Worth the Work

A few years back, a friend called to see me and I was in the kitchen pushing cooked tomatoes through a fine sieve to make pasta sauce for the evening’s dinner. She commented that it seemed, “A bit of a faff.”* when you can just open a jar of shop bought sauce. “But, will processed sauce from a jar taste this good?” I replied. She shrugged her shoulders and said “Yeah, probably.” Twenty five minutes later as she was devouring the sauce, she was in effect, eating her words.

I remembered this the other day as I noticed we had some tomatoes that were going over** so I made some for a weekday lunch. It’s an easy recipe and makes use of tomatoes that you’d normally throw out. On this occasion I had 4 medium sized tomatoes and 8 small cherry ones, I chopped them up and added them to a pan with a drizzle of olive oil and just let them cook down, occasionally stirring them. After about 10 minutes you can add a quarter of a glass of red wine if you like, but that’s an optional addition. A further 10 minutes later they’ll be soft; don’t be alarmed by any black or burned skins. Let them cool down and once they are cold push the pulp through a fine sieve using the back of a spoon. (If you use a metal sieve use a plastic or wooden spoon as metal on metal can taint the taste).

sauce

This amount of tomatoes won’t make a large amount of sauce but will give you enough for 2 servings of pasta and sauce.

Excluding cooling down time, it’s so far taken around 30 minutes to prepare and sieve. Compare this to the time it takes to drive to the supermarket, park the car and walk around the shelves before standing in a queue to pay.

sauce 2

 

The principle of Italian cooking is about fresh produce, home cooking and as little waste as possible and I’ve always been attracted to this ethos so I’ve always made my own pasta sauce rather than buy it in jars.

This recipe was given to me so long ago I have forgotten which of my Italian friends passed it on to me, but with their thanks I’ve now passed it onto you.

So having made a portion of the sauce a day or so ago I retrieved it from the fridge and here’s what I did with it today.

DSCF8504 I picked 5 large basil leaves from my herb table outside the kitchen door and chopped 3 garlic cloves. These were added to 3 small sausages from my local butcher that have been chopped up into small pieces. Add a little olive oil to a pan and fry the sausage until it starts to brown, then add the garlic and 3 minutes later add the sauce.

Sauce 3

Let it simmer for a couple of minutes then add the shredded basil leaves as your pasta cooks in lots of boiling salted water. Once the pasta is cooked combine this with your sauce and serve straight away with a liberal sprinkling of grated Grana Padano cheese and a hunk of good Italian bread: This quick lunch all about good food not a fear of carbohydrates.

There’s many flavour combinations that you can create, this sauce goes well with tuna and chillies or pancetta and ricotta, or simply as a intense tomato sauce on spaghetti.

Sadly it looked so good I ate it before I remembered to take a photo of the finished dish, but isn’t that what food’s all about, a little effort for a huge return in flavour and pleasure. Give this a try and I know you’ll never buy supermarket sauces that are laden with salt and sugar again. The bonus is, it will keep for a week in the fridge and can be frozen.

* To spend time in ineffectual activity or wasting time doing something not necessary.

** Too ripe and going soft

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Passata Preparation

In Italy the humble tomato is king.

Almost every home has a plot of land where tomatoes are grown in rows. Even people with no land have pots on balconies where they have a few plants. In the summer it’s not unusual to stumble across great patches of land that host hundreds of plants, all standing proud with fat red fruits hanging from them.

101_0400 With the lighter nights now, the countryside is alive with people getting ready for summer. Tractors, strimmers and all manner of machines buzz, whirr and squeal; the tranquillity of nature is given over to chaos for a few weeks. So thoughts turn to seed sowing.

My tomato seedlings; started in an electric propagator have been doing well and are spending their days outside in the sunshine before being brought back inside in the evening.

This year I have around 125 young plants which will be divided between my orto and friends. I’ll keep around 30-35 plants for myself and although some of the plump red tomatoes will end up in salads over the summer, most will be turned into passata and stored for use throughout the year.

101_0401There’s lots of recipes out there for passata di pomodoro and if you have a passapomodoro machine or  spremipomodoro as they’re sometimes called it’s easy to make.

