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« Pesto Variations | Main | Pumpkin Risotto with Sage and Cherry Tomatoes »

Charred Tomato Pesto

Charred Tomato Pesto

I've always been fascinated with the role errors play in discoveries, and in the creation of new ideas in the kitchen...and now I'm becoming equally fascinated at how writing a blog about my cooking has changed and enhanced my cooking by making me more open to new ideas and by putting me in daily touch with a whole community of people messing about in the kitchen and telling each other about it.

The error that opened this particular door was roasting a tray of tomatoes way too long, or actually probably the mistake was roasting them at too high a temperature. The late summer tomatoes are on hand, with field seconds available at low prices, so I decided to follow Alanna's slow roasting instructions with about a dozen ripe tomatoes I had on hand, to compare her method with mine, which is slightly different. Alanna calls for roasting the tomatoes 9 to 12 hours at 200º and since Alanna and I trade recipes and riff on each other's stuff all the time, I have total confidence in everything the Veggie Evangelist says, I set the oven at 200º, dosed the tomatoes with oil, garlic (a lot more than Alanna suggested), herbs (dried, as she said, though I almost never use dried herbs when I can get fresh), and salt and slid them in the oven at 9:30 in the morning. At 6:15 I came back and my nose immediately told me that I'd had way too much confidence in the cheapio apartment oven that I'm still getting used to. A peek in the oven confirmed it: the tomatoes were, on first glance, shrivelled little black cinders.

Charred Tomatoes for Charred Tomato PestThis was a big disappoinment (I was dreaming about a tray of plump red goodness, like this) and I was about to disgustedly shovel the whole mess into the bin when Elise asked me if I was sure there was no way to use the tomatoes, which looked for all the world like a pile of fire-roasted chiles -- blackened edges, with various shades of deep dark maroon fading in and out of the glossy wrinkles. I took a bite out of one and found it crunchy but also quite strongly flavored, with acid, sweet and sun-dried tomato notes -- and relatively little of the "burnt-toast" flavor I expected -- so I piled the little carcasses in a bowl, scraped in all the dried, burned bits and herbs from the pan and poured some olive oil over them to see if they could be reconstituted.

A day went by and I remembered Melissa's pesto sauce presentation, which I had praised in a post about green pesto variations a couple of days ago, and the red pesto sauce ("pesto rosso") she showcased along with her green. A quick check there and I found that the tomatoes in that recipe were sun-dried tomatoes, and so decided to try my little cinders in a pesto based on Melissa's.

I made some changes, of course -- adding some fresh basil since we're also swimming in that these days -- but pretty much it's Melissa's recipe (which she says was adapted from Patricia Wells' Trattoria).

The result was excellent. A deep, almost black maroon and laced through with charred bits of tomato skin, the sauce had a rich, smoky bite that was tomato in a highly concentrated form, and the roasted herbs gave the sauce a strongly nuanced flavor, with hints of fennel, basil, oregano and thyme. After satisfying servings of pasta tossed in the sauce we contentedly tore up a loaf of rustic bread and happily wiped the plates and bowls clean. We also tucked a nice portion away in the fridge for use on crostini, in omelets or as an enrichment for a hearty fall soup. Thanks Alanna and thanks Melissa, for contributing to this delicious variation, and thanks, of course, to E, who always challenges me to go around one more corner, and who enthusiastically appreciates the results when things turn out so well!

Charred Tomato Pesto

Charred Tomato Pesto
Adapted from recipes by Alanna Kellogg at A Veggie Venture and Melissa Kronenthal at The Traveler's Lunchbox.

Makes about 1-1/2 cup, which is enough to sauce 1-1/2 lb (dry weight) of pasta.

The Charred Tomatoes
12 Roma tomatoes
4 cloves garlic
1 T fennel seed
1 T dried oregano
1 T dried basil
1 tsp dried thyme
3/4 C olive oil
2 tsp sea salt

Halve the tomatoes lengthwise and place in a large bowl. Mince the garlic and add to the bowl. Add the herbs, 1/4 cup of the oil and the salt and toss to coat the tomatoes thoroughly. Place cut side down on a jellyroll pan and roast  in a 200º oven until the tomatoes are dried and shrivelled and starting to seriously char around the edges. The time this will take will vary according to your oven's accuracy, the size of the tomatoes and other factors (in other words, I don't know how long it will take in your oven), but count on 8 - 14 hours. They should look very dark and nearly useless when done. Use a metal spatula to scrape the tomatoes and all the little bits of burnt skin, herbs and oil from the pan. Place in a small bowl, pour on the rest of the olive oil, and them sit 24 hours or more in the oil, tossing them occasionally with tongs.

