KITCHEN ALCHEMY: SLOW-ROASTED TOMATOES
I wish you were here, because our apartment smells wonderful. It’s the tomatoes I’m roasting; after five hours in a low oven, they are well on their way to a mellow, deep-flavored sweetness. In another hour, their texture will be meaty, lush, and a little chewy around the caramelized edges. Magical.
Slow-roasting is more of a process than a technique. As far as I’m concerned, it also justifies the existence of plum (Roma) tomatoes. I don’t often use them for tomato sauce—I like the more-interesting balance of fruitiness and acidity you get from a mix of heirloom varieties—and I don’t much care for them raw. But when they are roasted, they have great integrity: They hold their shape well, shriveling rather than turning to mush. The slow evaporation of juices really intensifies their flavor, too. I like them better than sun-dried tomatoes, which can be tough and on the salty side.
This afternoon’s activity was dictated by my most recent market haul. In early October, the variety and sheer abundance of produce at Union Square is staggering. Fall’s heavy hitters like pumpkins and winter squashes mix it up with the last of summer’s glory, and, not for the first time, I reflect on the fact that here in the middle of New York City, home cooks are spoiled rotten.
Long story short, I bought pounds and pounds of tomatoes. Greedy, I know, but how could I not? Because of the shorter days (i.e., fewer hours of sunlight), the Sungold cherry tomatoes finally had enough acid to balance their candylike sweetness, and they are at their peak. Sam and I eat them by the handful, for dessert. Farmers are selling their green tomatoes—they’ll never ripen on the vine—and tomorrow night, I’ll fry them up for supper. It doesn’t matter what else is on the table. And the heirlooms are still going strong. We have enough for plenty of salads, and for cooking with the very last of the okra in ratatooey.
And the plum tomatoes, which I’ve ignored all season, spoke to me at last. I know that if I roast them for a good eight hours, their flavor will be concentrated enough to stand up to pasta. But I reckon I’ll pull these out of the oven at around six hours. At that point, their flesh will be silken—perfect for spreading on bruschetta—that is, thin slices of baguette, smeared with olive oil and toasted. That is how they appear in The Gourmet Cookbook, and in looking at the recipe, I was reminded of Zanne Stewart, the former executive food editor at the magazine. It was her recipe, I thought, so I dashed off an email.
“I think so,” she wrote back, “although I realized I haven’t made them for several years. But I did this August and I have two changes. I lined the pans with parchment paper, for one. Second, I puréed half the tomatoes through the food mill and froze that as a base for Marcella’s outstanding onion and butter sauce later this winter.”
“Why the parchment?” I asked.
“I didn’t want nekkid tomatoes on my beloved Doughmaker pans making stains,” Zanne replied. The pans I used for my tomatoes are beyond hope, so no worries there, but I pulled out a Doughmaker, with its pebbled surface (see below photo), to toast the baguette slices. And I love the idea of turning some of my roasted beauties into what is perhaps Marcella Hazan’s greatest gift to the culinary world (backtrack to that tomato sauce link, above, and scroll down). I’ll need lots more tomatoes.
From The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton-Mifflin, 2004)
4 pounds plum tomatoes (25 to 30)
6 garlic cloves, minced
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Position racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 200º. Meanwhile, halve the tomatoes lengthwise and put, cut sides, up, on two large rimmed baking sheets. Stir together the garlic and olive oil and spoon over tomatoes. Sprinkle tomatoes with about 1 teaspoon salt (total) and season with pepper.
2. Roast the tomatoes, switching position of baking sheets halfway through, for at 6 hours and up to 8 (longer roasting will intensify the flavor). Roasted tomatoes can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temperature before serving.