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Salse Di Pomodoro: Making the Great Tomato Sauces of Italy
By Julia Della Croce 




How Italians Warmed Up to Tomatoes

Salsa Cruda Di Pomodoro Alla Flavia
Tomato, Peach and Red Onion Salsa

Pasta dressed with pig fat doesn’t sound very appetizing. But to 15th Century Italians, eating pasta with tomatoes must have sounded even worse. So Italians of that time continued to eat their staple food with the traditional greasy dressing even though tomatoes had recently become available -- carried back by the first European explorers of the New World. For several centuries after their discovery, Europeans considered tomatoes to be poisonous. It wasn’t until the 18th Century that tomatoes caught on, but when they did, they caught on in a big way.

Before long tomatoes were entrenched in Italian cuisine, writes Julia Della Croce, in Salse di Pomodoro, a book in which she recounts the slow-to-develop Italian love affair with tomatoes. In one of the first Italian cookbooks, published in 1765, a tomato-based dressing for pasta was hailed by the author as a "universal sauce" -- a characterization that by now is quite true.

A book about Italian tomato sauces is especially useful at a time of year when the last of the summer tomatoes overrun farmers markets. But if you’re expecting a book all about sweating over a hot stove for hours on end, guess again. The dish that takes the longest to prepare, a recipe for baked tomato sauce, spends most of the time in the oven. The book has an entire chapter on uncooked tomato sauces, which consist simply of chopped tomatoes -- the freshest and ripest available -- and an ingredient such as arugula or avocados tossed together with olive oil.

The following is said to be one of the most popular tomato recipes. It is enshrined on the box of one of Italy’s best-selling pastas. When putting the recipe together, she advises, "It is essential that the pasta be dripping wet when tossed with the sauce to enable the avocado to merge with some of the pasta cooking water, thus ‘saucing’ the strands."

Salsa Cruda di Pomodoro
Alla Flavia

1-1/2 pounds fresh, sweet, mature, vine-ripened tomatoes
4 large fresh basil leaves, torn into very small pieces or chopped
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped or passed through a garlic press
5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
generous 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
freshly milled black or white pepper to taste
1 large, ripe (but not spotted) Hass avocado

1. Cut out the tough area around the core of each tomato and cut the tomatoes into quarters lengthwise. Using your fingers, push out excess seeds. Cut the tomatoes into rough dice. Place the tomatoes in the bowl in which you will serve the pasta.

2. Add the basil, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

3. Peel and halve the avocado, thinly slicing each half crosswise, then cut the slices further into small strips or dice. Add the avocado to the bowl with the other ingredients. Toss to mix and allow to stand at room temperature while the pasta cooks.

4. Stir in hot, dripping wet pasta.

At the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City last summer, eight chefs accepted a challenge: spend $20 and 40 minutes shopping for tomatoes and any accompaniments that the budget allows, and spend the next 40 minutes whipping the ingredients into an uncooked tomato-based dish for six.

The chefs were told that they could bring knives and any odd condiment or spice not sold at the Greenmarket. But no kitchen, no back-up staff, and no electrical equipment would be allowed. The market provided a work surface, salt and olive oil.

Eight chefs took up the challenge, fanning out among the 54 stands at the market, 20 of which were selling farm-grown tomatoes, 10 of them carrying heirloom varieties.

Along with tomatoes, the chefs picked up such things as goat cheese, opal basil, purslane (the garden variety and a large-leaved golden purslane), mint, fennel, lemon thyme and sunflower sprouts to work into their dishes.

This is the dish concocted by Nicole Routhier, a consulting chef.

Tomato, Peach and
Red Onion Salsa

4 ripe plum tomatoes or two red beefsteak tomatoes (about 1 pound total), in 1/4-inch dice
2 or 3 ripe, unpeeled peaches, in 1/4-inch dice (to make 1 cup)
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
2 tbsp finely shredded basil or mixed spearmint and cilantro or sour grass (called Vietnamese cilantro at the Union Square Greenmarket)
1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1-1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 long baguette
2 cups sunflower sprouts
Coarse kosher salt to taste

1. In a large bowl, gently toss together the diced tomatoes, peaches, red onion, minced herbs, jalapeno, vinegar and 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Add fine sea salt and pepper to taste. Let stand at room temperature while preparing the bread.

2. Mix the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil with the garlic in a small bowl.

3. Cut the bread into 16 to 24 1/2-inch slices. Brush one side of each slice with the garlic oil. (If a heat source is available, grill or toast the slices until golden brown on both sides.) Place the bread slices on a serving platter. Top each slice with sunflower sprouts, then with a generous spoonful of the salsa. Sprinkle each with a pinch of kosher salt. Serve immediately as an appetizer.

Copyright 2005 Seasonal Chef