Apples of Love

If the Spanish conquistadors had known what they were onto when they brought tomatoes to the old world in the sixteenth century, they wouldn't have spent the rest of their careers searching for gold, because they had already found it. If any of them had any prescience at all, they would have simply opened a canning facility somewhere in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius, and begun mining the gold that became known as pomodòri 'golden apples'.

By the time southern Italians began manufacturing pasta asciuta 'semolina pasta' in the late eighteenth century, inovative chefs had already invented dozens of preparations for tomatoes (also referred to pómi d'amore 'apples of love'). So when tomato sauce was introduced to pasta, it was indeed love at first sight. Pasta alla marinara was love at first sight for me, anyway.

But due to restrictions imposed by Mother Nature, we here in America can enjoy fresh, vine-ripened plum tomatoes for only about three months of the year. The rest of the time, we depend on the canned variety.

Of those tomatoes that find their way into cans, foodies and gourmets acknowledge those that come from the region of San Marzano to be the finest. There's a lot of talk about the volcanic soil of Calabria; the intensity of the sun in the region; even the name God works its way into the conversation from time to time. Nevertheless, the Italian government has taken the region seriously enough to give the local growers a D.O.C. (Denominazione d'Originata Controllata, or Government Certification).

But there's a knock-off artist lurking around every Cypress tree, and it wasn't too long before canned tomatoes labeled tipo di San Marzano, 'San Marzano-style' began appearing at Italian delis. The latest craze in the tomato game, is taking the seeds from San Marzano tomatoes, and growing them elsewhere in the world. I'm aware of a California grower who's doing well by marketing his tomatoes as having been grown from "San Marzano tomato seeds."

It is encouraging, though, that for the past several years, American growers have begun competing favorably against their Calabrian bretheren. Muir Glen, in Petaluma, CA., for example, grows wonderful organic tomatoes that are readily available at your local grocery super-store.

But there's a problem that crops up with canned tomatoes, especially if they come in unlined cans: they taste "canned." Tomatoes, being acid as they are, often interact with the metal, and absorb some of the metallic taste.

My Sicilian grandmother (and I'm sure her peers as well) solved this problem by adding grated carrot to her marinara sauce. I've seen some validation of this technique in recipes from Mario Batali, and recently, from Pino Luongo in his cookbook, "Simply Tuscan." In fact, Mr. Luongo goes so far as to include a stalk of celery too.

Here in Connecticut, we're probably two and a half months away from picking the first plum tomato. But wouldn't it be great to go to a farmer's market, and see that someone there is selling plum tomatoes grown from San Marzano seeds.

And here is the most requested recipe from the archives of my first Web site, www.northend.com; my grandmother's tomato sauce. (reprinted from my first cookbook, La Cucina dei Poveri). Buon appetito.

Salsa di Pomodoro
My Grandmother's Tomato Sauce

Ingredients:

Olive Oil
4 Cloves garlic, peeled, and thinly sliced
2 28 oz. Cans peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1 Small carrot, finely shredded
1/2 tsp. Red pepper flakes
2 Tbs. Fresh oregano, finely chopped
2 Tbs. Fresh basil, finely chopped
1/4 Cup Flat leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat, then add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic, and sauté, shaking the pan for about one minute, until the garlic begins to give up its aroma.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the tomatoes. Return the pan to the heat and begin to break the tomatoes with either the back of a fork, or a wooden spoon. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer the tomatoes to evaporate some of the liquid, then add the carrot, the red pepper flakes and the oregano.

Simmer gently for about twenty minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the clear liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated. Add the parsley and season with salt and pepper.

Makes approximately 1 1/2 Quarts

Skip Lombardi is the author of two cookbooks: "La Cucina dei Poveri: Recipes from my Sicilian Grandparents," and "Almost Italian: Recipes from America's Little Italys." He has been a Broadway musician, high-school math teacher, software engineer, and a fledgeling blogger. But he has never let any of those pursuits interfere with his passion for cooking and eating. Visit his Web site to learn more about his cookbooks. http://www.skiplombardi.com or mailto:[email protected]

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