#21 Quarantine Cooking: Tomato Garlic Confit (July Series #5)
July 2020. A favourite way to preserve summer tomatoes.
Dear friends, welcome to part 5 of the July letters. If you’re new here, I’m Flory Leow, and this newsletter is usually sent on a monthly basis. This month, you’ll receive them twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays. Read the archives here; if my writing brightens up your day or makes you think, you should share this indiscriminately with lots of people.
Because I live in Japan and have written about Japanese food for a living, people I meet sometimes ask whether I cook Japanese food at home. It’s plausible, I suppose––it’s easy to find all the right ingredients and seasonings, the bookstores are full of great cookbooks…
But truth be told, I cook very few Japanese dishes. Why bother, when there are a thousand restaurants and diners in Tokyo that do it better? Far more interesting to cook what I can’t find in restaurants. I love cooking, even if I am extremely bored of it this quarantine, and am not wedded to particular cuisines. Knee-jerk dishes from my repertoire include kimchi jjigae, pork belly and salmon kho, cha lua, bacon and egg mazemen, smothered cabbage.
Then there is pasta. I have eaten, to put it mildly, a shit ton of pasta in the last few months. It is a lifesaver for lazy, good eating in quarantine. It is incredibly easy to cook. It involves little in the way of esoteric ingredients or advance planning. Occasionally I’ll attempt pork ragu (and eat this for 5 days running) but mostly, I make pasta with whatever I can scrounge up in the pantry when I don’t want to leave my apartment, which is all too often these days. A few variants I have trotted out several times each: carbonara, arrabbiata, pangrattato with fried eggs, anchovies and breadcrumbs. But best of all is pasta and tomato sauce.
I like making my own tomato sauce––out of economy, but also because it’s rather satisfying to make my own sauce. Until early this year, I used to keep a steady supply of Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce in the fridge, but have come to find it a little too cloying, a little too dairy-rich. Then the first tomatoes arrived at my doorstep in mid-May, a mix of fist-sized tomatoes and tiny red and yellow cherry toms straight from a farm in Kumamoto, far more than I could eat raw out of the box before decay set in.
How best to preserve the tomatoes without obscuring the clarity of their flavour? One method I like is to confit them. A dozen or so fist-sized tomatoes and a handful of cherry tomatoes, coddled in plenty of olive oil and a pinch of salt over a gentle fire for at least an hour. Garlic is optional, but I love what it brings to the table, and I usually throw in several cloves. (I have nothing but derision for recipes that contain a single clove of garlic with claims of being ‘garlicky.’)
I made tomato-garlic confit several times over the last few months, beginning mid-May when the first crate of tomatoes arrived at my doorstep. Having large containers of confit in the fridge saved me having to think (yet again) about lunch or dinner (or breakfast sometimes). It is perfect for pastas, but also for smearing on pizza bases and toasts, and used anywhere you might want tomato sauce.
If you have any leeway to support this newsletter, I’d love it if you considered a paid subscription. I write to find readers to connect with, a personal, intimate readership like friends in a living room, without having to rely on large media publications.
Tomato garlic confit, a method
Slice tomatoes into halves or quarters; or, if you have cherry tomatoes, leave them whole. Bear in mind that they will reduce in volume, so start with more than you think you will need.
Put them in a large pot, along with some garlic cloves. I have had interesting results with a handful of chopped garlic, which produces a very garlicky confit; whole cloves are comparatively subtle.
Slosh in plenty of good olive oil––nothing too expensive, of course. Experiment with ratios; you’ll want to at least cover the bottom of the pot. I tend to err on the generous side, which can make for a rather oil-rich confit. Sprinkle in a pinch or two of salt.
Warm your tomatoes over medium heat. Break up the tomatoes as they heat up. Bring it to a gentle boil, then turn the heat to the lowest possible setting and let it putter away, uncovered, for at least an hour, perhaps an hour and a half. During that time, help the tomatoes along by crushing them against the side of the pot. Taste periodically so you can see how the confit evolves.
What you are looking for is something bright and sunny, the tomatoes singing loudly of themselves in multi-part harmony. Stop cooking when you like how it tastes. The tomatoes will break down into a rich but fairly loose sauce, and it will reduce a lot in volume. Add a little salt to taste.
Some recipes call for a pinch of sugar; I suppose that depends on your tomatoes and your tastebuds. There are recipes which suggest removing the skins. I cannot be arsed with such shenanigans, but if you dislike the texture of cooked tomato skins you should do as you please. Use the confit where you might otherwise use tomato sauce.
One Variant of Pasta I Make
Crisp cubes or strips of bacon in a pan. (This could be any other flavoursome protein: anchovies, ’nduja… although from experience, I would not recommend Spam.) Throw in some sliced garlic and sizzle. Half an onion, finely diced, if you would like a more substantial sauce, but I personally can’t be bothered most of the time.
Dollop in as much tomato confit as you want, enough to coat the pasta when you add it later on. Turn the mixture and let it simmer.
While things are simmering, you should put the spaghetti at some point, and cook it however the package dictates.
Scatter in generous handfuls of chopped leafy vegetables. I like leafy vegetables in my pasta but I wouldn’t dare speak for everyone. Vegetables that cook quickly work well here, like mizuna and radish greens; do not bother with kale. Let them wilt and become part of the sauce.
Season with black pepper, salt, perhaps a dash of fish sauce if you like. I like a generous amount of black pepper. In general, you will want to make the sauce a little punchier and saltier than you think it needs to be, as you will be tossing it with plenty of pasta.
When the pasta is ready––I like to cook it for a minute less than al dente–– add it straight into the pan with tongs. This usually ensures a little pasta water is already clinging to the noodles. Toss through, making sure the sauce clings to the pasta. Plate and eat. Or, you know, slurp straight from the pan. Nobody’s watching.
LONG READS, GOOD THINGS
Kalbi, Maybe (Catapult)
The influencers of pandemic gardening (engadget)
How Nespresso’s coffee revolution got ground down (The Guardian)
Malaysia’s Coronavirus Scapegoats (Foreign Policy)
Your Japanese textbooks are lying to you (Disrupting Japan)
BOOKS + MUSIC
Summer’s Lease (Thom Eagle): I am currently finishing this book and goddamn, I will be rereading this many times over. An utter gem of a book on preserving and cooking without heat, made even better by his voice–as though a very smart friend is talking to you in your kitchen, meandering seamlessly and elegantly through subjects and concepts without ever talking down to you. Cannot recommend enough.
Yogetsu Akasaka – Heart Sutra: I will be vibing out to this all week.