Saturday, September 4, 2010

Conserva the Summer

I'm just dazzled by the array of tomatoes available now in the farmers' markets in both Portsmouth and Boston. And while this summer's heat and drought has been hard on flowers, it's been heaven for tomatoes. Even the lemon yellow heirlooms, which I too often find mushy and tasteless -- have a surprising deep flavor. I find myself calculating how many tomato-filled meals I can look forward to until the season finally ends. (You haven't lived if you haven't savored an heirloom tomato and Monterey Jack cheese quesadilla for breakfast, with warm tomato juice rolling off your chin! Today's will have leftover corn and bacon, too!)

One thing that's been very exciting is seeing the interesting selection of paste tomatoes
that New Hampshire farmers are growing. I'm talking way beyond San Marzano. At Barker's farm stand, I've seen the little Juliettes that Paul Bertolli, who has been a chef at the Bay area's Chez Panisse and Oliveto, mentions in a chapter called "Twelve Ways of Looking At Tomatoes", in his book Cooking By Hand. He suggests cutting them in half lengthwise and putting on a baking sheet filmed with olive oil, adding a little salt, then cooking them in a very slow oven (180 to 200 degrees) for five or six hours to concentrate the flavor. I'm looking forward to trying this.

However, thanks to Bertolli, one of my current tomato obsessions is Conserva, a super concentrated tomato paste made in the oven. (In Italy, it's called estratto, and there, it's the blazing hot sun that does the work, over the course of four to six days.) In my convection oven, it takes about five- and a-half hours (it can be closer to seven in a regular oven). Coincidentally, I found one of  Bertolli's favorite sauce tomatoes, Principessa Borghese, at the Meadow's Mirth stand at the Seacoast Grower's farmer's market, so last Sunday, my sister Robin and I spent the afternoon chopping, sauteing, food milling and oven drying about 6 pounds of tomatoes. Though there's surprisingly little waste -- it appears that tomatoes are nothing but cells full of flavor -- we wound up with two Ziploc bags full of concentrated tomato essence. I suspect that next winter, we'll be grateful that we conserved a little of this summer's glory.

I'm looking forward to making some sauce next weekend, using Bertolli's sauce recipe. (Basically, this is the same as the Conserva -- only you saute some onions and garlic first, until softened, add the diced tomatoes, cook until soft, put through the food mill, then put the tomatoes into a clean pot and simmer on the stove top until it's the thickness you desire.) I suspect this year, our traditional night-before Thanksgiving spaghetti supper will be something to be really thankful for.

from Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli
Total time: 20 minutes, plus 7 hours cooking time
Yield: 1 1/4 cup

5 pounds ripe, good-quality tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for storage
1 teaspoon salt

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Cut the ripe tomatoes into small dice; this promotes the most rapid cooking. Warm a little olive oil in a wide skillet or casserole. add the tomatoes and salt and bring to a rapid boil. Cook for about 2 minutes, or until tomatoes are very soft. Immediately pass them through the finest plate of a food mill, pushing as much of the pulp through the sieve as you can. The puree should be devoid of seeds. (Note: I did this in two batches.)
2. Lightly oil a baking sheet with olive oil. Spread the tomatoes in the pan in an even layer and place in the oven. If using a convection oven, cook for three hours. If not, cook for 5 hours until the water has evaporated from the paste. Use a spatula to turn the paste over on itself periodically as water evaporates and you notice the surface darken. Reduce the heat to 250 degrees and continue to evaporate the paste for about 21/2 to 3 hours, or until it is thick, shiny and brick-colored.
Tomato Conserva holds for a long time stored in glass canning jars and topped with one-half inch of olive oil. As you use it, maintain this level of olive oil on top. Store the Conserva in the refrigerator. Or put it in a large
Ziploc freezer bag, flatten, remove air, and freeze, breaking off pieces when needed.

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