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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    I would love to win this book! We just returned from Italy where we were served a wonderful cheese, wine and fruit spread and these very tomatoes were there. So delicious! We do grow our own San Marzano Tomatoes so I would love to see what else is included in this cookbook! Thanks so much for sharing the recipe. I think the winery where we tasted ours dries theirs outside in baskets, but I like this way better. Not as quaint or romantic, but probably much more sterile!

    It sounds like you had some wonderful things to eat in Italy over the summer. I really recommend you get Rachel’s cookbook. It’s so originally set out (by ingredient) and will give you lots of great ideas on what to do with the San Marzano tomatoes (and perhaps other fruit and vegetables) you grow! As for drying the tomatoes, I really didn’t want to risk exposing them to the no-so-clean air in Turin on my balcony so oven-drying proved to be a good compromise. Do let me know if you give it a try!

    Aha! This sounds like a marvellous cookbook. Reading your blog today makes me miss Italy and its food very much. Perhaps with this cookbook I can play at recreating that magic at home back in Australia.

    It is a marvellous cookbook and I highly recommend that you get it! Rachel’s writing is wonderfully evocative and will definitely transport you back to Italy. I’m personally longing to get to Australia this Christmas so I can recreate what I made this summer (a lot inspired by Rachel’s book) a second time this year. Perhaps we can do this together when I visit you in Canberra. Looking forward to seeing that city’s farmers’ market again!

    I love to pickle tomatoes in white wine vinegar/sugar/spices/rosemary. They are really delicious thrown into tomato pasta sauce for some acidity and eaten with cheeses!

    You know what, you could use vinegar instead of the lemon juice I used to make my jam recipe. It works just as well, and takes the edge off the sweetness if that’s what you prefer. I’d love to try pickling tomatoes as you’ve suggested.

    I always look forward to Rachel Roddy’s columns in The Guardian. I can only imagine what a delight her book must be. My favourite way of preserving tomatoes is – surprise, surprise, sauce. I simply throw roughly chopped tomatoes in the oven while preheating the oven, adding seasoning later. When they are sweet, the sauce, really, hardly needs it. It’s fuss-free AND it maximises the oven use, win-win!

    Yes, I also look forward to Rachel’s Guardian column.I’ve got my eye on the mushroom and herb tagliatelle she recently wrote about. I also have a similar oven-based method for making sauce with cherry or tiny plum tomatoes. Oven-cooking is wonderfully fuss-free and it really does bring out the best in tomatoes.

    My wife and I spent our summer holiday in Rome, stayed on the edge of Testaccio and took cooking classes. Winning this book would be incredible and allow us to continue to hone our new skills!

    I imagine you would have learnt a lot from these cooking lessons! Rachel’s books are very instructive about Roman and Sicilian cuisine as well as being thoroughly absorbing reads too!

    My partner and I both work on organic farms, and every summer we receive crates and crates of fresh tomatoes. My favorite part of late summer in the Midwest is the near-constant smell of simmering tomato sauce on the stove. We can quarts of the sauce, and each jar I use throughout the winter makes me grateful for the bounty of the summer months.

    I’d love to hear more about your and your husband’s work on organic farms! I think it’s so important to preserve what we grow in summer (and in any season really) for the colder months. Feeling very satisfied (and ready for winter!) now that I’ve got several pantry shelves full of passata (tomato puree) and jam. I imagine you must feel the same way.

    i love tomatoes in any form, but little beats a tomato at the height of its freshness eaten with just a bit of salt and Italian olive oil. Each year I buy a large crate of tomatoes to blanch, de-skin and freeze for soups, sauce or a blast of summer freshness in the winter.

    It’s hard to beat a raw tomato at the height of it season, with just a bit of olive oil and salt, isn’t it? Your tip on buying tomatoes in bulk and freezing them for winter is also a good one.

    Tomatoes are life! I absolutely love them when they’re in season, simply dressed with a delicious Tuscan olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt or made into a fabulous fresh pesto rosso with sundried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and toasted pistachios.
    I’d love to learn more about the glorious local produce from Rome and Sicily and recreate some of the recipes for friends. Fingers crossed!

