Local heirloom tomatoes are exceptionally good this season. My favorites are the Cherokees: big, meaty, oxblood-colored fruits. We always have some in the house these days.
Among the many ways I’ve been eating them is cooked with potatoes. I came late to an appreciation of this combination. In my childhood, a frequent family dinner was pan-fried beef liver served with mashed potatoes and stewed tomatoes (canned, of course). This was far from one of my favorite meals, and I particularly disliked eating the potatoes sloshed with watery tomato juices. It took my grown-up discovery of Italian cooking for me to realize what a marriage made in heaven these two things can be.
Here are some of the potato and tomato dishes I’ve been making this summer.
This recipe for potatoes baked with tomatoes and onions is in Naples at Table, by Arthur Schwartz. It’s the soul of simplicity. Toss thinly sliced potatoes, thinly sliced onion, coarsely chopped canned tomatoes (Italian-style, senz’altro), salt, and oregano in a shallow oiled baking dish. Mix everything together. Put into a 400° oven for 45 minutes, stirring or not, according to whether you want the bottom layer to get crusty or stay soft.
This is one of those great peasant dishes that taste much better than you’d think they possibly could, given how little there is to them. I made it with chunked Cherokee tomatoes rather than canned, and used a bit more than the recipe called for. It was terrific.
Pasticcio di Patate
Almost 15 years ago, in Rome, Tom and I had a dinner at Checco Il Carettiere. This cheerful, bustling Trastevere restaurant was largely a tourist place, but the food was fine. The house’s display table contained – among its profusion of antipasto and contorno selections – one huge, dense, red-orange mound. That mound intrigued us. Asked about it, the waiter said it was a pasticcio di patate, made with potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. Well, we thought, what could hurt? We ordered some. It was delicious. I told myself I was going to try re-creating it at home, but the years went by and I never did.
Imagine my pleasure, then, when, looking through my new copy of Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook, I found a recipe called Tomato Mashed Potatoes, with a headnote saying it was inspired by a dish Michele had had at a trattoria in Rome. It was exactly my Checco’s potato “pie”! I made it right away.
It’s a little more work than the previous recipe, but still easy. Boil potatoes in their jackets. Meanwhile, soften chopped onions and a pinch of red pepper flakes in olive oil, add tomato puree, and cook until it gets quite thick. Mash or rice the cooked potatoes into the tomato sauce, stir, and add salt and pepper to taste. Either transfer it to a serving dish as is; or oil a bowl, pack the mixture into it, and unmold it onto a plate. If you’ve gotten the paste thick enough, as they did at Checco, it will mound up handsomely and can be served in slices.
My version unmolded, but it was a little too soft for slicing, so it had to be spooned out. But it was none the worse for that. Next time I may play with the proportions or reduce the sauce a bit more. The dish is good hot, warm, or at room temperature. (Actually, all three of these dishes get even tastier as they cool – as long as you don’t have a prejudice against cool vegetables. Italians firmly believe that Americans eat everything too hot.)
Baked Sliced Potatoes and Tomatoes
This Calabrese preparation is one of Tom’s and my own recipes, from our first book, La Tavola Italiana. Again, it’s extremely easy to put together, and it tastes better than you might think it could for so minimal a preparation.
You oil a large baking dish. Fill it with a single layer of thickly sliced potatoes. Salt them lightly. Top them with a layer of very ripe tomato slices, also salting lightly. Strew garlic slivers over all, sprinkle on a little grated pecorino cheese, drizzle with olive oil, and bake at 350° until the potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes. The picture below is a half recipe, made to serve two.
The dish does have to be checked a few times in the oven, in case the tomatoes aren’t juicy enough to keep the potatoes from drying out. If so, a little hot water does the trick. Oh, and it also has to be cooled 10 minutes before serving, or else the boiling hot tomato juices will sear your lips. It’s well worth the wait!
All three of these potato-tomato combinations go especially well with steak, pork chops, or sausages, and, just by themselves, I think they’d even make satisfying vegetarian meals, along with good crusty bread and green salad. Both potatoes and tomatoes are products of the Americas, but they needed a trip to Italy for their partnership to blossom.