September 12, 2o17
I think the first place I ever tasted a slow-roasted tomato was in Canton, Massachusetts when I was about nineteen. I was working at a good Mediterranean restaurant that more than once made my head swivel in amazement at how delicious something could be when cooked properly. (Mom! They bake their own focaccia!) The slow-roasted tomato was simple as could be. Take a few everyday ‘roma’ tomatoes, cut them in half, toss them around with some olive oil and sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper and leave them in the oven overnight at least, on a really low temperature.
They come out almost tasting like candy and I couldn’t believe how delicious they were. Sun-dried tomatoes were all the rage because they just photographed so beautifully sitting out there on the patio and giving Americans who thought they could just use a little more Italy in their lives the sense that putting a jar of tomatoes on your back porch was just one of the very most romantic things a person could do. Well baking sheets and ovens turned to two hundred degrees are not by comparison so glamorous but as it turns out they make an exceedingly delicious tomato in their own right. I couldn’t believe how lucky I felt to have the recipe down pat. I owned it. I knew exactly how long and at what temperature to roast those buggers and they weren’t expensive and I could do all kinds of things with them. One of my favorite ways to use them when I was in my dating years in my twenties, when I was not shy about going a little over the top with my flavors and textures, was in a fettuccine I used to call sexual pasta. Get this: good fettuccine noodles, slow-roasted tomatoes, chevre, plenty of dill and parsley, and smoked salmon. I think I stopped making that dish when I fully realized that adding the smoked salmon to hot pasta rather decisively transmogrified the fish in a way that muted its impact in the dish, but not before I served it with an open bottle of white wine more than once. Then the tomatoes showed up in one of the best dishes I tasted as a young man—one that has stayed with me to this day and which we serve intermittently at Heirloom. That dish was like a validation in my mind of the slow-roasted tomato. It was the final bit of evidence I needed before it was clear to me that they could be an essential component in a legendary dish. Jamie Mammano was the chef at a restaurant in Boston called Mistral and he may still be. The dish he authored that I ate at Mistral during a rare expensive dinner revolved around east coast mussels that were steamed in herbs and white wine and then taken out of their shells, and added to hot sherry broth with finely chopped shallots, slow-roasted tomatoes, black pepper and a generous quantity of butter. He served those mussels with good bread and so do I. I still remember sitting at that table at Mistral and eating those mussels and tomatoes when I was twenty-five and I remember with whom I was sitting. I did start trying to make that dish on my own. The tomatoes were no mystery to me. I had one ingredient at least nailed down.
Over the years at Heirloom I have become increasingly interested in preserving foods. By now we have preserved a few things in jars and even made some available for sale at the restaurant. This past year we canned roasted morel mushrooms, and pickled ramps in the spring. But tomatoes have always been my favorite and we’ve been through a few different iterations now. I think the first season was two summers ago, and I believe I just canned a few dozen pints of slow-roasted roma tomatoes, just like the ones I started making twenty years ago. This time around I submerged them in a very exquisite olive oil, made by a family named Armato from Liguria. (https://store.madrose.com/aldo-armato/) The oil makes a big difference. Then last year I had very good luck roasting tiny sungold tomatoes, which are the little round orange cherry tomatoes that some farmers grow and are about as delicious as anything on god’s green earth. We used those olive oil slow-roasted sungolds on some fish at the restaurant towards the end of winter, and I will tell you that those bright shining orange little sacks of tomato candy lit up the entire dining room while it was cold and raining outside. This year I had to decide again which tomato route I wanted to take. Did I want to head out again on the tried and true roma freeway, with its dependable, mid-sized tomato halves that could be chopped for mussels or served on bruschetta or tossed with pasta? Or did I want another ride down Sungold Street, and the promise of more of that heavenly compote for fish in six months? How many ways are there to preserve and can tomatoes, anyway? What would stop me from receiving some cases of early girl tomatoes and just maybe skinning them and canning them like that, without cooking them? Add some oil and you’ll have something like fresh tomatoes in February. Ah, one of our regular guests at the restaurant confessed to me one night—she had heard that cooking tomatoes actually enhances their nutritional value. I told her that I think, I can feel it deep down, that eating tomatoes is good for men when it comes to maintaining the health of their prostate gland. Why do I think that? I’m not sure. Lycopene is definitely in tomatoes, and it is also definitely in pills that naturopaths think men should take for ‘men’s health’ issues. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but I always feel good physically during tomato season, which has become more and more of a thing in my life to the extent that it’s not uncommon now for me to eat three or four whole, modestly-sized early girl tomatoes with some luscious soft-scrambled eggs in the morning.
But now I’m going to roast these early girl tomatoes because Alice told me that they might be better for men at least when they’re cooked and they taste so good anyway that of course, why wouldn’t I roast them? I thought for a minute about making and canning sauce and about my old friend Dan’s grandmother Renata. Dan was my best friend when I was thirteen, and every Sunday after church he and his parents and his two brothers went to his grandparents’ house just down the street from where I lived. A few times I was invited to ‘lunch’ with them and once or twice I was in the cellar where Renata had enough jars of tomato sauce to last her own lifetime and one or two more. Sauce could be good, I thought, but not as distinctive and as magical as slow-roasted early girls, cut north-south so that you could see the whole cross-section of the tomato and seasoned with salt and pepper and submerged in Armato olive oil.
A few days ago I was in the car thinking about how I would want to eat those tomatoes if I were to eat them once and only once, and the thought did occur to me that they would be so perfect in giant ravioli—one half roasted tomato per raviolo, sealed inside with a nice-sized spoonful of fresh ricotta. On the phone after I had hatched the idea I told my mother that I thought they’d be really terrific in some olive oil and shaved parmesan. She said you know another way those tomatoes would be really delicious? How, I asked. With just some really good pesto spooned over them.
Yes, I said. They would be really delicious with some great pesto.