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Sneaking in under the wire: pappa al pomodoro

I’ve never before thought of myself as any sort of doomsday prophet, but lately it seems that I’ve been in an awful rush to admit defeat to autumn. Yes, Seattle is officially That Rainy City once again, and yes, that was me at the bus stop, wrestling the wind for my umbrella, swatting furiously at the hair that had escaped my ponytail and plastered itself into the corner of my mouth, and generally performing at my unglamorous best. Given the circumstances, moaning about fall is perfectly appropriate, but dear reader, I think I may have spoken too soon. Call me a hypocrite; say what you will; but there are still heirloom tomatoes in the market, and that means there’s time to slip in an Indian summer recipe or two. Me, I’m sneaking in under the wire with a bowl of pappa al pomodoro.

Half-soup and half-sauce, pappa al pomodoro is little more than ripe tomatoes, olive oil, and day-old bread. Think of this Tuscan staple as a warm, spoonable tomato-bread salad, or perhaps a savory, sexed-up porridge, if your imagination will stretch that far. It’s just the thing for a gusty, blustery night at the cusp of autumn, when the season’s last tomatoes are falling-off-the-vine ripe, bumpy, ugly, and delicious. You’ll simmer them quickly in their own juices with onion, garlic, and fresh basil, gentle buttresses for their full, robust flavor. When the tomatoes have melted into a loose sauce, you’ll toss in bite-size hunks of chewy country bread, and fifteen minutes later—time enough for, oh, half a glass of wine—you’ll have a silky, steamy, rustic stew. This is simple, scrape-the-bowl stuff: the elemental flavor of tomatoes—now-sweet and now-tart, bright and fragrant—slicked and enriched with plenty of good, fruity olive oil and bathing soft, swollen bread.

It’s been said of many things, but really, the best thing since sliced bread is a pillowy lump from a bowl of pappa al pomodoro. The days of down parkas may soon be upon us, but I’d wrestle the wind every night to get home for a spoonful of this.

Pappa al Pomodoro
Adapted slightly from The Zuni Café Cookbook

This homey, homely stuff makes a delicious main dish, served with nothing more than a pristine green salad or a few green beans tossed with lemon and olive oil. If you prefer to play it as a side dish, know that I found it a perfect accompaniment to a wedge of frittata flavored with sweet, softened leeks and Pecorino Romano, and it would also be lovely with meats, from roasted chicken to lamb, sausages, or rosy slices of grilled steak. Be sure to have a good glass of red nearby as well. And for those like me who enjoy toting swank little sack lunches to work, you’ll be pleased to note that the leftovers—with a quick reheating in the microwave—make for very happy midday munching.

About 2 pounds very ripe, flavorful tomatoes
About ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
A leafy branch of fresh basil
A pinch or two of sugar
About ¼ pound day-old, chewy, country-style bread, with most of the crust removed
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Score a large “X” on the underside of half of the tomatoes, just breaking the skin. Gently ease them, one at a time, into the boiling water. Within 15 or so seconds, the skin should begin to curl back in sheets from the center of the “X.” When this occurs, remove the tomatoes from the water with a slotted spoon, and place them on a cutting board. Peel them; the skin should slip away easily. Trim them, as well as the unpeeled tomatoes, of any blemishes or under-ripe areas; core them; and coarsely chop them into ¼-inch bits, taking care not to lose any juice. Scoop the tomatoes and their juices into a bowl, and set it aside.

Pour about ¼ cup of the olive oil into a large saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat. When the oil is warm, add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook gently over low heat for 10 or so minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent. Stir in the garlic. Cook for a few minutes more, and then add the tomatoes and their juices, along with another glug of oil. Raise the heat, and bring the mixture to a simmer.

Pick the leaves from the sprig of basil, set them aside, and add the stem to the tomato mixture. Cook the mixture only long enough for the tomato to melt and break down a bit, about 5-10 minutes, stopping the cooking when the tomato mixture takes on the characteristic red-orange color of cooked tomatoes. Taste for salt and sugar; you’ll probably need to add quite a bit of the former and might want a pinch or two of the latter, to counter acidity.

Remove and discard the basil stem. Using kitchen shears, snip the basil leaves into rough slivers, and add them to the pot. Tear the bread into the size of large croutons, and add them as well, stirring to wet and submerge the chunks. Cover the pan, remove it from the heat, and let it sit for 15 or so minutes in a warm place, so that the bread can soften and absorb the liquid.

When you’re ready to serve the pappa, stir it roughly to break up the bread, and taste it again for salt and sweetness. Adjust as necessary, stirring in another glug of olive oil to enrich the finished dish. Serve warm, with freshly ground black pepper.

Yield: About 5 cups


Blogger Clare Eats said...

loooove this stuff :) soooo good !

I ams sure you could never be unglamourous ;)

11:07 PM, September 29, 2005  
Blogger Gina Louise said...

Every time I eat French yogurt I think about you and the gateau. The little containers are so wonderful, and I try a new kind each time. Unfortunately, I can't make any cake, as I have NO OVEN.

4:04 AM, September 30, 2005  
Blogger s'kat said...

I just love rustic, thick, chucnky soups. We've just felt the first fingers of Autumn in the air today, and can't imagine a better not on which to make this.

While I miss not having good public transportation, I certainly don't miss the days of taking it in bad weather!

