One simple theme that unites the regional cooking styles across Italy is the use of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. Right now, it is tomato season back home in New England, so I am using them as often as I can, before they disappear. The pink, hard, unripe tomatoes imported from Mexico and found in most supermarkets in December are hardly the same species. This recipe here is only worth making when you have access to fresh, flavorful and locally grown varieties.
Northeastern Italy, home to our bike and ski tours, does not use as much tomato based sauces as you will find in southern Italy. But the combination of mozzarella, fresh tomato, and basil – the Caprese salad, named for the island off the Amalfi coast – is ubiquitous throughout the country, and we see it often even up north. A delicious simple dish when made with wonderful fresh ingredients, incorporating the three colors of the national flag, you would be hard pressed to find a dish more representative of the country’s cuisine. But although tomatoes are today very much associated with Italian food, they are in fact a fairly recent addition.
The tomato originated in western South and Central America. In 1519, Cortez discovered tomatoes growing in Montezuma’s gardens and brought seeds back to Europe – a path followed also by corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes and hot peppers, all introduced to Europe from South America. Initially, tomatoes were grown solely as ornamental plants as they are members of the deadly nightshade family and were erroneously thought to be poisonous.
The first variety of tomato to reach Europe was yellow in color, giving rise to the name they are known by in Italy today, pomi d’oro, meaning yellow apples. Italy was the first to cultivate the tomato outside South America. It flourished across the country, becoming very popular in southern regions. However, one of the regions we visit on our tours – Emilia-Romagna, played in critical role in the popularity of tomatoes in Italian cuisine. A visit to Parma can include a stop at three different food museums dedicated to the most renowned products of the region – parmegiano reggiano cheese, prosciutto, and, for me a surprising third, tomatoes.
The incorporation of tomatoes in Italian cooking really took off in the mid-19th century. At that time, farmers around Parma let by Carlo Rognoni and Guiseppe Ferrari advanced the cultivation of tomatoes by developing new techniques and making them a particularly lucrative crop – much more so that the cereals they had been growing, and making an ideal plant to include in crop rotation. In 1874 Rognoni founded a company to produce tomato preserves. The ability to preserve tomatoes by canning allowed cooks in Italy to use these year round. This new product became quite popular in Italy, and also in America by way of the many Italian immigrants that were making their way at the time to the US, and searching for a way to remember the cuisine of their homeland.
My recipe here is about as simple as you can get – when you have delicious fresh tomatoes, you don’t much all. The same few ingredients as found in the Caprese salad, combined with the best tomatoes you can find. I used a variety of locally grown heirloom tomatoes, including an actual yellow pomi d’oro, the colors making a very attractive sauce. Cut up the ingredients, allow them to sit a bit to develop the flavor, then serve over pasta.
Penne al Pomodoro Crudo (Penne with Raw Tomatoes)
3-4 large fresh tomatoes, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 ball fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4 inch dice
Extra virgin olive oil
15 basil leaves, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 lb. penne pasta
Combine tomatoes, red onion, garlic, and mozzarella. Add a couple of ‘glugs’ of olive oil – use your best judgement here, we’re keeping this simple. Drizzle a little balsamic, season with salt and basil. Toss to combine, and allow to sit for about an hour.
After an hour, place a large pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the penne, and cooking until al dente. Toss with the tomatoes and serve.