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 ragu.
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
LC What She Said Note
Yeah. What she said.
Special Equipment: 1-pint canning jar
Homemade Tomato Paste Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 50 M
- 6 H
- Makes about 1 pint
- 10 pounds (4.5 kg) very ripe plum or salad tomatoes
- 1 to 4 tablespoons (9 to 35 grams) kosher salt, depending on personal preference
- 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. Taste and, if desired, add more salt.
- 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. When using the tomato paste, bear in mind what the author cautioned above, “When using conserva, always salt the dish after you have added the conserva, as the paste is quite salty.”
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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Homemade Tomato Paste Recipe © 2010 Rosetta Costantino. Photo © 2010 Sara Remington. All rights reserved.
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