The Italian way is to make the rich red sauce: a staple of Italian cooking and store it in glass jars, and it’s not unusual for families to be eating sauce made several summer’s before.

I’m not good with trusting my ability to seal the jars sufficiently no matter how long I boil them for once packed, so I freeze my stash. Now, there’s nothing worse than the freezer being so full you can’t find what you want. So we come to the point of this blog post, which is to share with you a handy little tip for storing your passata and using freezer space effectively. (Works well for soups and other liquids).

DSCF7218I start to save empty tetra packs like the milk one pictured around about this time of year. It is best to only use the same carton, the reason will become evident as you read on.

Take a sharp knife or scissors and cut the carton into half .

Discard the top half and toss it into your recycling box.DSCF7219

 

With the bottom half, wash it, dry it and store it. Keep cutting and saving until you have around 10 of them at hand, ready to use in late summer when the passata making starts with the tomato glut.

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Once you’ve harvested and made your sauce, line the cartons with clear polythene freezer bags and fill with sauce and tie the tops. Remember to leave space for the liquid to expand a little as it freezes.

Once the liquid is frozen remove the blocks from the cartons and because you only used one type of carton they’re all the same size, meaning you can now stack them to save freezer space.

Wash and retain the cartons and reuse the cartons for your next batch. Once the tomato harvest as finished toss the cartons into the recycling until you repeat the process the following year.

Keeping the Donkey Warm.

The Brothers Johnson are playing Stomp, as I walk along the lane. It’s a warm and sunny afternoon, perfect for a leisurely stroll. The Italian countryside is filled with unloved and unwanted buildings. The reason for this is a culmination of unemployment and the antiquated, convoluted inheritance law. You can understand people moving to where the work is but as it’s unlawful to disinherit your children, so, even if you have a disobedient first son who brings shame to the family door, he’ll still have automatic entitlement. The shares of your estate go down in fractions depending on your living relatives, meaning one property could have as many as fifty-owners, with Luciano in New York owning a third of the attic room, while Maria in Torino owns the doorstep. This plethora of properties means that Italy is still a good place to buy a holiday bolthole, and falling prices mean the buyer is in a good position. The only problem is getting all the owners in one place, at the same time. I have met an English couple who told me there was fifty people crowded inside the notary’s office when they signed for their little house in the hills.

100_6157Nearby is a ruin, two small one storey houses side by side, I take the ear-buds to my iPod out, just as Ultravox begin to play, Visions In Blue, letting them play on without an audience. I step inside one of the houses. The stone walls are solid, at least half a metre thick and the oak beams look like they’ll still be doing their job in the next millennium. The doors and windows have gone, possibly removed for firewood, and a simple chair lies broken upon the floor like a wooden corpse. There is only two rooms, one has a manger, cage and a stall, obviously the animal housing. But what’s this in the corner, a wood burning oven. Surely if you have animals, you have straw and hay, so isn’t an oven in a stable a little risky? I like to think that the owner was so caring, that on cold winter nights he lit the oven to keep his donkey warm?

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I move back into the other room, its ceiling is testament to Italian ingenuity, but an health and safety horror. Bamboo that grows in abundance here and the rafters are canes that have been cut and laid side by side. Other canes and an assortment of branches and planks make up the cross beams. This all sits upon the oak beams and sitting on top of this ancient and dry bamboo is a roof made up of ochre and terracotta coloured tiles. It’s amazing to think many years on, all this weight is supported by something as slender as bamboo. On the floor is several crates of passata, homemade tomato sauce, abandoned like the bricks and mortar. I estimate that there must be at least one hundred and fifty, mostly brown beer bottles of the reddish brown liquid. They say storing passata in brown glass keeps it fresher.

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I pick up a bottle and break off the cap, the heady aroma of tomato fills the air, it still smells good, I can imagine women de-seeding and skinning as the sun shone, while the men drank beer and lit a large fire for the sterilising of the bottles and eventually sealing them. I pour a little out onto the stone floor, it looks good enough to eat, however I’m wouldn’t be game enough to try this batch. I replace the bottle, step over the skeletal chair and leave the house. Outside, replace my ear-buds; Kate Bush is singing, Mother Stands for Comfort, and I continue on with my stroll.