Pappa al Pomodoro

Well everyone, Dine LA has officially begun and, as usual, I will not be in attendance. Anywhere. At any of the restaurants. That's because, as a former line cook who worked three restaurant weeks in Boston (and BTW restaurant week is actually two weeks), I've sworn an oath never, ever to become one of those individuals swarming local eateries like ants.

If you are going to Dine LA, I'm not judging you. I think it's possible to enjoy some really good food at a great price. But, I just can't do it; I wouldn't enjoy it. I would be thinking about those poor people in the kitchen, plating hundreds upon hundreds of the same dish. Honest to God, I have never ordered risotto or even made risotto in my own home since I had to make two hundred to three hundred risottos a night during restaurant week (two weeks!). I had to taste each batch. I don't remember even eating any meals of my own during that time; I consumed so many calories just tasting to test the seasoning. I hate risotto now. And this makes me sad because I also love risotto, especially Jody Adams's fabulous version with reduced red wine, dried figs, and radicchio. Mind you, I haven't been a line cook for ten years, more or less, so these scars are lasting. 

There is one dish that I learned to make during a summertime restaurant week, and still manage to adore. Isn't that saying a lot, that after plating bowl upon bowl upon bowl of the stuff, night after night after night, I still hold it dear? I think it is. This soup- called pappa al pomodoro- was the perfect choice for restaurant week because it's served room temperature. So, all I had to do was slosh some into a bowl over a hundred times a night, and then frantically make more after service, my poor arm fatigued by the constant turning of endless peeled tomatoes through the big kitchen food mill. Notably, I didn't have to taste it each time I plated it and that is, perhaps, why I still love it to this day. 

In my opinion, pappa al pomodoro is the perfect summer soup and now is the best time to make it, when heirloom tomatoes are at their absolute best, and abundant all over the market. It has a short list of ingredients, and gets its name from its thick consistency, the result of day old bread that is stirred in during the end of cooking. Unlike gazpacho, pappa isn't served cold, and the vegetables in it are cooked. Serving it at a perfect room temperature with a drizzle of good olive oil highlights the simplicity and quality of the ingredients- the mark of a truly classic Italian dish. Since there are so few ingredients, find the best that you can. Use good bread, fragrant heirloom tomatoes, and fresh basil. Pappa al pomodoro is a fabulous dish for the kids- mild, healthy, with no flavors that are particularly overwhelming.

If you don't have a food mill, you'll need to blend the soup. Since the consistency is not supposed to be completely smooth, be sure not to over blend it. Remember, also, to save the liquid that you squeeze from the tomatoes to add back to the soup when it gets too thick. 

Pappa al Pomodoro

Makes 4-6 cups of soup

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs heirloom tomatoes (yellow, red, and orange. if you want to use green, pair them with yellow.)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped (I cut mine about 1/2" big)
  • 2 carrots, cut about the same size as the onion pieces
  •  1 stalk of celery, cut about the same size as the onion pieces
  • 3-4 large sprigs of basil, leaves separated from stems, stems reserved
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 clove of garlic, smashed
  • 1 small loaf of country or Italian bread, crusts removed, roughly cubed and lightly toasted or left to dry overnight (you should have about 4-5 ounces or about 4 cups cubes)

Instructions:

  1. Bring a medium sized pot of water to a rolling boil. Core the tomatoes and cut a small x into the bottom of each one, just through the skin. Fill a large bowl with ice water and have it nearby. Boil the tomatoes in the water for 20-30 seconds, in batches, and transfer them to the ice bath for 2 minutes or so. Remove from the ice bath and peel. 
  2. Cut the tomatoes in half along their equator and squeeze each half into a coarse mesh strainer set over a bowl. This removes the seeds, and allows you to save that yummy tomato water in the bowl below. Roughly chop the tomatoes and set both the tomatoes and tomato water aside.
  3. Heat a medium stock pot or heavy enamel pot over medium low heat and add the olive oil. Add the onions and cook, covered, on low heat, until soft, without browning them at all. Add the carrots, celery, and garlic, and continue cooking for another 10-15 minutes until everything is fragrant and the veggies are soft. 
  4. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Add the stems from your basil leaves. Cook, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes until the tomatoes are softened and have released their liquid. You don't want to cook this too much at this stage, because the tomatoes lose their freshness and vibrancy, yielding a soup that's more like traditional tomato soup than pappa al pomodoro. 
  5. Remove the soup from the heat and remove the basil stems. Pass through the coarse plate of a food mill or blend gently. 
  6. Season with salt and pepper and return to the cooking pot. Add the bread and stir to combine. Allow to sit at least 20 minutes for the bread to soften. At this point, the soup will probably need thinning. Add the tomato water first, then a little extra olive oil then, if more thinning is needed, add water until the desired consistency is reached. It should be thick, but still soup-like. The more you stir, the more the bread will break up so be careful not to overstir. Allow to come to room temperature and serve topped with basil and extra virgin olive oil.