Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Good Cooking Is Trouble" Paul Bertolli

Good cooking is trouble and the trouble begins when you try to take it seriously, in earnest. Enter the humble tomato the most multifaceted of all summer produce. I wait, patiently all year long for the end of August, longing for the full taste of a local, summer ripe tomato. I don't know anyone who writes better of the tomato than Paul Bertolli, executive chef and co-owner of Oliveto, a restaurant in Oakland CA that I hope to visit someday. Bertolli also wrote my first serious cookbook, the cookbook that began the start from scratch deal around here "Cooking by Hand".  It isn't your everyday kind of cookbook, although it does have recipes. It is a collection of essays, reflections on the appreciation of food. It reminds us to stop and think about what we are eating and to appreciate how good food happens.

It was Bertolli who inspired me to start canning, make my own pesto, toast nuts and grind them into nut butters, to make my own mayo, grind sirloin to render hamburger. The list is endless. So you can only imagine my intrigue when realized I could make my own tomato paste. Bertolli calls it Conserva, I call it Gold Paste. A way to spend hours cooking something you can buy at the store. I am so there! Conserva is essentially homemade tomato paste but much better than anything you will find in a can. Conserva's flavor is deep and complex, a tomato reduced to its purest, richest, form.

Most people would consider the endeavor of Conserva short of crazy. I spent $20 on 5 pounds of tomatoes. 8 hours later they have been reduced to about 6 ounces of a very flavorful tomato paste. Two small jars, almost nothing until you taste this stuff. I have done it before, and I will do it again. Nothing makes me happier than a teaspoon of this spread on a piece of toast, blending it with tomato sauce for pasta or simply licking a finger full right out of the jar.

I made a few adjustments to Bertolli's instructions including peeling my tomatoes first and straining the cooked tomatoes to reduce the amount of liquid up front. I may have ended up with a little more if I had not strained the tomatoes.

Making Conserva is easy, but it does takes time at attention, a perfect activity for a fall day.

Cut 5 pounds of ripe tomatoes into small dice; this promotes the most rapid cooking. Warm a little olive oil in a saucepan big enough to hold the tomatoes. Salt them lightly and bring to a rapid boil. Cook the tomatoes until soft about 10-15 minutes. Immediately pass them through the finest plate of a food mill, pushing as much of the tomato pulp through the sieve as you can. The purée should not have any seeds.
Lightly oil a half sheet pan with olive oil. Place the tomatoes in a 300 degree oven for about 3 hours. Use a spatula to turn the paste over on itself every 30 minutes or so. The water will evaporate and you will notice the surface darken and the liquid will thicken. Reduce the over to 250 after 3 hours and continue to evaporate the paste for another few hours until it is thick, shiny and brick-colored. I had some really darkened, burnt areas so I passed the paste through a sieve when it was done to remove the specks of burnt paste. Store in a glass canning jar topped with 1/4 an inch of olive oil. As you use it, make sure you maintain the level of olive oil on top. Bertolli says it can safely be stored at room temperature but I keep my in the fridge.

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