    I must admit, one of the things I made the most with our oven-dried tomatoes was pesto. We were inspired by pesto trapanese (which normally uses raw tomatoes, almonds and basil) and replace the raw tomatoes with our oven-dried ones instead. Looking forward to next summer so I can make it again!

    I love preserving my tomatoes by turning them into a fresh tomato sauce and freezing it so I have that taste of summer every so often during the winter

    My *favourite* way?? Man that’s hard. I think it’s hard to beat a really good pico de gallo though, with good tortilla chips! Perfect sweet-sour tomatoes punching out over warm chillies, an onion hum and a lime and coriander twang to be scooped up with musky corn. I *will* eat that whole bag, thanks very much.

    Having left all my books – cookbooks included – behind in Australia I would dearly love something to thumb through and cook from. Old mate Google is just not the same! I love eating semi-dried tomatoes with good olive oil on pane integrale, around my boyfriend’s mum’s kitchen table here in Tuscany.

    I agree, Google and e-books are just not the same! The cookbook genre has to be in print for me! Yes, there’s always the option of semi-drying the tomatoes too. I must admit to sampling the tomatoes I dried halfway through and they were incredibly tasty. Next year, I’ll be sure to do it as you suggested, with olive oil on pane integrale. Hope you’re enjoying your time here in Italy.

    I enjoyed this post and your beautiful photographs. I’m curious to try the jam recipe. I’m another fan of Rachel Roddy and love her writing. It would be great to win her book.

    Tuesdays are my favourite day: it is when Rachel roddy’s latest recipe lands online. I’ve been a follower of her blog page for years – and have claimed so many of her recipes as regulars (ragu, hommus, soft almond biscuits). I saw Rachel’s post on sun drying tomatoes and wondered: does Gela not have the pesky, ravenous flies that send us mad in Australia? I will have to try your oven method. We love our home grown tomatoes in simple room temperature salads with basil. Or barely cooked pasta sauces. Or Scattered above scrambled
    Eggs with avocado. For the store bought tomatoes I usually turn them into tomato paste & a tangy tomato sauce. Your jam is next in my list. Hello Christmas presents.

    Erin, I look forward to Tuesdays for exactly the same reason. I’ve learnt so much about Italian food from reading her blog, columns and now books from you, as well as being thoroughly entertained in the process. I’ve spent a lot of time in Sicily but not in Gela, and I can assure you that the island has lots of pesky flies and insects too. In my experience, people have used mosquito or fly-netting to keep them away and have always taken the precaution of bringing the tomatoes back inside at night or whenever it rains. Yes, oven-drying has definitely proved to be a good alternative to my mostly flat-living, city-dweller self. I like the sound of your tomato paste or concentrate and I am so glad you want to try my jam. It really is lovely and I hope you enjoy it.

    i love chucking a bunch of cherry tomatoes, still on the vine, in a hot oven, letting them almost caramelise. A great way to brighten up a plate of food.

    I’m a big fan of throwing halved tomatoes (especially cherry and small datterini or plum tomatoes) in an oven too, and occasionally make my sauce for pasta that way. It’s no fuss and I really love the flavour.

    I’m moving to Italy in February so I am so excited to eat juicy, sweet, bursting-with-flavour tomatoes. My favourite way to eat tomatoes is a simple caprese salad or a delicious and fiery pasta arrabbiata. I would love to broaden my tomato/general Italian cuisine horizons!

    How exciting that you’re moving to Italy next February! You’ll have to wait a few months before you can try the tomatoes as you’ve suggested here but I can assure you, it’s well worth the wait. You’ll also learn lots and lots of ways to cook and eat tomatoes while living here.

    It’s so hard to select one favourite way to eat tomatoes, when they’re the most versatile of fruits. Right now we love them in a summery salad tossed together with pomegranate seeds, garlic, allspice, onion and a pomegranate molasses/sherry vinegar/olive oil dressing – the contrasting sweet flavours work so well in a savoury salad (Ottolenghi gets a mental thankyou every time I serve it!)

    I love salads, especially with pomegranates. They are starting to appear at the local market now and there’s a few ox heart tomatoes still going strong there too. I think the seasoning you’ve suggested here would go wonderfully!

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