Tomato conserva

tomatoconserva

You are absolutely right. Tomato conserva looks exactly like tomato paste. Tastes like it to, but only the way one could say that homemade gazpacho tastes like V-8.

I’ve been wanting to make this for years. Ever since my friend Max made it, wrote about it, and let me taste some. Tomato conserva is tomato paste, but freshly made by your own hands and with super-delicious tomatoes. Plus, as my dad said this summer when I elicited his opinion (that is, fished for a compliment) of the homemade butter I’d made: “Well, it’s just like everything, isn’t it? The homemade kind is always better.”

Words to live by. At least words for me to live by.

So my dashing husband has been raving about these super sweet tomatoes our market has been selling recently, then the price dropped to $2.50/lb, then I found myself unable to concentrate on words and keyboards and screens yesterday morning and turned my attention to the 5-lb. pile of tomatoes on the counter.

I followed the same basic method Max used, which is the method Paul Bertolli outlines in his inspiring Cooking by Hand. Unlike Max, I would like to note, I didn’t fall asleep while baking down the paste. In the spirit of honesty, full-disclosure, and embarrassing moments in cooking that are at the heart of this blog as much as is good food, I should also note that I did go out on a quick errand while the conserva was baking and almost forgot all about it. I am extremely grateful I sensibly decided to get the produce I was buying home and put away before embarking on the jaunt across town to pick up a sewing machine part that had suddenly occurred to me as the perfect thing to do on a day when I couldn’t concentrate anyway while I was at the store. After that, I stayed put. The sewing will have to wait for the next time driving across town into the fog sounds like a good idea.

First you rinse and cut up the tomatoes – Bertolli wants you to dice them but since they get cooked and run through a food mill that seemed unnecessary to me so I just halved them instead and tossed them in a very large, heavy pot:

conservacutting

Then you add a bit of olive oil (I used about 1/4 cup) and salt (about a teaspoon) and bring the whole thing to a boil and simmer for about three minutes:

conservacooking

Then you run the whole mixture through a food mill:

conservamill

I wasn’t in the mood to dirty up more dishes than necessary, so I didn’t test and see if just pushing the half-cooked tomatoes through a sieve or colander would work just as well. My guess is it would work fine, just be messier and more work – what you’re doing is both turning the tomato flesh into a pureed pulp and getting out the skin and seeds:

conservamill2

Now – and this is all rather fun, I thought – you pour the tomato mixture onto a large, rimmed baking pan (if you only have smaller pans you may need to use two:

conservapan

Carefully put the sheet in a 300° oven. Bertolli recommends convection and I bet that would be great, but I don’t have one and it turned out fine. Bake, stirring the mixture every 30 or 40 minutes or whenever you think of it – make sure you really scrape up the edges and work them into the mixture as a whole each time – for about 3 1/2 hours (convection would take less time):

conservahalfcooked

Reduce heat to 250° and bake until “thick, shiny, and brick-colored.” I had a hard time imagining how that was going to happen when this whole thing started, but Bertolli is right, that’s exactly how it looked after another 3 hours in the oven:

conservacooked

See how shiny it got? The transformation sort of floored me. My dashing husband was working at home and I made him come down and see just how very shiny it was. Since he, too, had thought that description unlikely when I had read the recipe to him earlier (he really does humor me a great deal). He did a lovely job of feigning interest and delight.

I let it cool and then transferred it to three half-pint jars, leaving plenty of room at the top for a protective layer of olive oil. At that point I realized I could have cooked it down a bit more – then it would have made an amount that would have pretty much filled two half-pint jars perfectly. But I’m okay with the somewhat goofy amount in each jar. If I were a more patient person I would have gotten more of the air bubbles out of each jar, but I’m really just not very patient. Plus all the methods I know for doing that with jams and pickles didn’t work with this stuff – it is sticky and gooey and quite frankly not super-cooperative about being put in jars.

Olive oil went on top, lids were screwed on, and the jars popped into the fridge where they will wait, quietly, for us to gobble them up. A tablespoonful into a sauce here, a thin layer spread on crostini there… I’m thinking I better make another batch. Seems like this would be perfect for hot-water processing so it would be shelf-stable, doesn’t it? Bertolli is mum on the subject. Any canning experts out there have two cents to share?