There is something almost alchemical in the way that an almost tasteless tomato becomes rich with flavour when slow cooked in an oven. This has become one of my go to dishes when the heady flavour of summer tomatoes starts to give way to the more bland and often pappy texture of imported fruit. In this recipe I love the contrast of the concentrated tomatoes against the salty cheese and zing of the thyme.
Don’t be put off by the ninety minutes that the tomatoes take to cook: I often make a huge tray of these once a week, often on Sunday evenings, which then get scooped into a pot in the fridge to be used in lunches and suppers over the next seven days. Equally I often shove them in the oven the moment I walk through the door in the evening, whilst I get on with the business of sloughing off the working day. Then, when I’m changed, organised and ready to eat there’s something delicious waiting for me in the oven. (Or, of course, you could just go to the pub whilst they are cooking…just a suggestion…)
It’s also a great multi-tasker of a recipe: it stands alone proudly as a main course, (I’d serve it with a simple peppery rocket salad), but is equally good when paired with grilled meat. It can be served hot or cold, and is particularly good as a salad to make in advance – maybe for a buffet, or for a picnic, as the barley keeps its integrity and doesn’t go soggy.
Cook’s Note: It’s important to roast the tomatoes slowly on a lower heat than normal, as this stops all the juices leaching out and evaporating, keeping the tomatoes plump and glossy, concentrating their flavour, and stopping the edges blackening in the heat.
250gms pearl barley
750gms small tomatoes (something halfway between a cherry tomato and a standard salad tomato would be perfect)
3 tbsps olive oil
125gms Feta cheese
a bunch of thyme – I prefer lemon thyme but whatever you can lay your hands on will do
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat the oven to 150C.
Halve all the tomatoes, and arrange cut side up in a shallow metal roasting pan. Spoon over all the olive oil, making sure that the tomatoes are all shiny with oil, top and bottom. Do not add salt as this causes the tomatoes to dry out whilst cooking.
Cook in the oven for 90 minutes. (I like to set the timer for an hour just to check that all is well, and then cook for another 30 minutes.)
If serving as a cold dish, at the same time that the tomatoes go in the oven, cook the barley by simply adding it to a large pan of simmering water with a pinch of salt. Cook until soft – about twenty minutes. Tip into a colander over the sink to drain. I like to pour over a kettle of boiling water to remove as much as starch as possible at this point, as otherwise the barley can become sticky. Leave the barley in the colander to cool, forking through as it cools to make sure it doesn’t stick together. When it’s cold, tip the barley onto a platter.
If serving hot, start cooking the barley about half an hour before the tomatoes are ready, drain as above, leave for five minutes to steam dry, and then tip onto the serving platter.
When the tomatoes are cooked, carefully lift them using a fish slice or flat spatula and arrange on top of the barley, cut side up. Crumble over the feta and then spoon over all the lovely rich tomato-y cooking juices from the roasting pan.
Pull the leaves off several sprigs of thyme and scatter over the dish, then sprinkle over the sea salt and generously grind some black pepper over all. Decorate with more sprigs of thyme if so moved.
(I don’t add the thyme to the tomatoes cooking in the oven, as I love the zingy, clean taste of the fresh herb against the rich tomatoes.)