How to make the perfect pappa al pomodoro (Tuscan tomato and bread soup) recipe | Food

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“As its name implies,” the Milan-born Anna del Conte explains in her book of northern Italian food, this Tuscan tomato soup “is like a pap you give to babies”. Pap doesn’t sound very appetising, though, so “bread soup” is perhaps slightly sexier, but, to be honest, bread and tomato porridge would be more accurate. Whatever you call it (and I’d advise sticking to the Italian), it’s a regional classic and a surprisingly pleasing way to use up both over- or underripe tomatoes and stale bread – a simple, thrifty marriage of good ingredients that makes a lovely late summer or early autumn lunch or supper. Oh, and it happens to be vegan, too.

The tomatoes

Claire Thomson’s pappa al pomodoro starts with tinned whole tomatoes. Thumbnails by Felicity.

Tomatoes are the mainstay of the dish – as Del Conte notes, “this is a soup to be made during the summer, when you can get really good tomatoes” (though she concedes tinned can be substituted, if necessary). That said, seeing as most recipes then call for you to core, peel, seed and chop (Alvaro Maccioni’s Mamma Toscana, Lindsay Bareham’s Big Red Book of Tomatoes and the Silver Spoon), or even puree them (the River Cafe Classic Italian Cook Book and Del Conte herself), they don’t need to be in pristine condition. In fact, if you then slow simmer said tomatoes, as Maccioni, the Silver Spoon and Del Conte recommend, they don’t even need to be in peak flavour, though if you simply cook them until the bread breaks down, as in the River Cafe and Bareham recipes, you’ll need really stupendous fruit. Choose accordingly.

The Italian food writer Stefano Arturi tells me that nowadays this dish is barely seen in high summer in his home of Lucca in Tuscany, where they favour panzanella in the heat, saving pappa al pomodoro for tinned tomato season. Indeed, Gianluca Paoli of the Florentine trattoria Coco Lezzone, whose recipe is included in Lori De Moor and Jason Lowe’s book Beaneaters & Bread Soup, calls for tinned tomatoes. So does Claire Thomson in her new book Tomato, though he purees them and she leaves them whole. Jamie Oliver, meanwhile, uses a mixture of tinned tomatoes and roasted fresh cherry tomatoes in Jamie’s Italy.

Felicity Cloake’s pappa al pomodoro.

Both approaches have their advantages. The tinned tomatoes deliver a richer flavour, but lack the zing of the fresh variety. As it’s summer, however, I’m going to use fresh fruit, because I like the acidity, but cook it down to concentrate the flavour. If you’d prefer to use tinned, I’d recommend reducing them in the same way: either way, the charred cherry tomatoes added at the end add little pops of intense flavour without the need to turn on the oven.

Del Conte is the only one who doesn’t mention peeling and deseeding the tomatoes. I suspect this may be assumed; nevertheless, I try a more rustic approach – and discover that, while peeling is a good idea, if you’re not to be left picking bits of skin out of your teeth, the seeds seem to disappear into the puree and save you having to add quite so much water to the pan later.

The bread

Jamie Oliver’s pomodoro
Use stale bread, and keep the crusts on, says Jamie Oliver.

Most recipes simply call for stale bread – though you’ll get a much better consistency if you use “country-style bread” (ie, not a sliced tin loaf, but something with more structure). There’s no need to buy an Italian loaf for the purpose, unless you’d really like to; or to waste the crusts by discarding them – I leave them on in Oliver’s recipe and find that, once sufficiently softened, I rather like the texture and flavour.

One thing I think is important is to give the bread time to break down and become one with the tomatoes – Del Conte’s soup has an almost custardy consistency, rather than just feeling like a bowl of soggy bread, which can happen if you just chuck it in at the end and stir a bit.

Maccioni remembers that pappa al pomodoro was traditionally a dish eaten on Fridays, not only because it was vegetarian, but because “bread made on Saturday morning was supposed to last for seven days. On the seventh day, the stale bread would be used up in this soup.” While I didn’t try it with fresh bread, Daniel Gritzer over at Serious Eats has, and didn’t notice any difference, apart from the fact that the fresh sort was quicker to make. So, if you have tomatoes, but no stale bread, know that this is no barrier to greatness.

