In Calabria, even today, conserva is dried under the hot Mediterranean sun. Spread on a big wooden slab and brought inside at night, tomato purée dries to a thick paste in three to four days. When my grandmother was young, she and her neighbors around Verbicaro never put up whole tomatoes or tomato purée. Instead, making conserva was the way they preserved their tomato harvest for the winter. Most Calabrians keep their conserva in crocks in the pantry, sealed with olive oil.
In my grandmother’s day, people used conserva for their winter tomato sauce. They would sauté some garlic, then add a few tablespoons of conserva and some water and simmer until the conserva dissolved. Today, most cooks use conserva to add depth to sauces made with canned tomatoes or to ragù.
Like many time-consuming kitchen arts, making conserva is not as common as it used to be. When my mother was young, every rural housewife made time for it. Although you can still see the big trays with their brick-red topping in rural Calabria, and sometimes on suburban balconies, many people have given up making it. When you do find it for sale, it is priced like gold.
Homemade conserva has a deep, mellow, caramelized flavor wholly unlike the acidic taste of canned tomato paste. I dole out this precious preserve by the teaspoon to add depth to braised lamb shanks or goat sugo. Often, after tasting these conserva-enriched dishes, guests ask me, “Why is this so good?”
Use only fully ripe, fragrant summer tomatoes for conserva, preferably from a farmers’ market or home garden. It is not worth going to the trouble of making it with standard supermarket tomatoes. I use the San Marzano tomatoes my father grows, but you can use any type of ripe plum tomato or salad tomato.
When using conserva, always salt the dish after you have added the conserva, as the paste is quite salty.–Rosetta Costantino
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Special Equipment: 1-pint canning jar
Homemade Tomato Paste Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 50 M
- 6 H
- Makes about 1 pint
- 10 pounds very ripe plum or salad tomatoes
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil for the baking sheet, plus more for topping off the jar
- 1. Core the tomatoes. If they are the plum type, cut them in half lengthwise; if they are the large, round salad type, cut them in quarters. Remove the seeds with your fingers. Place all the tomatoes in an 8-quart stainless steel pot and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes release their juice. Boil briskly for 30 minutes to soften the tomatoes and reduce the juice.
- 2. Pass the tomatoes through a food mill fitted with a fine disk to remove the skins and any remaining seeds. Return the tomato purée to the same pot and set over high heat. Stir in the salt, reduce the heat to mediumish, and simmer until the purée has reduced to about 1 quart (4 cups), 45 to 55 minutes. Turn the heat down as the purée thickens to prevent it from bubbling and splattering furiously, and stir often to prevent scorching.
- 3. Lightly oil a 12-by-17-inch rimmed nonaluminum baking sheet. With a rubber spatula, spread the thick tomato purée in an even layer. It should cover the slicked baking sheet.
- 4. Preheat the oven to 200ºF (93ºC) and turn on the convection fan if you have one. Position a rack in the center.
- 5. Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat (keep the oven on) and stir the purée with the rubber spatula so that it dries evenly and doesn’t form a crust. Re-spread the purée with the spatula into a rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. Be fanatical about spreading it evenly; if any part is too thin, it may burn. Because of evaporation, the purée will no longer cover the baking sheet. With a paper towel, remove any bits of tomato that cling to the edges or exposed bottom of the baking sheet, or they will burn.
- 6. Return the baking sheet to the oven and continue baking until the tomato purée is no longer saucelike but very thick, stiff, and a little sticky, about 3 more hours total. Every 20 minutes, stir and carefully re-spread the purée as before. The rectangle will become progressively smaller as the remaining water evaporates.
- 7. Let the tomato paste cool to room temperature, then pack it tightly in a clean jar with a spoon, tamping it down to make sure there are no air pockets. Level the surface with the back of the spoon. Cover the surface completely with olive oil so that the paste is not exposed. Screw the lid on the jar and refrigerate. After every use, level the surface of the paste and top with more oil so the paste remains completely submerged. It will keep in the refrigerator for at least a year.
Sun-Dried Tomato Paste Variation
- If you know you will have 3 to 4 consecutive days of 100ºF (38ºC) weather, you can dry the tomato purée under the sun instead of in the convection oven. Follow the recipe in every other respect, and start to use the sun at step 4. Be sure to bring the tray in at night so it doesn’t get damp.
