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Il Rientro

Just one of the many ports of call on our long, intercontinental slog home to Martina Franca.

Just one of the many ports of call on our long, intercontinental slog home to Martina Franca.

Nothing prepares you for the sheer grind of transcontinental travel in the 21st century. Not the other trips you’ve taken before, the vague memory of endless, crushing fatigue or your focus on how wonderful it will all be when you arrive. It’s just a long, dull and especially uncomfortable series of confined spaces, miserable food and too many fellow travelers. Like childbirth, the blessing is that you tend to forget the worst parts by basking in the glow of the wonderful.

The summer sun sets over the pinnacles of a set of cone-shaped stone houses called trulli.

The summer sun sets over the pinnacles of a set of cone-shaped stone houses called trulli.

For us, the wonderful is Puglia, the southern Italian region we now call home. It’s been a year now that we have lived here more or less continuously, though we’ve been tied to Puglia since 1996 when we bumbled into the Valle d’Itria on an extended road trip with our young children. We fell in love, purchased a stake in the form of an olive orchard and a very old, cone-shaped stone house and vowed to return as often we possibly could.

Brian confers with olive harvesters on the final day of the 2012 harvest.

Brian confers with olive harvesters on the final day of the 2012 harvest.

July 19,2012 marks the day we arrived here to live for good. Except for a few trips here and there and a visit to the U.S. last month to see family and friends and promote our olive oil, we are growing deeper roots here by the day. Earlier this year, we launched our business, Pascarosa, exporting exquisite organic extra virgin olive oil from our own olives and neighboring olive groves. Our lives are now bound by our relationship to this land and its people. Our future is here.

Dinner with our son, Stephen, at a friend's house in Portland, Oregon—just one of the many moments we've taken with us back to Puglia.

Dinner with our son, Stephen, at a friend’s house in Portland, Oregon—just one of the many moments we’ve taken with us back to Puglia.

So our return flight last week wasn’t anything like the flights we taken in the past when we were coming to visit. We were on vacation then, filled with the promise of long, languid days on the beach or under the grapevine-draped pergola. In the past, our travel mood was expectant, excited and deeply grateful for the impending respite from our daily work lives. This time, we were coming home from our vacation, already missing our children, our parents and our longtime friends. Il rientro (the re-entry) was a just a little bittersweet.

What's on offer from a local forager at the Wednesday market in Martina Franca.

What’s on offer from a local forager at the Wednesday market in Martina Franca.

But now we’re back in the swing. We’ve been to the market and jumped back into the kitchen. Friends have dropped by with tomatoes, confirming that summer has firmly taken hold. We’re also meeting with our olive miller to plan the blends for Pascarosa’s next organic and sustainably produced olive oils. And we’re also looking at some wonderful organic food products from the Valle d’Itria and its neighboring towns that we hope to export within the next six months, which means a new round of label and packaging design.

A just-made bowl of passato di pomodoro from a gift flat of tomatoes.

A just-made bowl of passato di pomodoro from a gift flat of tomatoes.

So along with growing the business, we’re planting the planter boxes on our balconies, making passato di pomodoro and escaping to the beach when it’s too hot to do anything else. We’ve put away the winter clothes and the heavy comforters and sleep under a cool cotton sheet. We join our neighbors for the evening passeggiata, reveling in the cool breezes. And we continue to pinch ourselves. A year ago, we didn’t know what our lives would look like today. Now we’ve taken the measure of it all and find that this life fits like a glove.

A gift flat of tomatoes from Pino Calabrese's garden.

A gift flat of tomatoes from Pino Calabrese’s garden in the countryside on the way to Ostuni.

If someone gives you a flat of beautiful, red sauce tomatoes or you’re anticipating a bounty from your own garden, jump back into the kitchen yourself by making your own heavenly passato di pomodoro. Like everything else in Italy, its preparation is deeply regional, so I’ll share how we do it in the Valle d’Itria, It’s a hot, sticky and sometimes messy endeavor, but when you serve it in on a dark January day, you’ll think about the day you bottled sunshine and be especially grateful you took the time.

Just the beginning of a beautiful season of tomatoes in Puglia.

Just the beginning of a beautiful season of tomatoes in Puglia.

