15 July 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: You Say Tomato, I say. . .

SARONNO, Italy - What’s this? Italian pasta without tomato sauce? Unthinkable. Pizza without tomatoes? A downright tragedy. Fresh mozzarella without fat slices of juicy red tomatoes? Call the Food Police! Tomatoes are the supreme Queen of la buona cucina italiana. Chop them, dice them, mash them, grill them, boiled and stuff them, even roast them, add them to just about anything and everything, they will make everything delicious.


It’s impossible to imagine life in this land of pasta and pizza without them. The market stalls are piled high with round ones, and long ones, fat ones and skinny ones but truth be known, up until the middle of the 1500’s Italians had never heard of a tomato, let alone seen one. And even when they did, they were not impressed. The plants were pretty but that was about it, you certainly wouldn’t want to eat the little fruits that grew on them, especially since everyone knew they were poisonous.

The first tomatoes the Italians saw were yellow and they called them pomi d’oro, golden apples. The red tomatoes we know today came later, some say via Morocco, and they were called pomo d’Moro, apples of the Moors. And as things do, pomi d’oro and pomo d’Moro eventually morphed into pomodori.

Here in Italy there are many kinds of tomatoes to choose from, it all depends on what you want to do with them. For salads the Italian’s first choice are Cuore di Bue, Oxheart tomatoes. These tomatoes have a rather strange heart shape and look like they have been pre-portioned, like a cheesecake.

Pachino and Cuore di Bue

My personal salad favorite is a small tomato called Camone that grows in Sardinia. It has a really good flavor, even when it’s green which is how the Italians like their salad tomatoes. Perini tomatoes are what you get when you buy canned tomatoes, unless it says something different on the label. Then there are cherry tomatoes, Pachino are a type of cherry tomato grown in the area in and around Siracusa, Sicily. Costoluto and Tondo Liscio are two other types of cherry tomatoes and come from the same area.

The most popular type of tomato sold in Italy is called the Ramato. Ramato tomatoes are smooth and round and grow in bunches like cherry tomatoes, but they are much bigger. They are the Swiss Army knife of the Italian tomato world, the one size fits all for sauces and salads.

San Marzano Tomatoes

But the star of the tomato show, and you know there has to be a star, are the tomatoes of San Marzano. As far as I know San Marzano tomatoes are the only tomatoes to have a DOP denominazione di origine protetta, or Protected Geographical Status, which ensures us that the product originates in a specific region. For San Marzano tomatoes that region is the province of Naples, Salerno and Avellino. Just take a look at this short video and you’ll see just how revered this little tomato is. 

According to food guru Giuliano Bugialli, http://www.bugialli.com/, it was the Florentines who first discovered you could eat tomatoes with no dire consequences, but then again he credits the Florentines with everything from civilizing the French to developing the art of carving fruit. And wouldn’t you know it, now that I’m in Italy, Bugialli is three blocks from where I lived in Philadelphia. Giuliano, where were you when I needed you?

But enough of this food talk, let’s get down to the real benefits of eating tomatoes. Researchers at the University of Manchester in Great Britain found that volunteers who ate helpings of ordinary tomato paste over a 12-week period developed skin that was less likely to burn in the sun. Also, scientists think it is the antioxidant lycopene, which gives tomatoes their color, that neutralizes harmful molecules produced in skin exposed to the sun's ultra-violet rays. Damage inflicted by the free radical molecules on skin structures and DNA can lead to premature ageing and skin cancer.

A diet rich in tomatoes can significantly boost the level of pro-collagen in the skin and by increasing those levels there is the potential reversal of the skin ageing process. Now I ask you, is that good news or is that good news.
So to keep you all looking young and healthy, here’s a recipe for one of my favorite summertime soups, Pappa al Pomodoro. It’s from the second edition of Giuliano Bugialli’s The Fine Art of Italian Cooking.

Pappa al Pomodoro
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup olive oil
Pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1 pound very ripe fresh tomatoes, or 1 pound canned tomatoes, preferably Imported Italian, drained and seeded
1 pound Tuscan bread, white or dark, several days old
3 cups hot chicken or meat broth – homemade is best
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 basil leaves, fresh or preserved in salt

Chop the garlic coarsely, then place in a stockpot, preferably terracotta, along with ¼ cup of the olive oil and the pepper flakes. Saute’ very gently for 10-12 minutes. If fresh tomatoes are used, blanch them in salted boiling water, then cut them into 3 or 4 pieces, remove the seeds, then add to the pot.

Simmer for 15 minutes. Cut the bread into small pieces and add to the pot, along with the broth, slat, black pepper and whole basil leaves.

Stir very well and simmer for 15 minutes longer, then remove from heat, cover and let rest for 1 to 2 hours.

When ready to serve, stir very well to break up all the bread pieces and place in individual soup bowls.

At the table sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the remaining oil on each serving and grind some fresh black pepper into each bowl.

Note: Though considered a soup, the consistency of papa is not liquid at all. It may be eaten lukewarm or cold, or reheated and served hot the following day. It

Do not add any grated cheese.

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