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Aug 27, 2013
Finally, something new to do with summer’s bounty of tomatoes. The instructions look daunting, but it’s simplicity itself to make, providing you set aside the time. As it was too early for my tomatoes when I tested this recipe, I cut a deal with the local farmers’ market for overripe tomatoes. Coring and seeding the tomatoes was a simple matter, as was cooking them down until the juice was released. I did find it odd that the instructions had us put the tomatoes through a food mill or sieve to remove the seeds when I’d removed them already. I think a food mill was the best choice to remove the skins from the cooked tomatoes, as it did a bang-up job providing me with a smooth purée with nothing extra in it. I used a slotted spoon to remove the tomatoes from the pot to avoid excess liquid going through the mill. The recipe didn’t specify whether or not to add the excess juice back to cook down with the purée, so I left most of it in. I let it cook down for a full hour because it was so runny. The timing was spot-on, baking it low and slow with no burning. For all that work, I got three 125-milliliter jars of tomato conserva. They’re not kidding when they say it’s salty. I’ll definitely be making this again when tomato season is here, but I might cut down on the salt a little, as 1 heaping teaspoon paste seasoned an entire large pot of lamb ragu such that I didn’t need to use any additional salt. I can’t wait to use this in more dishes.
Aug 27, 2013
It’s time-consuming but very satisfying to make your own tomato paste, and so much better than store-bought! Now I know why my Calabrese grandmother took the time to do this, even though she single-handedly raised seven children who each had different food preferences and each received a personalized meal every evening. She never really left her kitchen except to sleep or garden or tend the chickens, so I guess she didn’t mind the time it took to make her tomato paste from scratch. Of course, she dried her purée under the sun, never in the oven as I did. And she used her own homegrown Jersey tomatoes, which are full of flavor and taste like actual tomatoes. I was fortunate enough to have a few pounds left in my freezer from my harvest last season, and so I used them, prorating the recipe based on the quantity of tomatoes I had on hand, which was about 3 pounds. This produced a fairly small amount of paste, but at least I was able to experience the process and know I can be successful with larger amounts in the future. The only suggestion I have is to use an offset spatula when spreading and respreading the paste on the baking sheet. This tool will give you a nice even layer, just like spreading icing on a cake, which is important for the paste to develop evenly in the oven.
Aug 27, 2013
Every year come late summer, a delivery truck would arrive at our neighbor’s and bushel after bushel of Roma tomatoes would be unloaded and carried down the narrow urban driveway into their backyard. A peek between the webbing of our rear fence revealed a stunning sea of shiny, plump red jewels nestled in straw-colored wooden-slat baskets arranged in neat rows at their basement kitchen door. This is where Signora Catania’s annual canning assembly line began. In her cool, dark basement with the red custom terrazzo floor were oversized kettles and tools, most of which I’d never seen in my own mother’s kitchen. I’d ask my mother, “Why do they need so many tomatoes?” She answered that they were “putting up the sauce.” Not until I was older did I understand that she was preserving the fleeting fruit for use during winter when no self-respecting Italian homemaker would use the pink, mealy hothouse tomatoes that came in cellophane-wrapped green plastic baskets. I now practice my own scaled-down version of the preservation ritual, but it never occurred to me, being an apartment dweller and all, that perhaps making conserva di pomodori would be more efficient and versatile given my limited storage space. This recipe sparked a new approach in my household. Since this was an experiment, I halved the recipe and used the best plum tomatoes I could find at the market. To speed production, I used an apple corer to spear the tomatoes, deftly removing the stems and cores in neat cylinders. The times were accurate, even for half the recipe. I used a 1/4 sheet pan (9 by 13 inches) rather than a 12-by-17-inch one and evaporated the purée on a rack in the bottom third of the oven. After it was cooled, the final product fit in a sterilized half-pint Ball jar. This is the perfect amount for me to use until late summer ushers in the stars of the crops. The final conserva is indeed salty, but it has a wonderful rich, sweet, and complex tomato flavor when compared to store-bought versions of tomato paste. I love learning new techniques and this is a very valuable recipe when endeavoring to preserve summertime.
Homemade Tomato Paste Recipe © 2010 Rosetta Costantino. Photo © 2010 Sara Remington. All rights reserved.