Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pappa al Pomodoro and a Gift from the Garden

A gift of homegrown fruit or vegetables in New York City is a rare thing indeed. But that’s just what I received from a friend’s parents the other day – a bag of sun-warm, perfectly ripened, homegrown tomatoes. Not just any tomatoes either. These were the red, plump, shiny tomatoes in the photo below, and they were grown in a proper Sicilian family’s garden.

Before I met my husband, I spent an awful lot of time sleeping on this friend of mine’s couch. Sure, it saved me a late-night commute after one of our endless dinner parties, but it also allowed me to wake up in the midst of the hustle and bustle that is her elegantly warm and welcoming family – something I’ll never grow immune to.

My friend and her husband live with their daughter on the first floor of the house, and her mother and father live on the third. In the middle are her aunt and uncle who are sister and brother to her mother and father respectively. During those mornings, after my friend and her husband would have left for work, I often hung about, padding up and down the stairs to visit with everyone – I guess I was a little homesick for my own family. As my friend’s grandmother used to say: “You stick together. Stick with your family.” And I wish modern life turned out that way more often.

Anyway I know my lurking about sounds pretty rude, but it became something of a joke. I would inevitably end up being patted and shushed into someone’s kitchen to have an espresso, to play with the baby, and, if I was very lucky, to watch my friend’s mother or aunt cook. Caponata, pizza, pasta sauces, and at Christmas, my favorite orange zest-flecked torrone were all labored over, with lots of instructions muttered over the cook’s shoulder for my benefit. And for this I shall be eternally grateful.

It might be bad form for me to be making this Tuscan bread soup with a Sicilian family’s tomatoes, but I hope they’ll understand. Pappa al Pomodoro is, at its best, honest home cooking: comforting, nourishing, frugal, and time-honored. Use plenty of good olive oil here, and a generous hand with the salt – it’s there to bring out the savory umami of the tomatoes. The only change I’ve made from the traditional recipe is to add a little cayenne pepper, and this I’ve done because one of my favorite osterie in Florence does the same. And thank you DiBartolos for the tomatoes, for the cooking lessons, and for taking care of me when I don’t leave.

Serves 3 – 4

extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 ½ lbs (about 3 large) ripe tomatoes (canned are fine out of season)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
½ - 1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
10 oz day-old good country bread, pulled into bite-size chunks
4 ½ cups good chicken or vegetable stock
pinch of sugar
small handful fresh basil leaves
good parmesan cheese

Heat a large pot over medium heat. Add a generous glug of olive oil and the garlic and tomatoes. Season generously with salt, pepper, and as much or as little cayenne pepper as you like, and sauté, stirring often, for 5 minutes.

Stir in the bread, the stock, and a pinch of sugar. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer gently for 20 – 30 minutes or longer if your bread was very stale. The finished soup should be very thick, and the bread must have softened and come apart a bit. Check the seasoning with more salt and pepper.

Just before serving, slice the basil leaves thinly and stir in. Serve the soup drizzled with generous amounts of olive oil and topped with lots of freshly grated cheese.


jan said...

What a sweet story, and what a lovely gift from a lovely family!

Patricia Scarpin said...

Lovely story, Amanda!!
The tomatoes are beautiful, and the food looks delicious!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Hi Jan, and thanks. They are, as you say, some of the loveliest people you'll ever meet, and I'm very lucky to know them.

Hi Patricia, and thank you so much! It's not the prettiest soup in the world, but I promise it's comfort food at its best!

winedeb said...

Good home grown tomatoes - wish we could just have a couple of these come February! What do you do with all of these tomatoes? Soups and tarts! I posted a tart recipe today and I do not think it would tasted as good if it did not have those home grown jewels on the top!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Hi Winedeb! Not to worry, I have lots of tomato recipes coming for you, including a way to enjoy them in February. The tart sounds amazing. Will check it out today!

Wendy said...

A gorgeous post. I know the family atmosphere you describe and I love being a temporary part of it too. I've tried this soup before. In winter. I know, I know, I know! In my defence, it was a few years ago and I had just got seriously interested in cooking. It seems like a good time to try this again. :)

marisa said...

That soup must smell and taste unbelievable. What a beautiful story.

Lucy said...

Just looking at your garlic and comparing it the the old, woody bits I've got to work with, let alone those home-grown tomatoes...season envy indeed.

That said, I've got some wonderful tinned ones and I love your touch of cayenne pepper. Perfect for all seasons!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Hello Wendy! They really are so lovely to me. My friend's daughter was in my wedding, and I can't tell you how happy they were that I married a Sicilian boy - and they were right!
And fyi, I have no snobbery about canned tomatoes! I like lemon in everything, and lemons can't grow here at any time of the year, so I'm really a big cheater! Tinned tomatoes are great. Frozen peas too.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Hi Marisa! Basil, tomato, and garlic smells and tastes pretty darn good whatever the application, doesn't it! And thanks. It does bring a wee tear to my eye when I think about how good they've been to me!

Lucy, I feel your pain. I envy you and Barbara at Winos and Foodies all the time! But just think, you'll have gorgeous spring garlic in no time! You see, I can envy your spring preemptively, even as I get excited for autumn here. Tinned tomatoes are perfect in this soup, and I think it's a great recipe for dealing with the late-winter blues.

tribecachef said...

So what's your take on the thickness? Opinions differ. Should the spoon stand up in the soup of its own accord or not?

Jen said...

Reading your story made me really, really miss NYC! I grew up there, and lived in a neighborhood filled with apartment buildings where extended families often lived in the same building - and we'd go to Mami and Papi's for fried plantains, or Nonna's for pasta, etc. I miss it! And I love Pappa al Pomodoro - thank you!

jora said...

Thank you for this post! I just adore pappa al pomodoro. The recipe I make is from the woman I lived with during a homestay in Florence a decade ago. Would you mind sharing the name of your favorite osteria in Florence?

Cynthia said...

Oh-my-goodness Amanda. That is some serious comfort food and I bet it is filling. If only you can get those tomatoes fresh in the winter to make this dish. Yumm!

Truffle said...

That was absolutely beautiful. This soup is my sort of dish. Sounds wonderfully comforting.

Anh said...

This is such a comfort dish. I love tomatoes, and you have used them in a wonderful way.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you all! I've been away from anywhere with internet access.

Tribecachef, Interesting question! In my experience, ribollita, the Tuscan bread and white bean soup tends to be slightly thicker than pappa al pomodoro. With the ribollita, your spoon really should stand up in the bowl, and it does at trattorias where locals actually eat. Pappa al pomodoro seems to be slightly looser most of the time. I shall have to consult a couple of experts on this and get back to you!

Hi Jen! Thank you! There's nothing like that feeling of community you get when families still live close to each other, is there? I think it's rarer and rarer now, but your experience as a child sounds really so special.

Hi Jora! Thanks so much. The place that adds cayenne pepper is Osteria De'Benci at Via De'Benci, 13r. Tel: 0552344923. Near the Arno. I haven't had the chance to eat there in a few years, but the last time I did, there were lots of locals there, which is the only recommendation I'll ever need!

Hi Cynthia! Thank you! You know, this is just as delicious with good canned tomatoes, and it's not often you'll hear me say that, is it? I make it all winter too!

Hi Truffle! Thanks so much. It really is comforting to people of all ages, and so easy to make besides.

Hi Anh! Thanks so much. This time of year there are so many tomatoes, so I'll be posting at least a few more suggestions in the coming days/ weeks. I'm so glad you like the soup!

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