On preserving the taste of summer, two tomato recipes and a cookbook giveaway!

What can I say except that part of me doesn’t want summer, or rather, the fruit and vegetables that characterise it, to end? Mother nature would seem to agree with me too. There’s still plenty of ripe San Marzano begging to be made into sauce on the stands at my local market. We also have gnarly, pulsating ox hearts heaving on our vines in the countryside. The current, cooler jacket-wearing weather has yet to convince me; I’m just not ready to trade in the tomatoes and their fellow nightshades – namely, eggplants and capsicums – for a leafy bouquet of brassicas or those show-stopping orange-fleshed members of the Cucurbitaceae family which are beginning to make their presence felt in Corso Brunelleschi.

Maybe it’s because this summer, we’ve grown, staked and harvested our very own tomatoes and capsicums. Hard, sweat-inducing work that completely counters the romantic image many city-slickers like myself often have when entertaining the idea of slow country-living, maintaining a garden or being self-sufficient. Oh, and there are the mosquitoes and bees that constantly hover around, also desperate to enjoy the fruits of our labours. I’ve really learnt the hard way why farm workers around the world, past and present, seem nearly always to be dressed in long-sleeved shirts and pants when tending to the fields, even in the scorching heat. So, whenever heading out, picnic-basket in hand, to collect our bounty, I now change into a harvesting uniform of sorts – an old, long-sleeved shirt I no longer care for; a pair of tattered leggings; enclosed footwear – and smear Aerogard all over my still-exposed face, neck and hands. As for the bees, I can’t do much else, except try not to panic whenever they buzz uncomfortably close to me or TT. ‘Go away bee!’ I’ve taught my tomato and (raw!) capsicum-loving little girl to say to them. It seems to work, for now.

We’re lucky enough these days to be far from times of necessity and hunger. There is, however, a limit to how many things you can eat right away, even when kilos and kilos of pomodori start filling up the cardboard trays we keep for storing them. (We weren’t so lucky with our heirloom variety of Capriglio capsicums. The drought and our part-time existence at the newly-renovated cascina have resulted in mostly dehydrated and occasionally, piquant specimens). The age-old remedy against waste, of course, is preserving and no, my efforts at doing so have not been limited to last month’s jam, though there is a surprising, tomato-based one for that below too. It’s also a way of stocking up against long, scarce winters. Pasta al pomodoro, a quick, weeknight dinner dish Italian families – ours included – love conjuring up quickly after a long day at work, is a case in point. For that to be made in the colder months, jars of tomato puree or passata, prepared at the height of this botanical fruit’s season, have to be on hand in the kitchen pantry. There are, of course, those bland specimens grown year-round in southern Italy’s seasonless greenhouses – often harvested by appallingly-treated armies of cheap, immigrant labour (see this harrowing exposè by The Guardian about this issue) – but hey, they just don’t cut it for me.

I’ve also resorted to extending our tomatoes’ culinary life by drying. Our previously-mentioned part-time, countryside existence, however, has not lent itself to doing it the traditional way though, out in the sun. Instead, I constantly marvel at the way the fleshy, vermillon-red halves sink, wrinkle and reduce in size completely after a low-temperature, 12 hour session in our city oven. We’re all guilty though of putting our winter stock of these umami-packed, leathery rounds at risk by snacking on them soon after they’re done. So far, preserving them sott’ olio and shoving them to the back of our pantry has proven to be the only way of deterring us from enjoying these addictive morsels right away.

Until last month, I had never posted a recipe for a preserve. Now that we’re slowly learning the ropes of maintaining a country garden and fruit trees, I’m beginning to appreciate the importance of this age-old custom. Preserving, to me, is an umbrella term for so many things, including pickling, drying and infusing. Here are two more recipes to add to this category, not to mention, your pantries. I have a feeling there will be plenty more to come too… In the meantime, if what you really want is to know more about the Rachel Roddy Two Kitchens cookbook giveaway, feel free to scroll to the bottom of this post.

Confettura di pomodoro (Sweet Tomato Jam)
Tomatoes are, botanically speaking, actually a fruit, so I thought I’d give cooking and preserving these a go like other, more conventional fruit jams. After a lot of recipe-testing, I’ve found my best results to be with slightly under to barely ripe specimens. Pomodori da sugo, or sauce-ripe tomatoes, in the opinion of my little taste testers, my friend Sonia’s daughters, resulted in a jam that tasted a little too reminiscent of ketchup! Perfectly fine of course for a hamburger. Not so nice at breakfast time when spread on some toasted bread and butter. This jam also works wonderfully as part of a cheese course. More adventurous eaters may want to try this as a crostata filling too.

