It is the main ingredient in Italian cooking and there are countless varieties. They are used both fresh and as sauce. I got a few tips about using it “Italian style” from the award-winning chef and tomato expert Christian Costardi (Christian e Manuel Restaurant, Hotel Cinzia, Vercelli). He and his brother Manuel, also a chef, proposed a creative tomato rice, a dish often served at Italian schools and kindergartens for lunch, and thus also suitable for children. The recipe has been revisited and, to make an impression, it is served in a can (but you can use a plate).
Here is his advice.
1. Don’t sauté the mirepoix before adding the tomato purée if you want to make a good tomato sauce for pasta. This way, you’ll have a sauce that tastes like tomatoes and not sautéed vegetables. All the ingredients should be raw. In other words, put the tomato purée, celery, carrots and onion in a pot and cook them all together. This maintains the flavor.
2. Watch the burner: since tomatoes have a lot of sugar, a caramelized crust can form around the edges of the pot as they cook. Monitor the cooking time and the temperature (low), and check the sauce often.
3. Every season has its version. If it’s late spring/early summer, use fresh tomatoes, at the height of their potential. In November, use sauce made when the tomatoes were fully ripe and flavorsome, as this will make a better sauce than tomatoes out of season.
A quick recipe:
Cold pasta with fresh tomato
Cut up cherry or Piccadilly tomatoes. Add a few anchovies, some olives, a whole clove of garlic and chopped basil. Set aside for 30 minutes. Cook the spaghetti until barely done (if the bag says 13 minutes, drain after 11). Drizzle some oil on the pasta, cool for two minutes, and then toss with the tomatoes, removing the clove of garlic.
A special recipe:
Costardi tomato rice (Serves 2)160 g (3/4 cup) Carnaroli rice
Grana Padano cheese
300 g (10.5 oz.) tomato purée
1 rib celery
Sarawak black pepper
For the pesto
1 bunch basil
extra virgin olive oil salt and pepper
For the pesto, carefully wash and dry the basil leaves. Using a stick blender, blend them with the pine nuts and 1 or 2 ice cubes to keep the heat of the blender from ruining the basil, adding enough extra virgin olive to achieve the right thickness.
Peel and cut the carrot into chunks, remove the leaves from the celery and chop the rib, and coarsely chop the onion. Place the vegetables in a pot with the tomato purée and a little extra virgin olive oil, and simmer for about 4 hours. Blend until smooth.
Heat a little oil in a pot, add the rice and toast it, stirring constantly. Add a pinch of salt and a little freshly ground black pepper (this is the only time to season the rice). Pour in some boiling vegetable broth and continue cooking until half done. Add the tomato sauce and continue cooking until the rice is done. Remove from the burner and stir in the butter and Grana Padano cheese. At the end, drizzle in some extra virgin olive oil.
Spoon a little pesto on the bottom of the plate and place the rice on it. Sprinkle some lemon zest on top.