When I started working with Jean-Remy Joly at La Table des Agassins just outside Avignon, one of the first dishes I learned to make was this, the Trilogy.
It’s layers of confited (dried or preserved) tomato, goat cheese and aubergine caviar, an assemblage of Provençal ingredients he put together when he first arrived in the region in 2000 as a tribute to the local gastronomy.
It’s been on his ever-changing menu continually since then.
Of course, I wasn’t allowed to make them at the start; I had to work my way up through the plonge, the dishwashing room and do my CAP cuisine qualification before he allowed me to do anything more than remove the stalks from the tomatoes, but it was a worthwhile education.
Although the Trilogy appears very simple, it takes time to make and illustrates the biggest lesson you have to learn when you start cooking for others than just your immediate family: Planning. You can’t decide to eat this dish half an hour before you sit down at the table; you can’t even decide to eat it tonight if you’re thinking about your menu any later than first thing in the morning, since it takes some time to prepare.
The longest preparation is for the tomatoes which need to be peeled, de-seeded and slow-roasted. In French this is called ‘Monder les tomates’ which means literally blanching them. You need to remove the skins to allow them to dry properly and not be too tough when they’re eaten; leave the skins on and they’re pretty chewy.
To do this you need a saucepan of simmering hot water and a second of iced water. Start by removing the stalk and then cutting out the part of the tomato to which the stalk attaches. Do this by holding the pointy end of a small vegetable knife between your thumb and index finger and, with the tip of your thumb on the hard, green bit of the tomato push the point about half to one centimetre into the fruit. Use the tip of your thumb as the axis and cut a cone shape out of the tomato to remove the hard bit.
Dip each tomato into the simmering water for 10-15 seconds – until you see the skin starting to peel – and immediately transfer them to the iced water. Do this with kitchen tongs, not your fingers. Then peel off the skin – I find it easiest with a vegetable knife, sliding the point under a loose bit of skin and pulling it off.
Cut the tomato in half horizontally and pull out the seeds. Keep them and the fleshy bits around them to make a tomato sauce later, they’re very tasty. Lightly salt both sides of the tomato and add some dried Provencal herbs if you wish. Leave them open side down on a rack to drain liquid for an hour or two in the fridge before transferring them to a baking sheet (I line them with baking parchment or silicone sheets) and putting them into an oven at 80°C for three or four hours. Yes, as long as that. They will shrink but keep an eye on them after the 2.5 hour mark to make sure they don’t colour too much.
While they’re drying you can make the aubergine caviar; cut off the stalk end and then cut your aubergine in half lengthways. Cross-hatch the flesh with the point of your knife quite deeply then sprinkle with salt and Provençal herbs, then add a good dose of olive oil. Note, when you’re cooking there’s no point in using the good stuff – heat denatures most oils and removes the taste to a large extent, so use some cheap stuff for cooking. Keep your sippin’ olive oil to pour lightly over food just before serving.
Roast the cut aubergines in an oven pan with the tomatoes or if you need to do them separately, for an hour at 180°C. Pour boiling water into the oven pan so they don’t dry out – a few centimetres is enough, about halfway up the sides of the aubergines.
When they’re cooked, scrape the flesh off the skin and squish it up between your fingers so there are no big bits. You’re looking for a fairly rustic effect here. The original recipe calls for sheets of gelatine to be added at this stage to firm up the caviar, but I prefer not to use it. Your choice – if you prefer firm aubergine caviar you should use two sheets per kilo of flesh.
Take the tomatoes out of the oven when they’re dried enough.
The last ingredient to mix is the goat cheese. Buy the youngest, freshest pelardons you can find, the fresher the better – I buy them on the local market at just 4 days old when they’re just starting to firm up and have a delicious, goaty flavour. (They’re delicious spread like butter with Vegemite on toast, too).
Mash them up with a fork, a light sprinkle of salt and Provençal herbs and some of your sippin’ quality olive oil – just enough to bring the mixture together, you don’t want this to be liquid.
Now comes the assembly. Put a small dribble of olive oil into the base of a silicone cupcake mold, then a tomato half. You will have two types of tomato halves, of course, one with a hole in the middle and one without. Serve your guests the pretty ones, obviously.
After the tomato comes a dessert spoon of goat cheese mix, then another of aubergine caviar.
Pop them into the fridge for at least an hour to allow them to ‘set’ a little before serving.
While they’re in the fridge, make some basil sauce to serve them with. Strip the leaves from a whole basil plant and put them into a pot.
Add in a small pinch of salt and a few glugs of good olive oil. Then, using a stick blender, mash them up into a pouring consistency liquid.
Keep adding olive oil until you have the consistency required. A large basil plant will need something like 250-350mls of oil.
To serve, place your Trilogy tomato side up on a plate (a soup spoon is a good utensil for persuading them out of the mold) and dribble over a dessert spoon or two of your basil sauce.
These were so popular in the restaurant in Avignon that some customers would have them as a starter and dessert.