My Rouses Everyday, March | April 2018
Few ingredients are as revered and versatile as the humble tomato
— whether sliced raw and drizzled with olive oil, tossed with pasta or slow-roasted for hours. The possibilities are endless.
At their peak, in the late summer months, there is nothing so delicious as a ripe tomato, plucked fresh from the vine, when their unmistakable aroma of grass and earth is impossible to forget. During the winter months, when tomatoes often find their way into braises, sauces and stews, they magically transform into something warm, sweet and comforting.
Part of the nightshade family, tomatoes trace their roots back to the time of the early Aztecs, around 700 A.D. It wasn’t until the 16th century that explorers who had visited the New World introduced the bright red fruit to Europe, where they at first were treated with disdain and skepticism (many feared the plant was poisonous).
It took some time for folks to warm up to the tomato. In Italy, folks from the northern regions were more hesitant than their southern counterparts, where the Mediterranean climate provided a much more affable growing environment. Still, the nicknames given the fruit across the European continent provide a tiny glimpse of the affection some may have felt early on: In England, they were dubbed “love apples,” and Italians named them pomo d’oro, or “golden apple.”
When cooking with tomatoes, do as the Italians do and keep it simple. This isn’t the time for lengthy reductions or fancy techniques. Just a few ingredients will do the trick, and few ingredients are as versatile — and forgiving — as the tomato. Herbs like basil, cilantro, oregano, thyme and parsley are natural complements to the tomato. But less expected pairings, like anise seed, cumin, fennel, nutmeg and even ginger also work well.
The varieties and types of tomatoes are endless, from hearty, sandwich-worthy beefsteak tomatoes to petite cherry tomatoes — tiny orbs with a high acidity, which makes them a natural for topping summer salads and sides. Plum tomatoes, also sometimes called paste tomatoes, are perfect for canning and sauces. Italian varieties like Roma, with its oval and almost feminine quality, and the San Marzano tomato, a slender, pointed variety, are arguably two of the most well-known Italian tomatoes. These tomatoes lend a juicy, fruity quality to sauces and stews. Authentic Italian tomato products — whether canned whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, pastes or concentrates — use real Italian tomatoes and add a world of flavor to dishes.
Estratto — what cookbook author and renowned chef Paul Bertolli calls “the ancestor of tomato paste” — is the sun-drenched version of tomato concentrate found in Italian cooking. A simple but time-consuming home method would be to make a paste using a tomato puree dried out in the oven for hours. But store-bought tomato pastes — like concentrato di pomodoro — a strong, thick concentrate — or passata di pomodoro — a high-quality tomato purée — do an excellent job of lending extra body and depth to dishes.
Simply crushed by hand, or with a wooden spoon, whole peeled tomatoes — pomodori pelati — are perfect for chunky sauces, soups and stews. For an extra hit of sweet, concentrated flavor, the pomodori secchi — sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil — are delicious when chopped up and layered on pizzas and salads, or when added to pasta. The oil can be drained and used for salad dressings or added to a sauce for an additional flavor boost.
While the best time to eat tomatoes is during their peak ripeness, the rest of the year tomatoes are still wonderful to use in sauces, whether fresh, canned or jarred. There is a strange and beautiful alchemy that occurs when tomatoes are cooked long enough so that they lose that grassy, fresh-from-the-vine flavor and instead resemble something earthy and comforting.
The simplest of sauces is the salsa di pomodoro, a simple recipe of coarsely chopped tomatoes cooked down with onions, salt, olive oil and basil — and maybe a clove of garlic and some black pepper.
A simple Amatricana takes less than 45 minutes from start to finish, but is chock-full of flavor, a combination of juicy tomatoes, sliced guanciale or pancetta, onion and garlic. The sauce, which is wonderful when wrapped around thick strands of bucatini, gets an extra kick of umami from grated Pecorino Romano cheese. And there’s penne a la vodka, a creamy, light sauce, which carries its own brand of old-school, red-tablecloth charm, while the namesake spirit adds depth and character.
Then, of course, there is the real showstopper, the darling of all the Italian sauces: Bolognese. The sauce has a reputation as a Sunday supper standard, because it can take several hours to prepare and is best attempted when there are a few weekend hours to spare. The sauce features a mix of celery, onions and carrots for sweetness, while a quick milk braise for the beef adds depth and an almost creamy quality. White wine and tomatoes add the final tangy element to this velvety meat ragout.
There are the sauces that take mere minutes to throw together — when the bright and lively acidity of the tomatoes adds a burst of flavor — but don’t necessarily have to be cooked for extended periods of time. These sauces work well with quick seafood preparations, such as clams or squid tossed in a quick red sauce, or a puttanesca — a vivacious, garlicky and bold sauce that is full-bodied and bright, with a kick of heat from red pepper flakes and a healthy touch of brine from olives, capers and anchovies.
Slow-roasted for hours in the oven, tomatoes become delicious, jammy orbs that burst with concentrated flavor and make a lovely accompaniment to grilled meats and fish. The acidity and water present in tomatoes mean they can also lend themselves well to braises, where they eventually form a vibrant, flavorful sauce with an acidic kick that helps to cut through some of the richer cuts of meat.
The possibilities truly are endless. For the most successful tomato preparations, just abide by the same rule all Italian cooks live by: Keep it simple.
With that, there is really only one thing left to say: Buon Appetito!