During the first year of Alberto’s life I found myself skulking around corners in my Roman apartment building to avoid a certain generation of neighbors, dreading the inevitable lecture on the brodo vegetale. Being a first time mother, and all the more a foreigner, I was clearly crying out for guidance on the arts of child nutrition. I wanted to scream at them that I was the product of a woman who in the seventies had banned potato chips and sweets from the school tuck shop to replace them with celery sticks and apples. I wanted to regale them with stories of jam making, flower pressing and pies made with left-overs from the sunday roast, of sewn-by-mum pencil cases and all the rest in a childhood largely devoid of any mass produced food.
To be honest I didn’t really get into their thin watery brodo vegetale anyway. I was cooking up fresh vegetables, and thick hearty meat and vegetable concoctions to be blended and served to the hungry infant. Baby mush, as it gets called. In Italy pureed vegetables in various forms, for soups and food preparation are called passata, while the nick name for little people’s food in soft format, be it vegetables or small pasta or rice is “la pappa”.
La Pappa al Pomodoro is quite simply baby food for adults; full of the bursting ripeness of tomatoes overlaid with garlic and basil, mixed with stale bread and lots of good olive oil to be summed up by many as the taste of Tuscany. La Pappa uses stale rigorously unsalted bread, like that other classic La Panzanella. It is perhaps my favourite thing on the menu at Il Vecchio Mulino in Lubriano, and proof that the best stuff everywhere comes from the traditions of the cucina povera – where povera or poor takes on a meaning above and beyond money; signifying things that are humble, simple and easily obtained.
This recipe is taken from Cucina Regionale: Ricette di Osterie d’Italia from Slow Food Editore, and hails from the famous restaurant Il Cibreo, Firenze
For 6 people
Half a loaf of stale Tuscan bread (unsalted)
1 kilo very ripe tomatoes
1 stick of celery
1 large red onion
2 or 3 cloves or garlic – finely chopped
Handful of basil leaves
200 ml extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper (or dried chili)
Very finely chop the onion, carrot and celery and gently fry off in half the olive oil in a deep heavy based frypan or terra-cotta cooking pot, stirring regularly until the soffrito has a good uniform golden color. At this point add the tomatoes (that have been chopped and passed through a passaverdura or mincer) and a generous pinch of salt (a broken dried chili if desired) and let it cook over a low flame for 20 minutes.
In the mean time slice and cover the stale bread in water (even better tomato water if you have made the the tomato passata from scratch). Using unsalted Tuscan style bread is essential, bread with salt in it will not break down in the same way. Use your fingers to crumble the bread into a kind of paste. Discard any hard lumps from the crusts or likewise.
Add the bread to the tomato mix, and the very finely chopped garlic and roughly chopped basil. Leave over a low flame for another 5 minutes, adding a tablespoon of water if the pappa seems to be losing too much liquid. Remove from flame and stir through the rest of the extra virgin olive oil. La pappa can be served as part of an antipasto with grissini or crostini, but there are those who enjoy it as a kind of soup. Room temperature or lightly warmed through, it will also keep in the fridge for 2 or 3 days.