October ushers in the change of seasons and the final days of the summer garden. It’s a time of gathering in the late tomatoes, the finally ripening sweet and hot peppers, shiny eggplants, and the plump tomatillos hiding under their sprawling vines. The days are warm and dry, and these fruits seem to hold a whole summer’s worth of goodness. It’s time to capture some of this exuberant flavor to brighten winter days.
Arthur Schartz’s book, The Southern Italian Table, is full of authentic recipes from traditional kitchens. It is especially valuable because the recipes come from a land of farmers, where local produce is celebrated and ingeniously delicious methods are used to preserve garden fresh flavor for the whole year. Schwartz has spent a lot of time with cooks who need to find enticing ways to use an abundance of zucchini, mountains of red peppers, piles of eggplant, and cascades of red onions. When I want to save all the goodness of the late summer garden, I go first to this cookbook to see what the Southern Italians do.
Conserva is what they do. I love the Italian word conserva, a word that brings to mind images of sun-drenched tomatoes and peppers, full of deep flavor and aroma, as well as the long sunny days that concentrate the tastes and smells to store away for winter. In Italy, conserva is a thick paste, traditionally made by drying a vegetable puree on large trays in the sun. The paste is packed into glass jars or crocks, sealed with a layer of olive oil, and stored in a cool stone cellar.
I use the term conserva loosely to include various intensely flavored preparations that can be stored for weeks or months in the refrigerator, freezer, or cold deep cellar. Conserva can be used as a relish, spread on bruschetta, or added by the spoonful as a “secret ingredient” flavor enhancer to other dishes such as polenta or risotto, soups and stews, or lentils and beans.
Conserva di Pomodori and Conserva di Peperoni
The instructions for making traditional tomato paste and sweet pepper paste are found in Rosetta Constantino’s cookbook, My Calabria. In her grandmother’s day, the women didn’t know about water-bath canning, so they preserved their tomatoes and peppers by cooking them to a thick puree, straining it through a food mill, and adding salt and sun.
I don’t rely on the sun to dry my conserva. Instead, I use a low-temperature oven for slow roasting tomatoes and peppers to get rich, deep, toasty flavor. These vegetables freeze beautifully and can be used for anything from pizza toppings and salads to making a chunky or smooth paste or sauce.
Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (Conserva di pomodori)
These are so easy and delicious! I have written about them several times, but they deserve more publicity. The very best batch I have made was slow roasted in the wood-fired oven after baking bread, but a regular oven works fine. I use small plum tomatoes like “Juliet”, as well as paste and large cherry tomatoes. Any dense, meaty tomato (preferably vine ripened) will work.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cut small tomatoes in half, larger tomatoes in slices about 1/2-inch thick. Place the cut tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Roll the tomatoes around gently to coat both sides and arrange them in a single layer, cut side up. Season with a little kosher or sea salt. Place in the oven and lower the heat to 225 degrees F. (You can leave the oven at the higher temperature if you are in a hurry, but you have to be watchful). Check on them after 1 1/2 hours and rotate the pans if necessary. Slowly roast the tomatoes until they are wrinkled and starting to brown on the bottoms, but still a little juicy–2 to 5 hours, depending on type and juiciness of the tomatoes.
Slow roasted tomatoes are a great partner for slices of fresh mozzarella and basil leaves, either on crusty bread or topping a pizza. Or, combine them with pancetta, red chile, and parsley to toss with pasta. They are great in tabouleh or couscous, in a frittata, or on a salad of spicy or bitter winter greens. Any extra roasted tomatoes may be slipped into freezer bags and frozen.
Slow-Roasted Sweet Pepper (Conserva di Peperoni)
Succulent and lightly caramelized, roasted sweet peppers are a wonderful treat to store for winter. This is an especially good way to preserve thin-walled roasting peppers. I grew Jimmy Nardello, Corno Rosso, and Big Red sweet peppers this year. Jimmy Nardello was the star for early ripening and being prolific over a long season, though both Corno and Big Red are larger and have thicker-walled fruits. The conserva we ate in Italy was made with celery and onion, as well as peppers; add what you like.
