Tiptoeing Away, and Taking Tomatoes With Me

That’s it for summer as we knew it, 2016… School is open and I’m getting back in the swing of some things I had almost, just almost forgotten about.  Like fitting in everything I need to do before two fifteen on most days so I can get to school, and having to plan dinner when I’m not anywhere near ready to think about eating. I’m not sure I’m ready to button up and stop living from moment to moment. Among other ways I’ve let it all go: I’ve ignored my pantry and my freezer. Now it’s time to wipe those shelves, throw out last winter’s uneaten candy, and restock. Can I have my cake and eat it too?

During the first days of September I tiptoed slowly towards fall, but I kept a strong hold on summer. I lingered upstate in our quiet, Hudson-area village, and spent long days with my son Theo before he had to go back to school, to the third grade.  My little boy will soon grow into a big one, leaving only a trace. There are only some things you can hang on to; the days were getting shorter. I made a last grasp, just to see how much of the summer I could keep.

At the farmstand up the road, tomatoes were selling for ten dollars per case… that’s heavy: a  25 pound box, about 11 kilos, or about half a Theo. The tender ears of corn were five dollars for 13 – a baker’s dozen- and so very, very sweet.

The linoleum-covered floor in my summer kitchen tilts comically, and there isn’t much counter space. When we moved into the house I purchased a small kitchen island for chopping on.  Now I stationed myself there. Before long, the narrow wooden surface was fully covered in tomatoes. I don’t have a lot of equipment, nor was I prepared with jars and supplies for canning- but I do have a new foodmill and I was very excited to use it. Truthfully, in my heat-induced torpor I was looking for the simplest possible way to preserve the summer.  So, in between our yard sale adventures and an afternoon visit from friends, I made a batch of tomato sauce in my largest pot. And when that visit turned into dinner, I decided I would save my energy and work in stages (in fact, two days is preferable so that your sauce can chill down nicely before you need to put it away for its hibernation). That night I stood in the little kitchen after everyone had gone to bed, turning the handle of my food mill and watching slips of tomato skin pile up in its metal teeth. When the tomatoes were effectively a purée, I cooked it down until it was a light sauce, and then returned the giant pot to the refrigerator for the night. The following day I divided it into smaller containers and froze them. Any extra tomatoes were peeled and frozen whole. And before we tidied the house and loaded up the car for the city I quickly cooked the corn cobs, then shaved off yellow kernels into a pile… I watched the steam rise, and when it dissipated I knew it was time to bag those little bits of sunshine up and pop them in the freezer; not saying goodbye, but more like arrividerci. Until we meet again…

img_4984September Tomato Sauce

Recipes for tomato sauce sometimes call for a pinch of sugar.  Towards the end of cooking time, taste your sauce to see if it is lacking a certain mellowness that a bit of sugar can help along. But I can’t imagine that any September tomatoes you cook with aren’t sweet, holding inside, as they do, all the sunshine and warmth of your summer days.

15 pounds plum (Roma) tomatoes

extra virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of your pot by 1/4  inch, about 1/2 cup

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)

a handful of fresh herbs stems: basil, thyme and marjoram or oregano, or a mixture

crushed red chile, optional

1. Quarter tomatoes through the stem. Place a large, heavy pot or a stockpot on the stovetop and add oil and garlic over medium heat. Cook just until you can smell the fragrance and garlic is becoming soft, do not let it brown AT ALL. Add the tomatoes all at once, and a large pinch of salt. Raise heat to medium high and cook until the tomatoes on bottom begin to collapse, about 10 minutes. Add herbs and continue cooking, stirring often to distribute tomatoes, until the pot is full of bubbling, juice and tender tomatoes, about 30 minutes. Mash the tomatoes up a bit with the spoon.

2. Let tomatoes cool, at least 20 minutes, and up to two hours. Strain through a foodmill fitted with the coarsest blade. The skins and some of the seeds will be left behind, and you’ll need to scrape them out of the food mill from time to time. The tomatoes will be a coarse purée. For a smoother sauce, use the smaller blade.  Return all of this loose purée to the pot.  Place it over medium heat and cook again, stirring occasionally until deep red, saucy and as thick as you like it. I didn’t cook mine for very long; a sauce with a light body and fresh tomato flavor can be a lovely thing to have on hand in winter. When you defrost it, you may need to add a bit of simmering time until it’s thick enough to coat your pasta, but it will be a versatile thing, and can be used in place of canned ground tomatoes- and so much more flavorful. Taste and add more salt, and a pinch of hot pepper if you like. Cool to room temperature before transferring to smaller containers and refrigerating or freezing.




