I’ve never before thought of myself as any sort of doomsday prophet, but lately it seems that I’ve been in an awful rush to admit defeat to autumn. Yes, Seattle is officially That Rainy City once again, and yes, that was me at the bus stop, wrestling the wind for my umbrella, swatting furiously at the hair that had escaped my ponytail and plastered itself into the corner of my mouth, and generally performing at my unglamorous best. Given the circumstances, moaning about fall is perfectly appropriate, but dear reader, I think I may have spoken too soon. Call me a hypocrite; say what you will; but there are still heirloom tomatoes in the market, and that means there’s time to slip in an Indian summer recipe or two. Me, I’m sneaking in under the wire with a bowl of pappa al pomodoro.
Half-soup and half-sauce, pappa al pomodoro is little more than ripe tomatoes, olive oil, and day-old bread. Think of this Tuscan staple as a warm, spoonable tomato-bread salad, or perhaps a savory, sexed-up porridge, if your imagination will stretch that far. It’s just the thing for a gusty, blustery night at the cusp of autumn, when the season’s last tomatoes are falling-off-the-vine ripe, bumpy, ugly, and delicious. You’ll simmer them quickly in their own juices with onion, garlic, and fresh basil, gentle buttresses for their full, robust flavor. When the tomatoes have melted into a loose sauce, you’ll toss in bite-size hunks of chewy country bread, and fifteen minutes later—time enough for, oh, half a glass of wine—you’ll have a silky, steamy, rustic stew. This is simple, scrape-the-bowl stuff: the elemental flavor of tomatoes—now-sweet and now-tart, bright and fragrant—slicked and enriched with plenty of good, fruity olive oil and bathing soft, swollen bread.
It’s been said of many things, but really, the best thing since sliced bread is a pillowy lump from a bowl of pappa al pomodoro. The days of down parkas may soon be upon us, but I’d wrestle the wind every night to get home for a spoonful of this.
Pappa al Pomodoro
Adapted slightly from The Zuni Café Cookbook
This homey, homely stuff makes a delicious main dish, served with nothing more than a pristine green salad or a few green beans tossed with lemon and olive oil. If you prefer to play it as a side dish, know that I found it a perfect accompaniment to a wedge of frittata flavored with sweet, softened leeks and Pecorino Romano, and it would also be lovely with meats, from roasted chicken to lamb, sausages, or rosy slices of grilled steak. Be sure to have a good glass of red nearby as well. And for those like me who enjoy toting swank little sack lunches to work, you’ll be pleased to note that the leftovers—with a quick reheating in the microwave—make for very happy midday munching.
About 2 pounds very ripe, flavorful tomatoes
About ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
A leafy branch of fresh basil
A pinch or two of sugar
About ¼ pound day-old, chewy, country-style bread, with most of the crust removed
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Score a large “X” on the underside of half of the tomatoes, just breaking the skin. Gently ease them, one at a time, into the boiling water. Within 15 or so seconds, the skin should begin to curl back in sheets from the center of the “X.” When this occurs, remove the tomatoes from the water with a slotted spoon, and place them on a cutting board. Peel them; the skin should slip away easily. Trim them, as well as the unpeeled tomatoes, of any blemishes or under-ripe areas; core them; and coarsely chop them into ¼-inch bits, taking care not to lose any juice. Scoop the tomatoes and their juices into a bowl, and set it aside.
Pour about ¼ cup of the olive oil into a large saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat. When the oil is warm, add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook gently over low heat for 10 or so minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent. Stir in the garlic. Cook for a few minutes more, and then add the tomatoes and their juices, along with another glug of oil. Raise the heat, and bring the mixture to a simmer.
Pick the leaves from the sprig of basil, set them aside, and add the stem to the tomato mixture. Cook the mixture only long enough for the tomato to melt and break down a bit, about 5-10 minutes, stopping the cooking when the tomato mixture takes on the characteristic red-orange color of cooked tomatoes. Taste for salt and sugar; you’ll probably need to add quite a bit of the former and might want a pinch or two of the latter, to counter acidity.
Remove and discard the basil stem. Using kitchen shears, snip the basil leaves into rough slivers, and add them to the pot. Tear the bread into the size of large croutons, and add them as well, stirring to wet and submerge the chunks. Cover the pan, remove it from the heat, and let it sit for 15 or so minutes in a warm place, so that the bread can soften and absorb the liquid.
When you’re ready to serve the pappa, stir it roughly to break up the bread, and taste it again for salt and sweetness. Adjust as necessary, stirring in another glug of olive oil to enrich the finished dish. Serve warm, with freshly ground black pepper.
Yield: About 5 cups