The Sauce
12 charred Roma tomatoes (above) in olive oil
4 cloves garlic
20 oil-cured olives, pitted
2 T fresh rosemary
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1/4 C (packed) fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup roasted unsalted almonds
2 T tomato paste
salt, hot sauce to taste
olive oil to taste

Place the tomatoes, garlic, olives, rosemary, sugar, vinegar, basil, almonds and tomato paste in a food processor with the steel blade in place and process several minutes, until the sauce is a chunky paste. Correct seasoning with salt and hot sauce. If the sauce seems too stiff, add olive oil or water to taste.

To serve on pasta, lift the pasta from the cooking water into the bowl with the pesto sauce, allowing a little of the cooking water to ride along. Toss thoroughly to coat the pasta with the sauce. Serve with shredded Parmigiano Reggiano in a separate bowl.


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OH MY GOSH: I'm so glad it worked out! I'm sure we've both tested our oven temps. But MY GOODNESS. Even at 13 hours, mine aren't even close to being charred, just a little dried out. (Maybe it was all that oil. Hmm. I wrote that with a little smiley face in the offing. But seriously, would it make a difference?)

Also, a chef gave me some interesting advice a couple of weeks ago, said that herbs like rosemary, thyme etc (the ones with woody stems) can be used for slow roasting but that ones like basil, tarragon etc (the ones which are mostly leafy) cannot. I'm going to try this, I'd prefer using fresh herbs too.

Hi Alanna...I had tested my oven at higher temps and found that it had at least a 50º swing on BOTH SIDES of the setting but had never tested it at lower temps...I guess I have gotten used to just checking the progress frequently but the last time I roasted tomatoes it was in my convection oven at my old house and I just set it and forgot and learn...

regarding the herbs...since everything was blackened and dried to a crisp (literally) I think fresh herbs would have been wasted...I've learned from (Asian) Indian cooks to toast my dried herbs and spices before grinding to intensify the flavors and I think something like that was operating here...

I'm not sure anyone would set out to make a recipe like this but...well, when you have bushels of tomatoes, why not...? the flavor was very intense...

anyway, as usual, thanks for stopping by...and thanks for all the inspiration at A Veggie Venture!

OMG, it's nowhere near lunchtime and you have me drooling at my desk. The idea of deeply flavoured, smoky, herby tomato pasta is just too much!! Isn't it great to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat??!

Now I'm really wishing that my tomato plants had decided to offer up a harvest this year. That looks wonderful.

That looks pretty damn good to me! No cheese?

Looks horrible, sounds delicious.

One of my favorite jams is "burnt fig" that was made because the cook remembered her mother burning figs and that she liked the flavor.

Wow! It's amazing what wonderful things can come from mistakes.

What a fantastic result from what seemed a disaster! I'm so glad that it worked out in the end!

How great that you were able to salvage the tomatoes, and probably come out with something better than you were expecting!

I also find that my blogging (food and woodworking) is making me better in both areas. Feedback, and a growing community on one hand, and forcing myself to be open and honest on the trials and triumphs is even more educational. What a wonderful small world were weaving.

looks great! do you think this stuff would freeze well?

I made this today. well, yesterday and today ;) I don't think they were quite as charred as you did, but it did the job. I had a bunch of basil from our produce box today, so I used it all. Smells great, can't wait to use it!!

This sounds terrific! Too bad tomato season isn't for several months- I'll try to keep this on my mind until then. Last summer I was roasting some peppers on the grill and forgot them- when I remembered, I ran to check on them and found perfect little peppers- perfectly black and carbonized, that is- you remember how Hans Solo looked when dropped into the carbonite? That's how my peppers looked. Without the slab of carbonite, though. Sadly, I don't think they would have made anything this good.

Just happened across this--can't wait to try charring some of my Amish paste tomatoes--hopefully after making the slow-roasted sort! LOL
A comment on the the Asian method of toasting dried herbs and spices before grinding...A Malaysian friend who was teaching me her techniques always pan-toasted the spices, but never herbs. And as the chef pointed out to Alanna (mentioned above), the woody-stemmed herbs are OK for long cooking, but the leafy, more delicate herbs are best added to a dish for the final few minutes of cooking--at which time one may wish to add just a wee bit more of the woody herbs to layer the effect, as it were.
Great site; added to my bookmarks!

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