Heat the oven to 325 degrees F. Cut sweet red peppers into 1/2-inch strips (or chunks of equal size), discarding seeds and stems. Cut celery into 1/2-inch dice, and onion into 1/2-inch wedges. Peel garlic cloves, but leave them whole. Toss the strips (and optional additional vegetables) with olive oil to coat all surfaces well. Sprinkle with a little kosher or sea salt and toss again. Spread the peppers on baking sheets or roasting pans. Place the pans in the oven and slowly roast 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the peppers are soft and the skins are beginning to brown in patches. Times will vary, depending on the thickness of the peppers.
The roasted vegetables may be frozen just as they come out of the oven (think pizza or polenta topping) or they may be chopped in a food processor to make a coarse or smooth paste. I like to add crushed fennel seed and a hot chile or two to my conserva. Store conserva covered by 1/4-inch olive oil in a sterilized and tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator for several weeks, or in the freezer for several months.
Stuzzico: Eggplant, Red Pepper, and Onion Spread
The word stuzzico is used to mean “snack,” Arthur Schwartz explains, and this tasty roasted vegetable spread is meant to be served with bruschetta or crostini as an antipasto. The recipe he gives in The Southern Italian Table calls for a generous amount of wine vinegar and olive oil, which help to preserve the spread when stored in the traditional way–in crocks or jars topped with a layer of olive oil, kept in a cold cellar or refrigerator.
My taste for vinegar has declined, so I adapted his recipe to suit my taste buds and find so many ways to eat it that long-term storage isn’t an issue.
Ingredients: 1 1/2 lbs eggplant, 1 1/2 lbs red sweet peppers, 2 medium red onions, 4 to 6 garlic cloves, 1/2 tsp sea salt, 2 Tbs balsamic or wine vinegar (more to taste), 1 tsp red chile flakes (more to taste), 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, 1/2 cup chopped fennel fronds or flat-leaf parsley, 1 tsp lightly crushed fennel seed, 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano, extra-virgin olive oil
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Cut the eggplant into 1-inch cubes, seed the peppers and cut into 1-inch wide strips, cut the onions into 1-inch wide wedges, peel and lightly smash the garlic. Put the vegetables in a large bowl and drizzle with about 4 Tbs olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and toss to coat well. Scrape the mixture into a large roasting pan. Roast 35 to 45 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables are tender. While the vegetables are still warm, add the vinegar, chile, and herbs. Allow to cool before using a food processor to chop the stuzzico to a chunky or almost smooth puree, as you prefer. Season with salt and vinegar to taste. Add olive oil as desired.
Store stuzzico in sterilized jars, topped with 1/4-inch of olive oil in the refrigerator for a week or two. Freeze for longer storage.
Caramelized Onion Marmalade
This year I experimented in the onion patch with a stunning Italian red onion “Tropea,” a beautiful heirloom “Ailsa Craig,” and sweet, juicy “Expression.” They grew well and are delicious, but are not destined for long storage. So, I am storing them as “onion marmalade.”
Ingredients: 4 large red or sweet white onions, 2 to 3 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 tsp kosher or sea salt, 4 tsp sherry or balsamic vinegar, 1 Tbs chopped fresh thyme leaves, freshly ground black pepper, (optional, 1 or 2 whole heads roasted garlic)
Peel the onions and cut them in half lengthwise. Cut them lengthwise into very thin slices. Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sprinkle with salt. Stir well, cover the pan, and reduce the heat to low. After about 5 minutes, uncover the pan and continue to cook slowly, stirring frequently, until the onions are golden brown and very soft, 30 to 40 minutes. Add the vinegar, thyme, pepper, and optional roasted garlic. Stir and cook 1 or 2 more minutes, until the liquid is gone.
Onion marmalade is a delicious topping for bruschetta, focaccia, or polenta. Use it as a condiment for grilled meats or burgers, in sandwiches, or with eggs. The marmalade will keep in the refrigerator several weeks.
Please note!! All these conserva are most delicious when freshly made, so don’t postpone joy! Eat them immediately. If you are so fortunate to have a surplus of vegetables, make extra to store for winter.