While in most areas summer is tomato season, in tropical North Queensland tomato season is in our mild winter. Really there are only two seasons in the tropics – the cool and dry or the hot and wet. Traditional vegetables don’t cope well with the extreme heat and the monsoonal rains of our summer. This is a time best reserved for tropical vegetables like snake beans, winged beans, Ceylon spinach, sweet corn and you might even get some eggplants. During the Wet insects and bugs abound whereas during the Dry bugs are much more controllable. So, here we are getting close to the end of our tomato season and our ripe, red tomatoes are lush and abundant. We have enjoyed many tomato salads and tomato bruschetta – tomato this and tomato that. Now we want to preserve what is left.
Growing up, tomato day was an important day where my mum and dad rounded my sister and I up to help with the important bottling of a years worth of tomato passata. Once we moved on with our own families my sister and I rejected tomato day “grateful” to buy pre-prepared passata from the supermarket. As time has gone by we have returned to our roots of preserving and are truly grateful for the traditions passed on to us by our parents. My sister at this time is busily processing her tomatoes into passata. I, on the other hand with a much smaller garden, have chosen to process my tomatoes further to create a conserva di pomodori or tomato paste which requires less storage room and is perfect for smaller quantities of tomatoes.
As well as the luscious Marmande variety, I also grow the Roma tomato so it is with these two varieties that I made my paste. Homemade tomato paste has a deep, mellow, caramelized flavour quite unlike the acidity of store bought tomato paste. It makes the world of difference when added to your favourite dishes.
Following an idea from one of my favourite cookbooks, My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino I began by coring and quartering the tomatoes and placing in a large saucepan. On this occasion I had about 5 kilograms of tomatoes.
Boil the tomatoes for about 30 minutes or until the are soft and starting to break down.
To make life easy for the tomato passata/pasta preserver, a spremipomodoro, literally translated “a tomato squeezer”, is essential. This inexpensive item is indispensable as it separates the skin and seeds of the tomato from the juicy flesh resulting in a smooth puree.
It works quite simply – cooked tomato in the top, to one side comes the seeds and skin, to the other the tomato puree.
I like to pass the skin and seeds through several times to obtain all of the precious puree.
Tomato puree minus seeds and skin – fantastic isn’t it! This is the same type of machine my parents, and I’m sure many Italian families, own.
For the purpose of making tomato paste or conserva di pomodori, the resulting puree must be concentrated further. Turn the puree into a large pan – I used two pans to allow the steam to evaporate more easily. Add some salt about 35 grams for this quantity of tomatoes. Simmer the puree over medium heat for about 50 to 60 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent it from scorching. This will reduce the quantity. As it thickens you may need to turn the heat down as it will bubble and spit. Stir often near the end. Towards the end preheat the oven to 93C (200F) and turn on the convection fan.
With a tablespoon of olive oil, lightly oil shallow lipped baking trays enough to take your puree. I needed three. The thinner the puree the sooner the moisture will evaporate and the puree will thicken. Spread the puree evenly and place the tray into the preheated oven for 30 minutes. After this time, remove the baking sheet from the oven and stir the puree with a rubber spatula so that is dries evenly and doesn’t form a crust. Re-spread the puree and return to the oven stirring and re-spreading the puree every 20 to 30 minutes. Due to evaporation the puree will no longer cover the entire trays. With a paper towel, remove any bits of tomato that cling to the edges or exposed bottom of the tray, or they will burn.
After about 3 hours the puree will have thicken to a delicious paste. It will no longer be sauce-like but instead thick, stiff and a little sticky.
Let the conserva cool, then pack tightly into clean, sterilized jars with a spoon, tamping it down to make sure there are no air pockets. Level the surface with the back of the spoon. Cover completely with olive oil so that the paste is not exposed and refrigerate. After every use, level the surface of the paste and top with more oil so the paste remain completely submerged. It will keep for at least a year.
I thank my parents for their traditions and beliefs instilled in me so that I may pass them on to the next generation. Even though we may wander, may we always return to our roots.