Italian Table Talk 3 Preserves

Summer is a promise.

Longer days, cheerful meals, clear skies, luscious, colorful and intensely flavored produce. Only with these thoughts in mind can we survive to winter. Only with the promise of tomatoes, apricots, zucchini and peaches, sun and freedom.

Summer, the best season of the year, blesses us with light, warmth and abundance. To the lucky owners of a vegetable garden, or a fruit orchard, or even to the more humble terrace-gardeners, summer is a feast. Nature can give us more food that we can possibly consume, sending the long season of privation and darkness to oblivion. Summer is the time to live in the moment, enjoying every single bite, every breath of air filled with the scent of tomato leaves, or with the saltiness of the sea.

I often think about myself in summertime in relation to the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper. Summer can distract me, stun me with smells, daylight and natural beauties. I indulge more, slow down my pace, and become less productive and more cheerful or contemplative –exactly like the grasshopper. Yet, the fable’s message is clear: summer is the perfect moment to think ahead, and to make the rest of the year less harsh. If nothing else, at least with food.

Fortunately (for me, too), other people have learnt to behave more like ants, understanding the importance of saving some of the summer yield for winter. In doing so, they tested and created methods to prevent food spoilage and to enable efficient storage and preservation of quality and nutrients for many months.

Italy is not exception: from fruit and vegetable jellies, jams and compotes to tomato canning; from pickling to drying and salting, the food history of the peninsula is studded with recipes to store and maintain food and to make it available all year around.

In this mood, we agreed on dedicating 3rd Edition of Italian Table Talk (after bread and street food) to the Italian tradition of making preserves in the summer. The variety of themes, recipes and methods is truly fascinating and can tell a lot about the culture, the society and the environment in which such traditions have developed throughout the centuries. It is undoubtedly an activity that celebrates summer and its abundance, but at the same time it tells us about people’s wisdom and ahead-thinking.

In this episode, Emiko will talk about the greatest Italian recipe collector ever existed, Artusi, and his recipe for tomato jam; Giulia will take us to her Tuscan paradise and share a recipe for French beans in oil; and Jasmine with give us a great recipe for pickling cucumbers. As for me, I will share a family recipe that has been passed through generations, and that taste like summer like no other.

me a very romantic meaning: as “maintaining unaltered”,  it can involve cultural heritage, history, memory, traditions. But when it comes down to food, preserving becomes also a pretty unromantic, down-to-earth concept: preventing food from rotting, spoiling and becoming inedible because of enzymes, bacteria, fungi (like molds) and yeasts. Humans have found by trial and error good ways to avoid these consequences by altering the state in which food is naturally found, thus, ensuring good stocks of food for the harsher months. It is all about biology and chemistry: reducing the moisture, eliminating the oxygen, lowering the ph, heating the food etc. They might have not had a clear scientific idea of how and why doing certain things would preserve food, but they knew it worked, and that was good enough. Nowadays, thanks to modern technology, the preserving practices have increasingly reduced, in favor of more practical and quick ways, such as refrigerating, vacuum packing and freezing. Yet, making jams and tomato sauce is a practice that still exists, no matter if it is for need or just fun, if it is the family recipe or one found on the internet.

My grandma, age 92, is no exception. As far as I remember, she has always made preserves in summertime, with the vegetables from her own garden. It is simply something she does without asking herself any questions: the abundance of food spurs her to make conserve (preserves, in Italian). She has always been more about the vegetable than the fruit ones, so home-made jams weren’t really part of our traditions as much as tomato sauce and other vegetable preserves.

I remember as a kid spending long afternoons getting beans out of the pods, collecting tomatoes and peppers, cleaning green beans, helping with the mason jars. At one point, though, grandma embraced technology, too –she bought big freezers where she could store her food, vegetables and meat included. However, she never stopped making some sauces that would end up in jars on the shelves of the humid and dark garage. Among many, I remember the omnipresent tomato sauce with garlic and basil, the   nourishing pea ragù, and my absolute favorite, salsa di melanzane (aubergine sauce), which my mum said being pretty common in her family of origin, too –in fact, she makes it as well, pretty much the same way.

I tried to find the origin of this recipe in some traditional local cookbook or website, but I didn’t. What I found instead is that aubergine was brought to Sicily by Saracens first, and then that the crop has been spread all over the peninsula by Romans, as it was rather easy to cultivate in many of its climate zones. Along with the diffusion of aubergine came recipes to cook it and preserve it, different in each region but somehow related. In fact, the nitty-gritty of this recipe isn’t very far from the Sicilian caponata , or some Calabrian traditional recipes, or many others for aubergine sauce, stew and side.

The main difference is that aubergine is not fried, and there is not the combination of sweet and sour flavors to it. It is simply a mix of aubergine, green bell peppers, onions and tomatoes, stewed together in some oil at very low heat for a while, until all the vegetables fall apart and a creamy, chunky sauce is formed. The sauce is then cooled and stored in sterilized jars, or (nowadays), frozen in freezer bags. It is normally eaten cold, always with some panbiscotto (or normal bread if you don’t have it), by itself or perhaps with some cheese, or after a main dish of pasta or soup.

If I think of summer, one of the flavors that come alive first is the flavor of this sauce. I asked my mum her recipe to be able to make it myself, and share it with you. I hope all these ants in my family will convince me sooner or later to abandon my summer-y, grasshopper attitude and join the industrious team. I am trying, and definitely enjoying the process.

The recipe.  It is not precise, as many of the old grandma’s recipes, but this means that it is pretty forgiving, too, so don’t worry too much about measurements. You will need 2 kg of diced aubergines, 5/6 green bell peppers, diced as well, 1 big yellow onion, chopped, 6 very ripe San Marzano tomatoes and 2 garlic cloves. Place aubergine, then peppers, then tomato, onion and garlic in a big pan. Season with some salt, add 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Set the pan over low-medium heat and cook until very tender, stirring often to avoid vegetables from sticking to the bottom. When they are soft and creamy, remove the pan from the heat. Let cool down whatever you want to eat immediately or in the next days. For longer preserving, transfer the still hot sauce into sterilized mason jars, close with lids and place them a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 20 minutes, then remove from the heat. Let the jars cool completely in the pan, then remove them from water. You can store them for several months in a dry, cool and dark place.

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