The most el­e­gant mush

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - BY EVAN KLEIMAN Kleiman ran An­geli Caffe for 27 years. She’s the long­time host of KCRW-FM’s “Good Food” and a mem­ber of the James Beard Foun­da­tion’s Who’s Who of Food & Bev­er­age in Amer­ica. food@la­times.com

The first time I had the Tus­can dish pappa al po­modoro, I was in my early 20s, con­sid­er­ably thin­ner and chan­nel­ing my in­ner so­phis­ti­cate at the famed restau­rant Coco Lez­zone in Florence, Italy. At the time — let us say 40 years ago — it was the place to be seen for those in the fash­ion in­dus­try. The cus­tomers were the def­i­ni­tion of Mi­lan chic; I was mak­ing an at­tempt in a Cacharel box pleat skirt and linen sweater. So I sat alone, shoved in a cor­ner near the en­trance, when the mass of bread and toma­toes ar­rived, the waiter anointed the strange mix­ture with oil, and left me to have the oh-my-God re­ac­tion in pri­vate.

The first thing I no­ticed was the tex­ture — it was the most el­e­gant mush I’d ever held in a spoon. Rich with oil, it had body yet wasn’t heavy. Then there was the tem­per­a­ture. It seemed like the dish had been cooked and then served on the cooler side of warm, which al­lowed me to fo­cus on the es­sen­tial tomato fla­vor — deep and pun­gent, yet with the acid tem­pered by the sooth­ing qual­i­ties of bread and oil. And the brick-red color of the hum­ble bread soup was stun­ning.

You can eas­ily see the roots of the dish in eco­nom­i­cal farm­house cook­ing: You have some old bread, some ripe or canned toma­toes, a few bits of herb, maybe some salt, all thrown into a pot. The ge­nius of pappa al po­modoro is that it’s a bowl of lux­u­ri­ous­ness cre­ated from thrift.

That dish be­came one of my sum­mer cook­ing rit­u­als, at my home and pro­fes­sional kitchens.

Pappa al po­modoro was a way for us to mark the on­set of deep sum­mer at An­geli, when toma­toes were plen­ti­ful and ripe in the farm­ers mar­kets. For two weeks over many of the nearly 30 years the restau­rant was open, we ran it as a spe­cial — de­spite how hard it was to de­scribe the tex­ture or genre, as a “cold” soup that wasn’t gazpacho. I don’t know why it was al­ways so hard to per­suade folks to or­der it — but once they spooned up the dish, happiness al­ways en­sued.

If you’re a per­son who loves tak­ing a bit of bread and scrap­ing up the re­main­ing sauce on your plate — what Ital­ians call fare la scar­petta — this is the dish for you. To make it, just throw a few slices of toasted bread in a sea­soned yet unre­duced tomato sauce, stir the mix­ture a few times, cover and let it all ab­sorb and min­gle, then stir it again and serve.

There are three pri­mary in­gre­di­ents: ide­ally, farm­ers mar­ket toma­toes, ex­cel­lent olive oil and good rus­tic bread. (And don’t cut off those dark crusts; they add a dif­fer­ent tex­ture once soft­ened.) As the dish was a way to use up stale bread, you can do that; if you have fresh bread, toast it be­fore putting it in the pot, as the re­sult­ing tex­ture will have a bet­ter mouth­feel than if you just tear up fresh un­toasted bread.

In Tus­cany, pappa al po­modoro can vary from a dish that’s mostly tomato with enough bread to thicken it, to a dish that’s mostly bread with just enough tomato to boost the fla­vor. (The word pappa means not “father” or “pope” but “pap,” as in what ba­bies eat.) In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia at the height of sum­mer, we have a glut of ex­cel­lent, of­ten heir­loom toma­toes, so this ver­sion is uber tomato-ey.

To make ap­prox­i­mately one quart of what will be­come your sauce, you’ll want about three pounds of ripe toma­toes. Look for

toma­toes you love to eat out of hand with salt — you want big fla­vor. Some of my heir­loom faves are Early Girls, Chero­kee Pur­ples, Brandy­wine and the Ital­ian blocky ribbed va­ri­eties, but any good sum­mer tomato with real fla­vor will do. You can use the canned va­ri­ety, but I’d rather save the dish for when toma­toes are in sea­son.

Good olive oil in suf­fi­cient quan­tity is es­sen­tial to achieve the volup­tuous mouth­feel that con­notes lux­ury. And the sweet­ness of the toma­toes does the rest. I use a food mill to purée the sauce, as it re­moves skins and seeds and gives a nearly per­fect purée. If you don’t have a food mill you can re­move the skins by stir­ring the sauce with a whisk and then lift­ing them out, or just purée the whole thing with an im­mer­sion or reg­u­lar blender.

When it’s done, you can serve the pappa hot, but I love it at room tem­per­a­ture or cold with a lit­tle sprin­kle of Parme­san cheese. In the Ital­ian con­text, this is served as a primo , or a small first course. But I had it re­cently for din­ner cold from the re­frig­er­a­tor and I’m still so happy.

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

GOT GOOD TOMA­TOES, ex­cel­lent olive oil and rus­tic bread? Then go ahead and make the Tus­can de­light pappa al po­modoro. If not, then go get those in­gre­di­ents.

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