During my childhood in Italy, at home tomatoes were used in three ways:
- fresh in salads (by themselves or with other ingredients)
- strained and bottled for year-round use (mostly to make sauce for pasta)
- halved and stored in glass jars (for use on pizza)
For #1, round tomatoes were used. On this page there is a photo of what we called pomodori da insalata. Fresh tomatoes were on our table only in the summer, and often they came directly from the producer's basket. As a child, I loved fresh from the vine tomatoes and would roam the tomato fields of acquaintances to indulge my preference.
For #2 and 3, San Marzano tomatoes were used. Once a year, my mother bought tomatoes by the case and for a couple of days her kitchen became a preservation workroom. In my earliest memories, I strain tomatoes through a food mill. Then, my mother bought an electric tomato strainer (passapomodoro), but I would still use the food mill to squeeze out the last bit of pulp before discarding the skin. My mother was in charge of preparing the glass jars of halved tomatoes.
At some point in my life, I learned that tomatoes arrived in Europe from America. I found it interesting that they had taken hold so well in Italy as to become an integral part of the culinary tradition in the regions where they were grown. However, I never asked myself how this happened historically. It is an interesting question and one that Prof. David Gentilcore has researched and answered in the recently published book Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy.
We might naturally assume that Italians liked tomatoes right away, but in fact quite the opposite is true. The tomato took more than three hundred years to enter Italian mainstream cultivation and consumption. What took so long? Of all the New World plants in Italy — which include maize, potatoes, tobacco, American beans and chilies — only the potato took as long as the tomato to catch on. In any case this is the wrong question. The real mystery is why the tomato caught on at all.
To shed light on "the real mystery" Gentilcore starts from the first record of tomato in Italy (in the mid-16th century) and follows the fruit's fortunes across the centuries using a variety of sources. The story, a kind of adventure novel with the tomato as protagonist, makes for a pleasant and interesting read. At some point, records show that the momentous marriage between pasta and tomato sauce had taken place. What impact did that event have on my life! You see, I grew up eating pasta with tomato-containing sauce (usually sugo di carne) five to six days a week.
Back to the book, the history of tomato preservation — from sun-dried tomatoes to conserva di pomodoro to passata di pomodoro to canned pomodori pelati (peeled tomatoes) — is also very interesting. Then there is the story of Italians migrating to America and bringing with them their culinary traditions, including pasta al pomodoro. Gentilcore ends the book with a look at the present. You may or may not know (before reading the book, I didn't) that China is currently the biggest tomato producer in the world, followed by the US. [This page on the Economic Research Service site has a lot of information on US tomato production.]
The sources Gentilcore consulted range from personal correspondence to medical treaties to government documents to cookbooks. A number of recipes are scattered among the pages. One that particularly intrigued me is from Elizabeth David's "Italian Food" and is called Uova al piatto con pomidoro. When I read the title, I thought that I had come across a record of a beloved dish from my childhood. However, her recipe differs from mine, though it testifies to a marriage between egg and tomato. The word pomodoro comes from pomo d'oro (literally, golden fruit). Among various spellings, pomodoro (singular) and pomodori (plural) have prevailed in Italian. The recipe shows an alternative spelling of the plural.
You can follow the link to check David's recipe. Here, I will share my rendition of the one from my childhood, when I sometimes asked my mother to prepare this simple dish: an egg with some tomato from one of her bottles. The quantities given below can be halved or doubled, for solitary, pairwise, or group enjoyment. When using more than one egg, the recipe should be more appropriately called uova col pomodoro. However, at home we always called it uovo col pomodoro, even when my mother prepared it not just for little me.
- 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- a cup of strained roasted tomato (see below for details) [or 1/2 of a 15 oz. can of tomato sauce (choose organic if possible and one that has a minimum of added ingredients]
- 2 eggs of good quality (pastured eggs, if possible)
- salt, to taste
In a saucepan, warm up the oil over low heat, then add the garlic cloves. Let the oil absorb the garlic’s flavor for a minute or so, making sure the cloves do not turn brown. Add the strained roasted tomatoes and stir. Cover the saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes over low heat. In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a pinch of salt. Pour the eggs into the tomato and turn up the heat to medium-low. Stir with a wooden spoon. Let the eggs cook, uncovered, for about 5 minutes, stirring often and turning down the heat when the tomato starts bubbling again. Retrieve the garlic cloves and discard them. Adjust the salt and serve immediately, accompanied with a slice of rustic bread, which can be used to scoop up the creamy uovo col pomodoro. This was one of the comfort foods of my childhood and I am pleased to report that my husband loves it too.
Last summer, I roasted tomatoes quite often: I started with cherry tomatoes, which I used in various recipes (as you can read here and here), then moved on to the larger tomatoes that I got in my CSA box. I cut the tomatoes in half, distributed them, cut side up, on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat, sprayed olive oil and sprinkled thyme leaves on them. I roasted the tomatoes for 70 minutes at 350 F. Once cooled, I used my food mill and elbow grease (olio di gomito) to strain the tomatoes. Only dry skins and seeds were left behind. I then used the end product to make several dishes, including my beloved uovo col pomodoro. I also froze some, for enjoyment during the tomato-less winter months.
This is my contribution to edition #265 of Weekend Herb Blogging, an event started by Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen, now organized by Haalo of Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once and hosted this week by the organizer herself.
This post contains the roundup of the event.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the uovo col pomodoro audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
FTC disclosure: I have received a free review copy of the book mentioned in this post from the publisher. I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for discussing the book on my blog.