Home Away From Home (with Pilfered Packets)

Welcome to Rome

             Welcome to Rome

We arrived in Rome on the 30th of December and unloaded our 4 giant suitcases and 6 carry-ons at the hotel Domus Sessoriana– a convent-style accommodation which was historically for those on religious pilgrimmage to the Basilica next door, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, where relics such as a piece of THE cross, and other amazing artifacts can be seen. They are housed in a glass vitrine and each one is set into an elegant silver piece decorated with amazing metalwork- details as fine as jewelry. There is a piece of worn, splintery wood from the cross that Jesus was nailed onto encased in silver; as well as a nail, a thorn from the crown… and a large section of bone from the doubtful St. Thomas’ finger. It’s all very gruesome- and fascinating.

Enormous paintings grace the hotel’s lobby and stairwells. Beneath the hotel rooms, down a long, long, long corridor with arched ceilings, is the dining room where we, and the mostly European, cost-conscious travelers ate breakfast. Each morning a buffet of run-of-the-mill pastries, bread, ho-hum cheeses, and such was set out for hotel guests.  Our son Theo invited many giggles and adoring looks as he walked from the buffet to our table, sloshing pineapple juice onto its saucer (and the floor) and returning repeatedly for cornetti and slices of provolone cheese (which he declared the Best Cheese in the World).

As we were to be camping out in our room for several days until our apartment was ready for us, I felt justified in taking bits and pieces of food to hoard for later. Our evenings were spent in the room, where we would spread the pressed white linen hand-towels over an ottoman and eat our dinner picnic-style.

Having been a mother of two for about ten years, and a seasoned camper and traveler before that, I’ve always got my eye on pilferable packages of portable goodies. The best score from our breakfast buffets in Rome turned out to be little discs of Bel Paese cheese, which Theo loved. Basically a cheap, cream-cheese like spread, it was the perfect foil for the smoked salmon I’d bought for New Year’s Eve (and was storing outside on our stone windowsill -the temperature was well below 40 at night, and kept our food preserved adequately). The window was about 8 feet tall and looked out over a small, enclosed garden with some dormant fruit trees. One evening when I opened up the window to bring our picnic supplies inside, I noticed a large grease spot on the stone (so sorry!) and saw that the sun had reached the sill during the day and melted our butter, which had oozed out of its romantic Italian packaging and coated the package of salmon, as well as some soppresata and some cheese. No matter-  when the sun went down, the butter congealed again, and I learned to keep the packaged fish and meat upside down, the silver cardboard reflecting the sun’s rays away.

But I digress. When, after 4 or 5 days, we were able to move our whole operation into our very own apartment in Trastevere, some little packages of Bel Paese came with us- a house-warming gift of sorts. Our new home had a tiny kitchen equipped with some flimsy non-stick pans. We began filling the refrigerator gradually with food, but for the first few days we couldn’t find a decent market and bought only the most basic supplies at a mini-market.

On Theo’s first school morning in Rome, I was shuffling around in the semi-dark when he asked if I could make scrambled eggs. We had eggs, yes. Could I make them extra-cheesy, as we used to do at home in Brooklyn? Nope- I did not have cheddar, or any other melting cheese. All I had was a bit of pecorino Romano, salty and dryish, for grating on pasta. But, sleepy as I was, I still had my wits about me. So I just said yes to my son: Sure! I can make them extra cheesy.

I quickly whisked eggs with a fork in a coffee cup (no bowls in our kitchen!), melted butter in a small pan and began scrambling. I seasoned with tiny airplane packets of salt and pepper. I grabbed a Bel Paese packet from the fridge and ripped it open- when I stirred lumps of the creamy spread into the eggs and they melted before my eyes, I knew I was onto something good. A little bit of grated pecorino added a whiff of real cheese flavor, and another dot of butter lent the final touch; extra creaminess. Et voila! é qui!

The eggs on his plate, my six-year old approved: these aren’t extra-cheesy; they’re MEGA cheesy! Off to scuola.