Ingredients (makes about 4-5 Bormioli Quattro Stagioni jars with a 150mL capacity)

  • 1 kg under or barely ripe tomatoes, preferably freshly harvested
  • 600 g sugar
  • juice and grated zest of 1 organic lemon

Wash and dry tomatoes, ensuring that you discard any specimens that are bruised and less than prime condition. Cut into small pieces and place in a large stainless saucepan. Stir in sugar, lemon juice and grated lemon zest and leave to macerate for 1 to 2 hours.

Cook on low-medium heat, stirring, until sugar is dissolved. Raise heat slightly. The mixture will start to boil. When the tomato has softened noticeably, turn off heat and remove tomato from the saucepan. Pass through food mill until obtaining a puree. Return pureed tomato back to saucepan and cook at a lively simmer, stirring often until thickened. Use the freezer plate method to test if the jam is at setting point. If the blob on your plate holds its shape when tilted and wrinkles when poked, it’s done.

Ladle the hot jam into hot, sterilised jars (I use this sterilisation method). You may want to line these with a funnel to make this task easier. If necessary, wipe rims clean with a clean, damp cloth and screw lids onto jars.

Place jars on the bottom surface of a tall stockpot. To keep jars in place and prevent breakages, wrap teatowels around the jars. Fill stockpot with hot water, ensuring that the jars are covered by 5-6 cm of water. Cover and bring to boil, leaving the jars to process for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and leave jars to cool in the water. When cool enough to handle, remove jars from pot and set on a a clean tea-towel to cool for 12-24 hours. During this time, you’ll start hearing that satisfying ping sound, indicating that the jars are sealing. Press your finger at the lid’s centre of the lid, to test the seal. If it is concave and does not flex back up, it has sealed. Store in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months. Any unsealed jars should be stored in the fridge and consumed within two weeks.

Oven-dried tomatoes
Lucky Rachel Roddy (see below) got to dry her tomatoes out in the sun in the southern Sicilian town of Gela. Well, at least when rain didn’t spoil her efforts. That’s what happened when she first tried her hands at this tradition quietly being kept alive by elderly Gelesi. Most of the time, I live in a city with less than ideal air quality, so I heeded her advice in the Two Kitchens introduction about not being afraid to make her preparations/recipes my own. In this case, I swapped the Sicilian sun for the domestic oven after re-reading Domenica Marchetti‘s notes on this method.

Generally, many recipes for drying will tell you to set your oven to its lowest possible temperature to avoid cooking, rather than dehydrating, your tomatoes. I found an eco-fan forced setting with a temperature of 85 ° C resulted in withered and leathery tomatoes within about 12 hours. Some people scoop out their seeds before drying. I, however, am quite partial to the double-breasted jacket look the dried and sunken tomatoes have when these are left on.

Ingredients (makes about 2-3 Bormioli Quattro Stagioni jars with a 150mL capacity)

  • 1 kilo ripe San Marzano tomatoes

Preheat oven to 85 ° C. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Line a baking tray with baking parchment and arrange the tomatoes, cut side up, ensuring that they are not touching each other. Leave the tomatoes to dry in the oven for 10-12 hours. Halfway during this time, turn the tomatoes so the cut side is facing down and their bottoms dry out too. Your tomatoes will flatten, crinkle and lose most of their initial weight. Remove from oven when dark red, leathery and completely devoid of any excess moisture. Leave to cool before packing the tomatoes in tightly-closed sterilised glass jars. Store in a cool, dark place for 6 months. Alternately, you may wish to preserve them in oil.

Two Kitchens: Family Recipes from Sicily and Rome Giveaway
Along with cooking and harvesting this summer, I read a lot of cookbooks, old and new. One that has given me much pleasure to read has been Rome and occasionally Sicily-based food writer Rachel Roddy’s second cookbook, Two Kitchens. This beautifully-written and photographed book is a refreshing and original addition to the long list of titles available on Italian cuisine. Not only is it a celebration of uncomplicated home cookery, it is also an English woman’s love-letter to the fruit, vegetables and other produce typical of Sicily and Rome. There are chapters on everything from lemons, almonds and of course, the tomatoes in this blog post. Rachel’s evocative and witty story-telling never fails to get me in the kitchen, whether its on her blog Rachel Eats, her Guardian column and her cookbooks Five Quarters and this absolute gem. To win a copy, simply: 1). sign up for my newsletter (if you haven’t already done so) and 2). comment in the comments section below with your favourite way of eating, cooking or preserving tomatoes. The giveaway is open to worldwide entries and closes on Friday 29th September at midnight (GMT+ 1). The winner, picked randomly from all valid entries, will be announced on Monday 2nd October here and on my Instagram and Facebook accounts. Vi auguro in bocca al lupo (Wishing you all the best of luck)!

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