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)
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.