“Special Sauce”: 2-Day Tomato Conserva

Tomato conserva is one of those things that perfectly embodies the slow food concept. A welcome change of pace from our usual hectic lives. It’s not hard to make, but it takes forever – yielding a slow-cooked flavor that just cannot be reproduced with quicker cooking methods. It’s one of those secret weapons in your pantry that gives you incredible depth of flavor and makes you seem like a much better cook than you actually are. I’ll take all the help I can get! Use it like tomato paste out of a can to enhance tomato flavor in sauces, soups, dressings…. but trust me, this is sooooo much better. There’s something magical about making this in that it always reminds me — and my family — to slow down once in a while. We can use all the help we can get in that department, too.

Tomato conserva also happens to coincide with my bad habit of buying way too many tomatoes at the Farmers’ Market (or receiving large grocery bags full of super ripe tomatoes from my father-in-law’s garden). My husband and I can’t resist the large, cheap crates of “ugly” tomatoes that start showing up at the markets right about now. As mountains of tomatoes start to wilt all at once, we snap into action for some high-volume tomato cookery. Usually at this point, I throw them in a big pot with a quartered onions, a few pats of butter and a little salt, so they simmer into a versatile and simple tomato sauce (alla Marcella Hazan) which I can strain and stow in the freezer for later. But sometimes when I’m feeling my inner Italian Nonna come out, they get transformed into my “special sauce”: 2-day tomato conserva. I know the idea of slowly cooking tomatoes over hours and hours is not for everyone — but boy does it taste good!

2-day Tomato Conserva — Here’s how you do it:

Expert sources (i.e. Paul Bertoli THE guru of tomatoes) say you will get approximately one-tenth the volume of your original tomatoes.

  1. Wash, de-stem and rough chop your tomatoes. No need to be pretty or precise about it.
  2. Cook them on the stove top with a little olive oil  and a light sprinkling of salt just until they are tender and start to release their juices (approximately 10 minutes). Turn off the heat, cover the pot and let them steam for 10 more minutes to continue to soften.
  3. Put them through the food mill to remove the skins and seeds.
  4. Pour your strained tomatoes into a baking dish (you will get better evaporation with a shallow layer, no more than an inch, so use multiple dishes as needed)
  5. Put them into a 250 degree oven and let them cook away all-day (~for 6-8 hours). Check them and stir once in a while — but they don’t need much babysitting at all.
  6. I like to go for a thick and concentrated paste, so at this point I usually turn off the oven and leave them overnight, then I turn the oven back on to 200 degrees as I’m making my morning coffee and let them cook away for a few more hours and maybe as much as another 6-8. Since we all need to leave the house once in a while, I’ve found you can pretty much start/stop this process as you need to.  It’s very un-fussy. Just don’t forget about them entirely. Some people keep going to point that the paste can be molded like soft clay, which is to say that you can’t really overdo it.

That’s it, you’re done… and voila instant Italian Nonna!

Spoon some into a clean jar, top with olive oil, seal well and store in the refrigerator to use over the next month or two. Freeze the rest for later. I use an ice cube tray so that I have portions perfect for adding to sauces. Conserva is to experiment with. You can add it to pasta sauces, stews, risotto and soups or anywhere you want an extra hit of tomato flavor. Tonight, for instance, I made a vinaigrette to dress tomatoes using conserva, olive oil, red wine vinegar and sea salt (tomato squared!) and I’m thinking about trying it with some of my Asian recipes in lieu of ketchup.

Just for fun — I found this video  on YouTube which shows the traditional, Sicilian method of making tomato paste, “Stattu”, using just the heat of the sun (and a whole lot of tomatoes!). I’m old school, but apparently not that old school. You’ll also get a sense of the “clay-like” version of the paste.

Video by Ganicolo