Seeking high impact, low effort strategies for eating well has led to my interest in preserving tomatoes. High quality hand-made preserved tomatoes lay a foundation for instant satisfying and flavourful meals. While it is possible to buy good quality tinned tomatoes from an Italian deli, mass-produced food never has the vibrancy hand made food does. Canning tomatoes is a process, but the investment pays off for those who are organized enough. Last autumn, lacking the self-organization, I stuffed whole washed tomatoes into freezer bags. They came out of the freezer frost-bitten, watery and uninteresting.
This year, I have tried Alice Waters’ Tomato Confit from her book My Pantry. Waters explains that Confit is a French word that means “preserved.” Fruit is confited in a sugar syrup, while vegetables and meat can be confited in olive oil.
To prepare tomato confit, select gorgeous ripe tomatoes and wash them under a cold tap. Then carve out the core and place the tomatoes, top down, in a tight-fitting cast iron or earthenware pot. Waters suggests basil as the herb of choice, but I used thyme and bay, as I think the essential oils in these woody herbs stand up better to the heat and long cooking. Waters pours olive oil over the tomatoes to come just over half way up the fruit. I did use slightly less, and found that the juices released from the tomatoes, along with the oil, quickly turned into enough liquid in the pan. This is all brought to a slow simmer for 45-50 minutes, and it is important to be gentle so that the tomatoes do not fall apart.
The tomatoes retain their shape and their flavour intensifies and sweetens. They rest nicely in the fridge for 4 or 5 days and can be turned into instant flavourful suppers. Any that I did not use within 5 days went to the deep freeze to see if they will fare better than my last year’s approach. Waters suggests they can be canned as well, but if I were to go through the trouble to process them I would probably choose a method with less, or no, oil.
Tomato confit is a very good way to halt fruit from over ripening and can buy you time to enjoy them when everything is coming in fast.
I confited big ripe Brandywine and Purple Cherokee tomatoes, as well as small heirloom cherry tomatoes. Soon I will try the method with my heirloom yellow tomatoes.
Having these flavourful tomatoes ready to go makes for exciting cooking. You simply slip the skin off and crush them, and proceed with a sauce, or to use in any way that you might tinned tomatoes. Tomatoes preserved this way maintain the sharp, multi-dimensional, and herbal fragrance of fresh tomatoes even though they have been heated for such a long time, and the flavour deepens and heightens and becomes very interesting.
Having these in these preserved and ready to go led to a few good meals through the week.
Deeply Flavoured Tomato Stew With Roasted Artichokes and Potatoes
I have never made Chicken Cacciatore, the iconic Italian Hunter’s Stew, and have often shied away from many of the recipes I have read because the stew seemed to me to be based too heavily on tomato. However, Patience Gray’s description about eating this stew high in the mountains of Italy in the 1960s (see Honey From a Weed) provided sufficient inspiration. I read her passage about this stew a few years ago and had forgotten about it until I had the gorgeous tomato confit resting on the counter in front of me asking for a notable purpose.
Joint in reasonably small proportions half a chicken cut into relatively small pieces. Season the chicken well and brown carefully in a hot cast iron pan that has first had dropped into the olive oil a stem of rosemary and sage, and a whole clove or two of garlic that has been crushed under the weight of your hand. Once the chicken is well browned a 4-6 ounces (half a glass) of red wine is poured over to deglaze the pan. Once the wine boils away, add a large crushed confited tomato or two (according to its size and how much chicken you have in the pan) to the pan and break it up amongst the chicken (or use 2-3 san marzano tomatoes from the tin). Place a heavy lid on the chicken and move it from the burner to a 350F oven for half an hour or 45 minutes. The sauce should be quite scarce and very flavourful. The chicken should be permeated with the good flavours of the herbs, tomatoes and wine, and you should feel very proud peering under the lid as you check to see if it is ready and falling from the bone.
It would be traditional to add olives during the last few minutes of cooking, but I did not. Olives are not universally appreciated in our home, and I do find that they can over take the other flavours in a dish. If I were to serve them, rather than adding them to the stew, I would warm them in a bit of olive oil, a clove of garlic, some thyme and a twist of lemon peel. I would serve them warm, passed around at the table.
This rich aromatic stew was served with potatoes roasted with artichokes.
Potatoes Roasted with Artichoke and Red Onion
I bought some beautiful artichokes at the market and fumbled through breaking them down. I would encourage you to find a good kitchen manual, or to find instructions through a Google search, rather than to reveal my own clumsy ways. These were scattered in an earthen ware dish with fingerling potatoes, herbs, onion, and garlic and roasted together until nicely browned and singing.
A Cucumber Salad to Bring Crunch and Freshness
At the market there are many amazing heirloom cucumbers available. I purchased a potato cucumber and lemon cucumber, both originally from India, gorgeous to look at and full of fragrant cucumber flavour. I sliced them thickly, scattered over chopped green onion, grey sea salt and cracked pepper and a liberal drizzle of good olive oil. Simple, refreshing and crunchy.
Other dishes emerged from the Tomato Confit. Most notably, an amazing pizza to be enjoyed with a glass of wine on a Monday evening when some comfort was required.
Margherita is a classic pizza: satisfying, simple, and endlessly pleasurable. It is usually made of a tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. My tomato base, this time, consisted of a crushed confited tomato placed cold from the fridge into a bowl after its skin was removed. I added a thinly sliced clove of garlic added and seasoned it well. This was spread over the pizza dough, and then sliced fresh mozzerella was scattered on top (the kind in sealed bags with brine), though any mozzarella would likely do. Instead of basil, I used green onion sliced on the diagonal and moistened with olive oil to prevent it from blackening. I used green onion because I had a big bunch of fragrant onions from the market, and because I am often disappointed with basil , which wilts and loses its flavour in the high heat of the oven (though it can be very nice added to the top of the pizza after it comes out of the oven, but even then it can blacken as it hits the hot mozzarella. The green onions bring spicey green depth to the pizza.
As for the dough, I use Jim Lahey’s slow rise method, which is mixed the night before and left to rise on the counter. This allows for pizza to get in the oven easily on a weeknight, and frankly is less stressful than dealing with the ordering and delivery of takeaway pizza, which is never a 10th as good as this. The long slow rise builds a robust flavour profile and amazing dough texture, and I believe this method creates a much better dough than you will find in even the better pizza restaurants.
I stretch the dough out directly on a pizza stone that has been heated to 450F. I first scatter the stone with cornmeal and then, clumsily, stretch and splat the dough out flat and build the pizza from there. The result is fantastic, but the process would likely be distressing to cooks who appreciate form and dignity more than me.
This week’s tomato confit is a very good example of how putting a bit of effort into one dish can ensure one meal leads into another. An amazing evolution occurs when you begin with a high quality fresh ingredient (a tomato) and apply a time-tested technique (confiting). Something entirely new and unto itself emerges. Having, ahead of time, produced something with integrity, you have the start of several dishes (stew, pasta, soup). When the hard work is already done, the dinner hour can be a comfort rather than a burden.