descend into a mush, with too large a proportion of skin to flesh, and overburdened by any herbs that may have been added. Small tomatoes are surely much better when eaten fresh.
Medium-sized tomatoes are also, of course, eaten fresh. And, they are also good for cooking. But very large tomatotoes (Beef, Beeksteak, or Jumbo as they are variously called) almost demand cooking.
Here is how to oven-bake medium and very large tomatoes.
The weight of medium tomatoes varies between 50g (2 oz) to 100g (4 oz). Allow one or two tomatoes per person.
There are two methods. You can leave the tomatoes whole. In which case, simply use a sharp knife to cut a deep cross in the top of the tomatoes and stand them in an oven dish. Or you can cut the tomatoes in half (top to bottom). In that case, place them face down in the oven dish and prick their backs once with a sharp knife.
Whether whole or halved, make sure that both the dish and the tomatoes are brushed with plenty of olive oil and sprinkle some sea or rock salt crystals over them. Add if you wish some black pepper and a pinch of sugar. Then, if you have fresh mint or basil available, spread a generous handful of leaves over the tomatoes, or simply lay the sprigs of mint or basil over the top of them. If you have only dried mint or basil that will do perfectly well. As an alternative you could use herbes de Provence. Spread the dried herbs lightly and generously (though not as generously as you would with fresh herbs) over the tomatoes. Finally pour a smallish amount of cold water into the base of the dish to stop it drying out and also to create some juice. Cook uncovered in a pre-heated oven Gas 5 (375F, 190C) for between 30-40 minutes or until the tomatoes are well cooked. If you have left the tomatoes whole, they may need a little longer to cook thoroughly. If you prefer your tomatoes to be firm, reduce the cooking time accordingly.
They go well with all sorts of things, but to my mind most notably with fried eggs for breakfast; or with creamy mashed potatoes, fresh peas or beans (French, runner, or broad), and perhaps vegetarian burgers or sausages for supper.
Approximate weight is 200g (8 oz). Allow one per person.
Working from the top of the tomato, and using a small sharp pointed knife, remove the core. Dig dip enough to remove any woody material and loosen the inside flesh a little, but don't dig down too far and try not to puncture the outside skin. Then make two or three sharp slashes across the top of the tomato. Pour some olive oil into the hole. Stuff into it as many fresh basil or mint leaves as you can. If you don't have fresh herbs, then use dried herbs instead.
Brush the tomatoes well with olive oil, sprinkle sea or rock crystal salt over them, and, if you wish, some pepper and sugar as well. Put a smallish amount of water in the bottom of the dish to avoid it drying out and to make make some juice. Place in a pre-heated over Gas 5 (375F, 190C), and cook for about 50 minutes, or perhaps even one hour until the tomatoes are thoroughly cooked. If your preference is for firmer tomatoes, simply adjust the cooking time.
I think the very large tomato that collapses under a knife and fork, soft and juicy from long cooking, goes particularly well with rice and lentils or beans; again, accompanied perhaps by vegetarian burgers or sausages. It may not look terribly elegant but it can be very tasty.