After years of meticulous observation and scrupulous and close examination, not to mention the hard but necessary tasting of all her recipes, I can finally share some of my grandma’s secrets in the kitchen. I am pretty sure this is just the beginning, as every day I learn something new just by talking with her and listening to her stories and memories. Our time together is so precious!
Clean as you go
This might seem like a not relevant tip for cooking, but it makes an enormous difference. Being in a kitchen with grandma is like cooking with the fairy godmother, she cleans everything, efficient and quick, as she is waving a magic wand. Use a pot, soap it, rinse it and let it dry. Use a knife, do the same.
This helps you control what is going on in the kitchen and on the stove, a mental order which will reflect in better results in cooking. I still have a lot to learn regarding this aspect, but I am improving day after day, especially during cooking classes.
Use a wooden spoon
Not any wooden spoon, there will be one for every different preparation, as wood tends to soak up flavours and colours. Grandma keeps her wooden spoons in a jar on her kitchen top: one for tomatoey dishes, one for delicate custards and jams, one for meat stews and bean soups, one for risotto. Add a few wooden spatulas for good measure.
Is it really making a difference? I just don’t want to mess with food traditions and family dogmas, but wood has a warmth that any other silicon spatula or whisk certainly miss.
Have you noticed that small burner on the bottom right of your stove? Yes, that one. Well, that burner is not just for coffee, it’s the most important one. Use it for meat stews, stewed beans, ragout, bean soups, Italian pastry custard and soffritto. You’ll prevent your food from burning and, stirring with a wooden spoon, you will enhance every flavour.
Add a dollop of tomato paste
This is the last secret I discovered and, perhaps, the one which had a most significant effect on my way of cooking. I had tried to be clean while cooking. I had remembered most of the times to use a wooden spoon and to cook my recipes on low flame, when required. But there was often something missing in my pappa al pomodoro, in my stewed beans… They missed depth of flavour.
Concentrato di pomodoro – Tomato paste
When I asked my grandma to tell me more about her stews and soups, I noticed that she often mentioned an unsuspected ingredient, a tablespoon of tomato paste. Now, you should know that since I was born I’ve seen grandma and mum saving a few days in late august to preserve tomatoes: they would prepare jars of tomato purée, tomato sauce and peeled tomatoes for the winter. We would use them in our Sunday pizza, for a hearty meat sauce or in weekday pasta al pomodoro.
I gave for granted that tomato sauce was a family tradition since time immemorial, depicting my great-grand mother bottling the ruby red tomato sauce for the winter. I thought that the tomato paste was just a modern invention, a surrogate of the sauce. This was just my imagination, though.
Grandma Marcella told me with a matter of fact tone that no, in the past they would make tomato paste to preserve tomatoes for the winter, the simple passata came later, after the war, when they learnt how to make it safe.
They used to plant endless rows of tomatoes, both for the everyday use in salads, panzanella or pappa al pomodoro, and for the tomato paste. While the tomatoes for the every day use were watered normally, they would reduce to the minimum the water for the other plants, as to have tomatoes which were a concentrate of flavour, with less water.
In this long Tuscan summer, I brought home from a local organic farm ten kilos of tomatoes to make a batch of tomato paste for the first time. I followed exactly the same procedure my grandma would use in the past, except for the thickening of the sauce.
They would add a fair amount of salt to the tomato purée and spread it onto large tables, then they would leave it to dry in the sun. They would eventually scoop the paste into jars for the winter. I dried the paste in the oven at low temperatures: less charming, more efficient!
- 5 kg of ripe plum tomatoes
- 35 g of salt
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Wash the tomatoes, halve them and remove the seeds, then throw the tomatoes in a large pot.
- Bring the tomatoes to the boil and after 30 minutes scoop all the tomatoes into a large cotton cloth or pillowcase.
- Hang the bag so that it can drain all the water, squeezing it often with your hands.
- After about 2 to 3 hours, when the tomatoes have lost all the water, pass them through a vegetable mill using the finest sieve.
- Collect the tomato purée in a pot, add the salt and cook on low flame, covered, for about 30 minutes, to thicken the sauce.
- Brush with olive oil a 37x27 baking sheet. Using a spatula, spread the thick tomato purée in an even layer to cover the entire baking sheet.
- Preheat the oven to 100°C (212°F). Use the convection fan if you have one.
- Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for about 7 hours, or more. It will depend on the thickness of your tomato purée. Every 30 minutes stir the purée with the spatula to dry it evenly and prevent it from forming a crust.
- Let the tomato paste cool to room temperature, then spoon it into clean jars. Level the surface with the back of the spoon.
- Put the jars in a large pot and cover with water: bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes and then remove from the heat. Let the jars cool completely in the pot, then remove them from water. You can store them for even an year in a dry, cool and dark place.
- When you open the jar of tomato paste, use a spoonful of paste then cover it with olive oil. Keep it in the fridge once opened.
How to use the tomato paste
I now use tomato paste in almost every dish that calls for a tomato sauce, on its own or with a simple tomato purée. It adds colour, intensity, depth of flavour and an unrivalled mediterranean summer note.
Stewed beans are richer, pappa al pomodoro more intense, my soups have a new secret ingredient. A tablespoon of tomato paste makes a difference. When home made, it is also fabulous if spread onto a slice of bread and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.