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No tomato shortage here: tomato conserva revisited

August 14, 2009 | 11:00 pm

Conserva I feel for Northeasterners who are suffering a tomato shortage and are having to resort to B.L.P.s (that would be bacon, lettuce and plum sandwiches). But I'm also grateful that we aren't enduring the same here in California. And so this year, I won't forget to make tomato conserva.

In an article from a few years back, Max Withers was inspired to preserve the essence of tomatoes by the late Patience Gray's "Honey From a Weed," in which she described Puglian salsa secca, the strained puree of tomatoes, left out to concentrate in the Mediterranean sun.

Armed with a Paul Bertolli recipe (see the jump), he turned 20 pounds of tomatoes into 4 to 5 pints of tomato conserva. (You can make the stuff with as little as 5 pounds of tomatoes.) The pureed tomatoes cook for several hours in the oven. During that time, you need to stir the tomatoes periodically, but like Withers says, "If you need a nap, just shut off the oven until you get up. After all, the plates of salsa secca that adorn Puglian rooftops have to rest when the sun goes down."

-- Betty Hallock

Paul Bertolli's conserva

Total time: 20 minutes, plus 7 hours cooking time

Yield: 1 1/4 cup

Note: Adapted from "Cooking by Hand" by Paul Bertolli. Each additional 5 pounds of tomatoes will require another baking sheet (half-sheet pan). You will need clean glass canning jars.

5 pounds ripe, good-quality tomatoes

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for storage

1 teaspoon salt

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Cut the ripe tomatoes into small dice; this promotes the most rapid cooking. Warm the olive oil in the largest skillet or casserole you own, add the tomatoes and salt and bring to a rapid boil. Cook for about 2 minutes, or until tomatoes are very soft. Immediately pass them through the finest plate of a food mill, pushing as much of the pulp through the sieve as you can. The puree should be devoid of seeds.

2. Lightly oil a baking sheet with olive oil. Spread the tomatoes on the pan in an even layer. Cook for about 5 hours, to evaporate the water from the paste. The tomato mixture will significantly reduce. Use a spatula to turn the paste over on itself periodically as water evaporates and you notice the surface darken. When most of the liquid is evaporated and the paste is quite thick, reduce the heat to 250 degrees and continue to evaporate the paste for about 2 more hours, or until it is thick, shiny and brick-colored.

3. Transfer the conserva to two clean half-pint glass canning jars. Tomato conserva holds for a long time stored in glass jars and topped with one-half inch of olive oil. As you use it, maintain this level of olive oil on top. Store the conserva in the refrigerator.

Each serving of 1 tablespoon: 38 calories; 1 gram protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 2 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 122 mg. sodium.

Photo credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times