This recipe is neither easy nor quick (in fact, it will take most of a day to make). But if you want to capture the essence of gorgeous vine-ripened tomatoes (while you still can get them at market), this is your recipe. By slowly cooking tomato pulp in a low oven, you end up with an intensely flavored, homemade tomato paste that is sweeter with a more pure tomato taste than the canned varieties. Add a tablespoon to any pasta sauce, stew, soup, or gravy to impart a concentrated tomato depth of flavor. It is also a great condiment; spread it on toast instead of butter, serve with a cheese board, scramble a teaspoon into eggs, or eat with a gooey grilled cheese sandwich. Top each jar with a layer of olive oil, and the conserva will keep months in the refrigerator (if you scale up the recipe, keep the extra in half pint jars in the freezer). Just be sure to always use a very clean utensil when scooping it out, and adding more oil to the top before returning it to the refrigerator.
Make about 1 to 1 1/2 cups
Special equipment: food mill, half-pint canning jars, rimmed baking sheet ( a.k.a. half sheet)
5 pounds ripe good-quality tomatoes - meaty Romas work great
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for storage
1 teaspoon salt
1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Chop tomatoes roughly. Warm the olive oil in a large pot, add the tomatoes and salt, and bring the tomatoes to a rapid boil. Cook the tomatoes for about 2 minutes, or until they are very soft. Immediately pass them through the finest plate of a food mill, pushing as much of the pulp through the sieve as you can. Note: If your tomatoes are very ripe and you have a strong arm, you can skip the cooking step, but it will require lots of elbow grease.
2. Lightly oil a baking sheet with olive oil. Spread the tomatoes on the pan in an even layer. The tomatoes will spend 4 to 5 hours total in the oven, evaporating liquid and reducing considerably.
3. Allow tomatoes to cook for 90 minutes, remove from oven and use a spatula to the turn the paste. Return to oven and cook, turning every hour, until all the liquid has evaporated and the paste is turning dark and thick. This should take 2 to 3 more hours (depending on your oven and the water content of your tomatoes).
4. Once the paste is thick and dark, reduce the oven to 250 degrees and continue to cook another 2 hours, turning it with a spatula every 45 minutes to an hour. The paste is done when it is thick, shiny, and a deep red and may be ready to come out of the oven in less than two hours.
5. Transfer the conserva to two to three clean half-pint glass canning jars. Tomato conserva holds for a long time stored in glass jars and topped with one-half inch of olive oil. As you use it, maintain this level of olive oil on top. When not using it, store conserva in the refrigerator.