Tomato Balls

Tomato Balls

Dear Diary,

When we last spoke, on the subject of the divine nature of real summer tomatoes, I promised that I was going to tell you about the two tomato dishes I make that rival the pure joy of eating them straight off the vine. So today I’m going to tell you about Tomato Balls.

I discovered Tomato Balls on the Greek Island of Santorini about 15 years ago, in the tiny town of Akrotiri. This village sits on top of an ancient Minoan town which, 1500 years before the destruction of Pompeii, was also buried and perfectly preserved by a volcanic eruption. Diary, right now I’m not going to go into all the reasons that I happen to be an Ancient Minoan Archaeological Site Groupie, because it isn’t really tomato-relevant, except for the fact that on that particular morning I had spent hours walking through the haunting streets of this ruin and then climbed back up a steep hill to the village in the hot noonday sun, and by the time I got there I was famished and dehydrated.  I vividly remember how lovely it felt just to sit down in the shade of a small taverna, whose menu offered ”Tomato Balls”–described on the menu in English only as “Speciality of the Island of Santorini.”

The ones I make should probably be called "Tomato Sliders."

The ones I make should probably be called “Tomato Sliders.”

“Balls” in this case turns out to be one of those rather awkward translations from the Greek “keftedes,” for “meatballs,” since what these are, essentially, is little tomato “meatballs.” We would be more inclined to think of them as fritters or pancakes–very similar to potato pancakes–in other words, a batter made of grated tomatoes mixed with flour, baking powder, and herbs, which is either deep-fried or pan-fried in olive oil. The result is surprisingly very “meaty” in the umami sense of rich, unctuous mouthfeel–but with pure, rich vegetable flavor.

A couple of important points about Tomato Balls: First, you really have to love olive oil, because they soak it up while cooking and that’s what gives them their meaty texture; but in Greek cuisine the olive oil isn’t supposed to serve as cooking grease and then disappear into the dish–it’s part of the flavor profile of the dish. I think if it bothers you instead of delighting you, it just means you’re not using a very good olive Roma Tomatoesoil. Second, in my experience you can only make Tomato Balls with plum, or Roma, tomatoes. The reason they’re a Santorini speciality is that–Santorini being basically a big volcano–the tomatoes that grow there have a very low moisture content, but very dense and intensely flavored flesh. A few weeks ago I tried making Tomato Balls with regular beefsteak tomatoes (because Romas are coming in very late this year and I simply couldn’t wait any more) and there was just too much juice and not enough flavor to stand up to the flour and the olive oil.

Besides remembering the exact moment I first tasted Tomato Balls and was totally smitten, I also remember the exact moment when, many years later, leafing through a Greek cookbook in a bookstore, I first found a recipe. It was in The Glorious Foods of Greece by Diane Kochilas, whom I regard as the Goddess of Greek Cooking. My copy of the book has long since come apart at the page where this recipe appears, because I can only use it for a few short weeks each year in August and September, and by the time the next year rolls around, I’ve always forgotten the details. The basic recipe I give here is hers, though of course like any home cook I’ve made a few of my own modifications and comments.

Tomato Balls
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1 1/2 lbs. well ripened plum tomatoes
3 scallions, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, minced
2 tablespoons fresh mint, minced
salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups bread flour (amount depends on how much moisture is in the tomatoes; and yes, you can use regular all-purpose flour, but I think bread flour makes them meatier)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Olive oil and other neutral vegetable oil for frying
1. Grate the tomatoes with a hand grater over a bowl. I know this sounds odd, because the tomatoes aren't entirely solid, but once you start to grate them, the skin will automatically break and pull away from the flesh and they'll basically skin themselves.
2. Add the scallions, garlic, and herbs, and season with salt and pepper, and mix well. (You can do this step several hours ahead and leave the mixture in the refrigerator. If you plan to serve them to guests, it's better to have this part done in advance and I think it helps the flavors blend better if it sits for a while. I also think the balls hold a better shape if the batter is cold when you fry them.)
3. Mix the smaller amount of flour and the baking powder together and blend with the tomato mixture. The batter should have the consistency of very thick pancake batter. If it's too watery, add some more flour.
4. Heat oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. You have to make a judgment call about how much oil you're willing to use. You can deep-fry them, but I don't really like deep-frying anything and only use a very thick coating for the pan. I find that mixing olive oil with regular vegetable oil makes the oil less susceptible to smoking and burning but still gives you the desired olive oil flavor.
5. When the oil is hot, use a tablespoon to drop uniform blobs of fritter batter into the pan and fry in batches. You can drain them on paper towels or just leave them on a plate.
6. Serve warm. They can be at room temperature too, or you can hold them in the oven if you're doing other things, which will make them a little crispier. I think they're nice with a dollop of tzatziki sauce.
Adapted from The Glorious Foods of Greece
Fear of Frying
And don’t tell anyone, Diary, but my favorite way to eat them is cold, straight from the fridge, for breakfast. IF there happen to be any left over.

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