4:47 AM, September 30, 2005  
Anonymous teri said...

mmm, that sounds like the perfect recipe for one of the first chilly days of autumn in toronto.

i have been a fan of your blog for a while now. your food writing is heavenly :)

5:54 AM, September 30, 2005  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

Miss may I ask why you don't own some magazine? Or even write cook books! Your blog is mesmerizing.

8:15 AM, September 30, 2005  
Blogger amylou said...

How could soggy bread and tomatoes sound so darn good? And why did I have to read this right now (5:15 pm) when all I can do is think about the dinner I won't have for another two hours? You kill me, Molly. (In a delicious way, of course.)

8:16 AM, September 30, 2005  
Blogger Dawna said...

Sounds lovely - like a cross between soup and a sort of hot panzanella!

10:26 AM, September 30, 2005  
Blogger Carol said...

Funny, I was just raving about soggy bread in the form of the Zuni warm bread salad...have you tried that recipe? We just got a bunch of tomatoes in our CSA box so I may try this recipe soon. Thanks!

11:22 AM, September 30, 2005  
Blogger nwsjournalism said...

As always, delicious and gorgeous at the same time. How wonderful on a rainy night to have a rich, tomato-fresh-off-the-vine bowl of goodness. I'm going to have to try this with gluten-free bread.

11:33 AM, September 30, 2005  
Anonymous jason said...

this may be neither the time nor the place for this, but where does you experience come from? i guess i should be reading more?

not that i'm a great cook by any means; though i can hold my own. i'm wondering what colored your experiences as you have some great recipes and adaptations.

8:37 PM, October 01, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

Hi Molly, I generally like to be more eloquent than this, but it truly deserves a resounding YUM. Or as the French say: Miam Miam. 'Nuff said.

4:31 AM, October 02, 2005  
Blogger Rachael said...

I am again thrilled that the Zuni cookbook is so popular with bloggers...I get all the amazing sounding recipes with the added pleasure of reading exquisite descriptions like this. I am so glad I bought tomatoes at the market yesterday too....

6:19 AM, October 02, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Awww, Clare, you're too kind. You know, I was wearing fishnets through this entire wind-battling exercise, so I suppose that counts for something. Still, it wasn't one of my finer moments. But pappa al pomodoro certainly was!

Gina Louise, I am horrendously jealous of you, what with all that French yogurt you've got on hand--not to mention the fact that you live in Lyon! Sigh. But say, have you tried Mamie Nova yogurt? It comes in a little paper cup rather than a cute glass container, but it makes up in flavor (rhubarb! pistachio!) what it lacks in presentation.

S'kat, this may well be just the dish for you, and at just the right moment. And as for public transportation, yes, I certainly appreciate it, but there are days when I just want my car, silence, and garage-to-garage transport...

Teri, thank you! Lovely to meet you.

Foodiechickie, your comment made my morning! Magazines, cookbooks, and the like? That's the dream, m'dear.

Amy, I'm so sorry to torture you once again! In the future, maybe you should only visit when you're having fika? Preempt the suffering, you know?

Dawna, that's exactly it!

Carol, I just hopped over to Celadon Cupcake, and I see that you've been dining at Zuni recently! I'm very, very jealous. I make their roasted chicken all the time--the best method--but I have yet to do the accompanying bread salad. It sounds astoundingly good. It may be next on the docket...

Nwsjournalism, if you do try it with gluten-free bread, please let me know what you think. I'd be curious to hear how it turns out, since g-f breads have such a different texture and flavor from wheat-based breads. Good luck!

Jason, let's see what I can cram in a nutshell. I come from a very food-centric family: my mother is a great home cook and baker; my father was a wonderful, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants cook; one of my half-brothers went to the Culinary Institute of America and now owns four restaurants; my other half-brother is a great home cook; and my half-sister is a terrific home cook and baker as well. I grew up sitting down to dinner every night with my parents (my half-siblings are older, and were thus already out of the house), and holidays were and are days for huddling around the kitchen. So I grew up knowing that food was important, although it didn't really hit home until I was 17 or so, when I had a personal food epiphany of sorts over breakfast at a b&b in Maine. That breakfast lit the fire, so to speak. [Speaking of which, I wrote an essay shortly after that fateful morning; I may have to pull it out of the ole dustbin!] At any rate, in the past ten years, I've worked for a caterer, interned at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, and worked at Whole Foods, and I've eaten, read, and cooked a lot. And of course, I still do. So there you have it: a life, as told through food...

Michele, I agree completely. Miam, miam indeed!

Rachael, the Zuni cookbook is wonderful, isn't it? Some of the recipes are a tad labor-intensive, to say the least, but it's all such rustic, lusty, beautifully balanced food. And I love the intimate feeling of Judy Rodgers' detailed, step-by-step instructions. Now, get to work with those tomatoes...

10:11 AM, October 02, 2005  
Blogger Megan said...

Molly, you didn't say to double - no, triple? - this recipe. OH. Ohhhhhh...! Comfort in a cup. Comfort in 3 cups in a row... and now...*gone*. thank you and thank goodness for this recipe.

7:00 PM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Julie said...

Just made this (finally) with cilantro instead of basil, because that's what came with my CSA. Also added a glug of white wine just before the tomatoes. Fantastic. Thank you so much for this recipe--it's really killer.

6:49 PM, September 08, 2010  
Anonymous Mike Benayoun said...

Ah ah, definitely more of a porridge than a soup. Agree with you Molly. Glad I stumbled upon your blog as I was writing my recipe, as well as the history behind pappa al pomodoro. I ended up using a similar recipe to yours from an italian website.


2:59 PM, July 26, 2015  

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