The humble tomato. One of our favorite nightshade family fruits used as a vegetable. It’s hard to imagine now how it was once considered at best a trash food, and, at worst, poisonous.
A brief history (via www.wikipedia.org)
Aztecs and other peoples in Mesoamerica used tomatoes in their cooking. The exact date of domestication is unknown; however, by 500 BCE, it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico. The large, lumpy tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes.
There is some specualtion as to whether it was Christopher Columbus or Hernán Cortés was the first European to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, who suggested that a new type of “eggplant” had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden color when mature and could be eaten like an eggplant—cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. However it wasn’t until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or “golden apple”.
The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692, though the author had apparently obtained these recipes from Spanish sources. In northern areas of Italy, however, the fruit was used solely as a tabletop decoration before it was incorporated into the local cuisine in the late 17th or early 18th century.
The first recorded history of tomatoes in Italy dates back to October 31, 1548 when the house steward of the de’ Medici family wrote to the Medici private secretary informing him that the basket of tomatoes sent from the family’s Florentine estate at Torre del Gallo “had arrived safely.” Tomatoes were grown mainly as ornamentals early on after their arrival in Italy. The Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote how they “were to be sought only for their beauty” and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. The tomato’s ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to its success and spread throughout Italy. However, even in areas where the climate supported growing tomatoes, their proximity of growing to the ground suggested low status. They were not adopted as a staple of the peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits already available. Additionally, both toxic and inedible varieties discouraged many people from attempting to consume or prepare them.
Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. One of the earliest cultivators was John Gerard, a barber-surgeon. Gerard’sHerbal, published in 1597, and largely plagiarized from continental sources, is also one of the earliest discussions of the tomato in England. Gerard knew the tomato was eaten in Spain and Italy. Nonetheless, he believed it was poisonous. Gerard’s views were influential, and the tomato was considered unfit for eating (though not necessarily poisonous) for many years in Britain and its North American colonies. By the mid-18th century, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopædia Britannica stated the tomato was “in daily use” in soups, broths, and as a garnish.
The tomato was introduced to cultivation in the Middle East/Asia by John Barker, British consul in Aleppo circa 1799 to 1825. Nineteenth century descriptions of its consumption are uniformly as an ingredient in a cooked dish. In 1881, it is described as only eaten in the region “within the last forty years”.
The tomato entered Iran through two separate routes; one was through Turkey and Armenia, and the other was through the Qajar royal family’s frequent travels to France. The early name used for tomato in Iran was Armani badenjan (Armenian eggplant). Currently, the name used for tomato in Iran is gojeh farangi [French plum].
The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in British North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in what is today South Carolina, where they were introduced from the Caribbean. By the mid-18th century, they were cultivated on some Carolina plantations, and likely in other parts of the Southeast as well. Possibly, some people continued to think tomatoes were poisonous at this time; and in general, they were grown more as ornamental plants than as food. Thomas Jefferson, who ate tomatoes in Paris, sent some seeds back to America.
Alexander W. Livingston was the first person who succeeded in upgrading the wild tomato, developing different breeds and stabilizing the plants. In the 1937 yearbook of the Federal Department of Agriculture, it was declared that “half of the major varieties were a result of the abilities of the Livingstons to evaluate and perpetuate superior material in the tomato”. Livingston’s first breed of tomato, the Paragon, was introduced in 1870. In 1875, he introduced the Acme, which was said to be involved in the parentage of most of the tomatoes introduced by him and his competitors for the next twenty-five years.
When Alexander W. Livingston had begun his attempts to develop the tomato as a commercial crop, his aim had been to grow tomatoes smooth in contour, uniform in size and having better flavor. After five years, the fruit became fleshier and larger. In 1870, Alexander introduced the Paragon and tomato culture began at once to be a great enterprise of the county. Today, the crop is grown in every state in the Union. He eventually developed over seventeen different varieties of the tomato plant.
And… thus the birth of the homoginization of the tomato.
Luckily, that’s changing rapidly as heirloom varieties are now becoming more readily avilable.
This recipe is one of my favorites not only because of its ease of preparation and the fact that it’s delicious, but because of its long cooking time.
Yes. You read that right.
This is a recipe that requires a very long cooking time. At least 6 hours.
I know what some of you are thinking. What?! That’s insane! What do you mean by this being a good thing?
Trust me. It is. Because I can put this in the oven on a low, slow cook, walk away, and forget about it for a few hours. I can get on with my day.
Now, admittedly, some of you don’t feel comfortable leaving your oven on all day without someone at home to monitor it. And that’s fine. You can certainly roast the tomatoes over a weekend day and save them until later in the week for a quick weeknight supper.
Now, to the recipe:
A few notes:
a) I generally use Roma tomatoes in this recipe. This particular variety of tomato is meant to be cooked because of it’s meatiness. (It’s typically used in sauces and pastes.) They’re also available year-round.
b) Feel free to use whatever spices and herbs you like for this. However, due to the long cooking time, I recommend using dried herbs. If you’d like to use fresh herbs, mix them into the roasted tomatoes and pasta at the end.
c) Feel free to use what ever pasta you like. I like to use orecchiette (meaning “little ears” in Italian) because the shape of the pasta holds so much of the sauce that comes from roasting the tomatoes. However, if you would like to use another pasta, I would recommend using a shaped pasta as opposed to a straight pasta like spaghetti or pappardelle.
d) You can roast the tomatoes in advance and keep them in the refrigerator for 4 – 5 days. Just heat them up slowly as you cook the pasta, then, mix them together when the pasta is done.
e) If you like, you can mix in a little protein to the tomatoes and pasta just before you serve. Spicy Italian sausage works well.
5 – 6 lb. Roma tomatoes, seeded, stem end cut out
1/2 c. olive oil
Assorted herbs and spices, as much or as little as you like
1 lb. Orecchiette, or other shaped pasta
Grated Romano cheese
1. Turn on your oven to 200F – 250F (depends on how fast you want to cook your tomatoes). Take a very large baking dish (mine is 12″ x 18″), and, if you like, give it a quick spritz with some non-stick spray.
2. Cut the blossom end off and cut the tomatoes in half along their equator. Give each of the halves a squeeze and use your fingers to remove as many of the seeds as possible.
Take the discarded seeds and use them in the compost pile or save for seeds for the garden.
3. Place the cleaned halves in the baking dish. Try to make sure you have a single layer.
4. Drizzle the olive oil over the tomatoes.
Sprinkle over the seasonings. Again, use as much or as little of what you like. Carefully toss the tomatoes to completely coat them in the oil and seasonings.
5. Now, bake the tomatoes for at least 6 hours. You can go as long as you like, depending on your oven temperature and how roasted you want your tomatoes.
I generally bake my tomatoes at 225F for about 8-10 hours. I like them pretty well reduced.
With the amount of tomatoes you are roasting, unless they are very dry (and some may be, especially in the winter), you will end up with a lot of juices in the pan. Embrace that. Makes a great natural sauce for the pasta along with the tomatoes.
6. After the tomatoes have roasted for at least 6 hours, check them. Stir if you like. At this point, you can take the tomatoes out of the oven or continue to roast further.
7. After the tomatoes are out of the oven, cook your chosen pasta according to the package directions until al dente. Drain and put back into the cooking pot.
8. Meanwhile, cut or chop the tomatoes. I like doing this with a pair of kitchen shears. It’s just easier and a whole lot less messy.
9. Pour the tomatoes and juice into the cooking pot with the pasta and mix together.
If you like, sprinkle on some Romano Cheese. I find it works well with the roasted flavor of the tomatoes.