COOKING with FRANCES BISSELL: Love apples to tempt the senses

The English have always been partial to tomatoes, early adopters , one might say, when considering John Gerard s Herbal, published in 1596. Newly introduced to England, and called apples of love, he writes that they grow in Spain, Italie and such hot co

The English have always been partial to tomatoes, "early adopters", one might say, when considering John Gerard's Herbal, published in 1596. Newly introduced to England, and called apples of love, he writes that "they grow in Spain, Italie and such hot countries from whence myself have received seeds for my garden, where they do increase and prosper." And so they did ever since in domestic gardens and greenhouses.

One scarcely remembers how awful commercially-grown tomatoes used to be; large, pale, watery interiors, thin, sharp flavour and none of that glorious pungent scent as if you had just brushed against a tomato plant. Now tomatoes come in many varieties, a rainbow of colours and with real scent and flavour - and for the last few years, none have been better than English tomatoes,

At this time of year, I use them at most meals- in soups, as sauces, lightly dried in the oven, or in a roasted fennel, red pepper and tomato salad. For this, I quarter a fennel bulb, or cut into eight wedges, depending on size and shape, and brush with oil.

I quarter a red pepper and discard the seeds and do the same with several ripe tomatoes. Then I grill or roast the vegetables, and skin the peppers and tomatoes when cool enough to do so. A dressing made with tomato "water", the liquid remaining when you have sieved the seed-holding jelly, and extra virgin olive oil, together with the usual seasoning is all the salad needs, and perhaps some lightly grilled bread rubbed with a garlic clove.

This season also brings one of our newer home-grown crops, sweet corn. Boiling is perhaps the simplest way to cook it, but do not overdo it, no more than three to four minutes is sufficient. And do not add salt to the cooking water, as this will toughen the kernels, when you want to keep them crisp.

Many recipes call for kernels cut from fresh ears of corn. You will need two ears to obtain about 250grams/1/2 lb. I like to add the kernels to soups, salsas and scrambled eggs. Add them, too, to muffins, pancake batter and cornbread. It is worth freezing fresh corn kernels for use once the season is over.

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For a delicious supper, I offer a richly flavoured vegetable stew, which combines sweet corn and tomatoes, as well as aubergine and okra. The stew is just as good the next day, eaten cold, but not chilled, with hot pita bread or grilled garlic bread. If you cannot get okra, use green beans, although some of the richness will be lost.

Aubergine, okra, corn and

tomato stew

(Serves 6-8)

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 large aubergines, or several smaller ones, trimmed and diced, not too small

6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

250g/8oz okra

750g/11/2lbs fresh tomatoes, peeled and seeded

Sprigs of thyme

200g/7oz sweet corn kernels

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Chopped flat-leaved parsley, or coriander

Fry the onion gently in about half the olive oil, using a flameproof casserole or heavy saucepan. Add the aubergines, and fry all over, then add the garlic, okra, tomatoes and thyme. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat, and continue to cook, partly covered, until the vegetables are almost tender.

Add the corn and cook for a further three minutes.

Check the seasoning, scatter on the chopped parsley or coriander and serve.

Frances Bissell

o Frances Bissell's latest book is The Scented Kitchen, published by Serif at £9.99.