The liquid

Simple seasoning: River Cafe’s pappa al pomodoro
Simple seasoning: the River Cafe’s pappa al pomodoro.

If you rely on the tomatoes alone to moisten this soup, you’ll end up with something unpalatably stodgy. Bareham suggests adding chicken stock, Paoli meat stock, and Del Conte vegetable stock, while Oliver and Thomson rely on water, and Maccioni allows for water or stock. I suspect originally this would have been made with water alone, and I prefer it that way because I’d like the tomatoes to be the principal flavour here.

The other vital liquid, however, is oil – I’d almost say that you should put in as much as you can afford to use (and consume), because it will give your soup a lovely, silky richness that complements the tomatoes beautifully.

The flavourings

Celery too: The Silver Spoon’s version.
The Silver Spoon adds celery to the mix.

The simplest recipe I try comes from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ River Cafe, seasoned with just salt and pepper and finished with basil and olive oil, but most recipes at least add garlic, with Del Conte making a soffritto with onion and leek, and the Silver Spoon adding celery. Basil is popular, and Del Conte also suggests a dried chilli.

Again, I want to keep this as tomatoey as possible, so I’m going to stick to the fruit’s classic partners of garlic, briefly sauteed to mellow its flavour, and basil – though if you’d like to add chilli, I certainly won’t judge you.

The serving temperature

A bowl of Felicity’s perfect pappa al pomodoro.
Felicity Cloake’s perfect pappa al pomodoro.

Interestingly, Maccioni specifies that pappa al pomodoro should be served “very hot”, while Del Conte is firm in her orders: “Do not serve it either piping hot or chilled.” Personally, I like it warm, but you do you.

Perfect pappa al pomodoro

Prep 10 min
Cook 50 min, plus cooling time
Serves 2

600g good tomatoes
75ml olive oil
, plus extra to toss and serve
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 small bunch basil, leaves and stalks separated
150g bread
100g cherry tomatoes
(or use another ordinary tomato instead)
Salt and pepper

Put the tomatoes in a heatproof bowl, cover with boiling water and leave to sit for a minute, until the skins begin to split.

Put the tomatoes in a heatproof bowl, cover with boiling water and leave to sit for a minute, until the skins begin to split. Drain, peel and discard the skins

Drain, peel and discard the skins, then puree the tomatoes.

Felicity Cloake’s pappa al pomodoro 01c: then puree the tomatoes.

Put the oil in a large pan on a medium heat, then fry the garlic for a minute or so, until fragrant but not browned.

Felicity Cloake’s pappa al pomodoro 02a. Put oil in a large pan on a medium heat, then fry the garlic for a minute or so, until fragrant but not browned.

Add the pureed tomatoes and 300ml water, and bring to a simmer.

Felicity Cloake’s pappa al pomodoro 02b. Add the pureed tomatoes and 300ml water, and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, finely chop the basil stems and roughly chop the bread, then add both to the tomato pan.

Meanwhile, finely chop the basil stems and roughly chop the bread, then add both to the tomato pan.

Felicity Cloake’s pappa al pomodoro 03a, Turn down the heat and leave to bubble away very gently for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Turn down the heat and leave to bubble away very gently for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

If you’re using the cherry tomatoes, toss with a little extra oil, and put on a hot griddle pan until blistered and blackened; otherwise, roughly chop the extra tomato.

Felicity Cloake’s pappa al pomodoro 03b. If you’re using the cherry tomatoes, toss with a little extra oil, and put on a hot griddle pan until blistered and blackened; otherwise, roughly chop the extra tomato.

Once the soup is thick but silky, season to taste – add a little extra water if it’s too thick to spoon – then stir in the cherry tomatoes (or chopped extra tomato). Leave to cool a little, or completely, then divide between bowls, tear over the basil leaves and finish with a little extra oil.

Pappa al pomodoro: is it a summer or a winter dish – or does the very idea of wet bread make you feel a bit weird?

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