There’s only one ingredient I couldn’t do without in my Mediterranean restaurants—my tomatoes. These aren’t just plain tomatoes, however, but what I call tomato “confit.” I roast beefsteak tomatoes in oil, which slowly intensifies their flavor by reducing the moisture content and caramelizing the juices without drying them out completely. The result: a soft, intensely flavored piece of tomato that can be used as a condiment or a main ingredient. In fact, I like them so much that I pair them with nearly everything I cook, from pastas to pizzas.
The secret to these tomatoes is a generous coating of olive oil and a low oven. First I peel, quarter, and seed beefsteak tomatoes so that I’m left with just tomato flesh. (As a shortcut, you can use seeded, unskinned, halved plum tomatoes, though the finished confit won’t be as delicate). Then I coat the tomato flesh generously with olive oil, spreading the pieces evenly flat across a baking sheet. At the restaurant, I put them in a 225°F convection oven; the circulating air helps cook them evenly. At home, I cook them just shy of 300°F (try 275°F if you think your oven runs hot). I say that because ideally the tomatoes won’t brown or blacken, though they will deepen in color, before they’re reduced to about a third of their original thickness; this will take about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. When done, the tomatoes will be shrunken and wrinkled but still somewhat moist on the inside (unlike sundried or oven-dried tomatoes) since the olive oil bath has helped them retain some moisture. Their flavor will be intense and earthy, somewhat sweet and somewhat tangy. Once the tomatoes are cool, I store them in the fridge for up to two weeks. When I store them, I cover the tomatoes with olive oil, using any oil that’s left over from roasting and topping it off with fresh olive oil if needed.
Use the tomatoes whole, sliced, or chopped in many dishes. For example, I always have a pasta on the menu—like tagliatelle with chicken, wild mushrooms, and artichokes—that includes these tomatoes. And in one of my most popular dishes, a Tomato, Goat Cheese & Basil Terrine, the tomatoes are a main ingredient. But mostly I try to respect the delicate texture and great flavor of these tomatoes by treating them as a highlight to a dish and not messing with them too much. This means I don’t usually cook them again; rather, I might fold them into a dish like polenta or risotto towards the end of cooking, or more often, I might just arrange the room-temperature tomatoes alongside a piece of grilled fish or a lamb chop and let diners use the confit as a condiment. Sometimes I dice, chop, or slice them to add to a salad or a sandwich. I think the flavor is best appreciated when the confit is at room temperature (don’t serve the tomatoes straight from the refrigerator), but you can gently warm them on a baking sheet in the oven, if you like.
Add complex flavor with tomato “confit”
• For an appetizer or first course, layer the tomato pieces with sliced fresh mozzarella (drained of excess moisture) and basil leaves. Drizzle with olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.
• Make a sandwich of sliced grilled chicken, crisp arugula, Gorgonzola, and sliced tomato confit on sourdough bread.
• When making polenta, fold in thinly sliced or chopped pieces of tomato confit just as the polenta is coming away from the sides of the pan. For a richer flavor, mix a bit of mascarpone cheese into the polenta before adding the tomatoes.
• Serve room temperature or slightly warmed whole pieces of tomato confit as a condiment alongside grilled fish, seared lamb chops, or roasted asparagus.
• Finish a saffron-scented risotto by folding in tomato confit, diced or slivered, at the end of cooking. Garnish with sliced toasted almonds.
• Use tomato confit as a crostini topping. Toast baguette slices, top with warmed goat cheese, a basil or mint leaf, and tomato confit
• Make an antipasto of thinly sliced prosciutto, a few niçoise olives, and whole pieces of tomato confit. Drizzle all with a good olive oil and serve with crusty bread.
• Chop the tomatoes roughly and whisk or blend together with olive oil and balsamic or sherry vinegar for a delicious vinaigrette.