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On Tomatoes

An excerpt from Marcella Hazan's new book ‘Ingredienti’

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Marcella Hazan did more to further the understanding of regional Italian cookery for American cooks than any other writer of her generation. Mario Batali once said of his formative years as a cook, “I didn’t pay attention to Julia Child like everyone else said they did. I paid attention to Marcella Hazan.” Though she died in 2013, her books remain references for chefs and home cooks alike. Her latest, Ingredienti: Marcella's Guide to the Market was published posthumously with her husband Victor's help. Out now, it's a collection of notes, rules, and recipes from Hazan's personal notebooks. Excerpted below is the section on tomatoes, which, though authoritative, reads like poetry and contains three recipes, a dozen rules, and notes on 10 different types of tomatoes.


TOMATOES

I Pomodori

Which is it to be, sauce tomatoes or salad tomatoes? Their
paths may even converge, but let's think about sauce tomatoes
first. Tomato sauce is not all there is to Italian cooking,
yet, in its infinite variety, in its animated application to seafood
dishes, to the cooking of vegetables, to meat braises,
and finally to pasta, the transformation of tomatoes into
sauce may be the Italian art of cooking's happiest achievement.

Now the question is which tomato? Poor tomatoes do not
make good sauce. Examples abound in pizzerias, restaurants,
and home kitchens. When they are ripe and firm-fleshed, I
like to use fresh tomatoes, which produce a sauce with fruity
exuberance. The plum tomato, of which Roma is the universally
available variety, is my first choice. It has few seeds, its
cylindrical form is solidly packed with flavorful meaty flesh,
and it is a sturdy tomato, which makes it easier to handle
and ship, hence it is picked at a riper stage than the other
tomatoes in the market. With good plum tomatoes you can
make one of the cardinal Italian sauces, the pure Neapolitan
filetto di pomodoro, tomato fillet. Peel raw, ripe tomatoes with
a swiveling blade peeler, cut the tomatoes lengthwise, cut off
the ends, scoop out the seeds, and cut them into long strips,
the fillets. Cook these fillets in olive oil, turning them without
mashing them too much, letting them become sauce
while maintaining some of their original fleshy consistency.

Another fresh variety suitable for sauce is the small,
round, globe tomato usually sold in clusters attached to a
length of its vine. It may be labeled "vine-ripened," a misleading
description because it acquires its intense ripe-red
color after it has been picked. To make a good sauce, it must
be cooked longer than a ripe Roma. A similar, smaller variety
called Campari, which is sweet and juicy, also makes
good sauce, but the peeling of it takes patience. To peel these
and other fresh tomatoes for any sauce except the Neapolitan
filetto described above, I plunge them in boiling water
for less than a minute. A longer hot bath is not necessary
and would undermine their consistency, making them too
watery.

To make a sauce with great depth of flavor, the genuine
canned, peeled Italian San Marzano tomatoes are matchless.
Genuine is a necessary word, because there are many imitations,
packed both in this country and in Italy, all of them
inferior. Authentic San Marzanos are grown only in the valley
of the Sarno River near Salerno. They are described on
the label as Pomodoro S. Marzano dell'Agro Sarnese-Nocerino
and bear the designation DOP, which certifies their legally
protected origin.

The San Marzano, like the Roma, is a plum tomato,
tapered at the stem end, with a slimmer, longer body than
the Roma. It has few seeds, and the taste of its dense flesh
is the fruitiest, most intense of any plum tomato. The cans
come in two sizes, and if you are not always cooking for a
crowd, it would be convenient to stock both sizes and use
the smaller one when you don't need to make too much
sauce. If you have San Marzanos left over in the can, transfer
them to a glass jar, float a very small amount of olive oil on
top, screw a cap on tightly, and refrigerate. They should keep
well for a week or more.

In other areas near Naples they cultivate and pack small,
round, unpeeled tomatoes, pomodorini. These are excellent
for a lighter sauce, but they must be strained to remove their
tough skins.

Beefsteak is the classic salad tomato, a true fruit of summer,
juicy and richly tomatoey in its season, mealy and
flavorless out of it. I like using it alone in garlic-scented seasoning.
Peel and mash a clove or two of garlic, sprinkle it
lightly with sea salt, and let it soak in red wine vinegar for at
least thirty minutes. Peel and cut the tomato, sprinkle very
little salt on it, and pour the scented vinegar over it, holding
back the garlic. Drizzle olive oil over the tomato, turning it
two or three times.

An excellent variety of beefsteak that I have sometimes
come across is the Brandywine, exceptionally full-flavored.
The list of beefsteak varieties is endless. Because of its climate,
Florida produces a type of beefsteak under the registered
name Ugly Ripe that is available most of the year.
It is the tastiest tomato in our supermarket, but its deeply
ridged shape is uneven, which apparently makes it look ugly
to some. Costoluto is a tomato variety of Italian origin, also
uneven in shape and heavily ridged. In Italy costoluto is
known as a Florentine tomato; in America it has become
Genoese. It is delicious and very good for making sauce as
well as using in a salad.

The prevalent tomato shape in the stores and in the markets
is the smooth-skinned, evenly round globe. It rarely has
much flavor. I'd rather use Romas than globes for a salad.
The miniature tomatoes in cherry, grape, or pear shapes
have had sweetness bred into them and are consequently
very agreeable in a salad. I slice them in half so that they can
better pick up salt.

Tomatoes of many colors—pink, yellow, green, brown—
are sold as heirlooms, although the beefsteaks are also heirlooms.
Sometimes they are very, very good, but their shelf
life is short, and if they don't sell quickly, they become too
soft for my taste. In a salad tomato I look not only for ripeness,
but also for firmness. Mushy I don't like.

All tomatoes going into a salad, except for the miniatures,
should be peeled raw, using a swiveling blade vegetable
peeler. The skin is bitter, its texture holds no pleasure, and if
taste is a criterion, it should be eliminated. I also believe that
a tomato cut into irregular wedges soaks up seasoning better
than when it is cut into thin, even, round slices.

The tomatoes you buy should have no cracks, no soft
spots, no dark splotches. They should have a decidedly earthy,
almost farmyard scent, which you can pick up from the end
opposite the stem. Be watchful at checkout when they are
bagging your carefully chosen tomatoes. Don't let them
pack them together with any hard, heavy, or sharp-edged
objects. It is best to ask that the tomatoes go separately into
a bag of their own. Do not store tomatoes in the refrigerator.
Store them at room temperature in a dark corner, their stem
ends up. Feel them gently from time to time to make sure
they are not becoming too soft. If they are cut or cracked,
refrigerate them for at most a couple of days in a resealable
plastic bag. If you are putting them in a salad, bring them to
room temperature first.

Excerpted from Ingredienti: Marcella's Guide to the Market by Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan. Copyright © 2016 by Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Karin Krestchmann Lubart. Published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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