This recipe comes from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ capolavoro (masterpiece) The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Since passato di pomodoro is most efficiently made in huge quantities, feel free to double, triple or quadruple the recipe if you have lots of tomatoes. And as noted in Nancy’s recipe, you might find it easier to freeze the sauce in one-cup or one-quart containers rather than preserve it in jars in a boiling water bath. If you do decide to go this latter route, here is a great source on the finer points of canning at home. Pay close attention if you’re a first-timer.

Passato di Pomodoro—Tomato Sauce

Ingredients:

2 or 3 garlic cloves, sliced (optional)

2 Tbsp. best quality extra virgin olive oil

4 lbs. fresh tomatoes, cut into chunks

1 tsp. sea salt

1/2 tsp. sugar (optional)

Method:

Tomatoes are prepped and ready for the next step in making passato di pomodoro.

Tomatoes are prepped and ready for the next step in making passato di pomodoro.

In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, cook the garlic in the olive oil until it starts to soften, about 5 minutes. Don’t let the garlic brown as it will make the sauce acrid—if the garlic browns, toss it out and start all over again with fresh oil and fresh garlic.

Tomatoes, olive oil, sea salt and a pinch of sugar if you like all simmer together before they are passed through a food mill.

Tomatoes, olive oil, sea salt and a pinch of sugar if you like all simmer together before they are passed through a food mill.

Add the tomatoes, salt and sugar (if you’re using), raise the heat slightly and cook rapidly, stirring frequently, while the tomatoes give off their juice and cook down to a thick mass—15 to 20 minutes. Watch the mixture carefully toward the end to make sure it doesn’t scorch.

Put the sauce through the medium disk of a food mill. Don’t use the food processor or a blender because it will grind up the tomato seeds and make the sauce bitter. The food mill will hold back most of the seeds and skin, letting just the pulp go through.

The passatutto or food mill is utterly indispensable in the Italian kitchen.

The passatutto or food mill is utterly indispensable in the Italian kitchen.

If the sauce seems too thin, return it to medium-high heat and continue cooking, stirring constantly and watching very carefully, until it has reached the right thick saucy consistency.

Cool to room temperature and measure into freezer containers  in one-cup or one-quart sizes. Heavy-duty freezer bags with a vacuum seal are best. AFter about six months, the flavor may start to decline, but I doubt you’ll be able to resist that long (CEF).

Orecchiette al sugo, is just one of the many uses for passato di pomodoro.

Orecchiette al sugo, is just one of the many uses for passato di pomodoro.

This is an all-purpose tomato sauce that is equally appropriate as an addition to soups, alone or as a base for tomato sauce variations on pasta or as part of a braise with poultry, fish or meat.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cynthia #

    Welcome home!

    July 18, 2013
  2. Long flights must be endured when we decide to live far from our original homes and families. I try to think of just the positives…you get to sit and read a book, watch a movie, someone brings you food (I know it isn’t much good), you can have a little sleep and you get to arrive somewhere wonderful. I don’t get jet lag and just hit the ground running in my new time zone.
    You have a very handsome son.

    July 18, 2013
  3. Hi, Debra–I know, I know. Sounds a little ungrateful to complain. Travel in general and jet-lag in particular usually don’t throw me for a loop. Like you, I plunge right in. This time was different. Thanks so much for your kind words about our son. Stephen. He’s handling wholesale sales of our olive oil and is making an impact–we’re delighted!

    July 19, 2013
  4. Jan #

    Thanks for the yummy recipe and tips Catherine — not sure my tomato plants will yield enough to warrant making a batch of this sauce but will definitely try it for my next pasta dish. And as always, so enjoy you sharing glimpses of your life in Italy with us mainland bound souls.

    July 19, 2013
    • Thank you, Jan. There’s nothing quite like your own tomatoes during the long, hot summer. I thought of you the other day because we had a very, very hot day and I remembered what you told us about Ashland’s summer temperatures. Things are back to normal here, which is still pretty warm and sunny during the day, but yesterday’s 104 degree high was really something! We hope you’re well–we think of you in wonderful Ashland often. We hope you’re thinking about an eventual visit . . . you would love it here!

      July 30, 2013

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