The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Concassé – A Classic French Technique For Classic Italian Dishes

Okay, we all know that if the French hadn't had the good sense and good fortune to make Caterina de' Medici their queen back in 1547 and if she hadn't brought her own staff of Italian cooks with her to make the disgusting French food more palatable.....well, French food would still be disgusting. But they did and she did and it's not, so everybody wins. Especially the French, who get to brag about being the best cooks in the world......after the Italians taught them how to be.

Seriously, regardless of how it developed, French technique is the worldwide culinary standard. Fussy French chefs in their fussy brigades wearing fussy starched uniforms and fussy tall hats making their fussy sauces and fussy knife cuts and fussy garnishes for their fussy dishes make a bunch of plain old Italian grandmothers look pretty unimpressive by comparison. Even if nonna's food is better.

One of those fancy French techniques that can be applied to simple Italian cooking is concassé. (Pronounced kon-kah-SAY.) Taken from the French word concasser, which means “to crush or grind,” to concassé an ingredient is to roughly chop it. The term is usually applied to vegetables, especially tomatoes.

Now, Italians use a lot of chopped tomatoes. They use them in sauces and salads and pasta dishes and as toppings on bruschetta, just for a few examples. So if you're going to make any of these things, it helps to know how to concassé a tomato.

As it applies to tomatoes, concassé is actually a technique for peeling and seeding as well as for chopping. Yes, you can just take a knife and whack up a whole tomato skins, seeds, and all. But don't. Tomato seeds can be bitter tasting and devilish to pick out of your teeth and tomato skins can be tough and unpalatable even when cooked. When you buy canned Italian tomatoes, they are pomodori pelati; peeled tomatoes. They're peeled, but not always seeded. So let's take the next step to tomato concassé.

Start with fresh, ripe tomatoes. I prefer Roma tomatoes because they have fewer seeds, but any good fresh tomato will do. Fill a deep pot with enough water to cover the tomatoes and bring it to a boil. While that's happening, use the tip of a paring knife to cut around and remove the stem or its remainder on the top of the tomato. Then turn the tomato over and make a small “X” incision in the skin on the bottom. Make your cuts about an inch long and just deep enough to score the skin.

When the water comes to a boil, place the tomatoes – a few at a time if you're working with a big batch – in the boiling water. Leave the tomatoes in the water for 30 seconds to a minute, depending on the freshness of the tomato. When you see the skins start to curl up a bit where you cut the “X,” they're done. Use a spider or a slotted spoon to remove them from the water. This is called blanching or parboiling and it helps loosen the skin.

Cool the tomatoes in an ice water bath. Also called “shocking,” this method immediately stops the cooking process. Just don't leave them in the ice water too long or they'll become waterlogged. A minute or two should do it.

When the tomatoes have cooled, pick one up and slip the tip of your knife under one of the points of the “X” you cut in the bottom. Use your thumb to hold the flap of tomato skin against the blade of your knife and slowly peel back the skin. It should come off easily in nice strips. Do this all the way around.

Next, cut the tomato in half horizontally – around the middle, not top to bottom – and either squeeze out or scoop out the seeds. Some people quarter the tomatoes and seed them; whatever works for you. Now you can easily dice the tomatoes to whatever size you need. Rough chop or fine dice, they'll be a breeze to cut because the tough skin is what makes cutting tomatoes difficult to begin with.

Concaséed tomatoes are less watery when you're cooking with them than diced raw tomatoes. Not so much of a deal if you're putting them in a sauce, but it makes a big difference when you're using them to top bruschetta or putting them in a frittata or something like insalata Caprese. Besides, they look fancier and more finished and that's half of what French technique is about anyway.

So use some of that classic French technique in your classic Italian cooking. It's only fair, right?

Buona fortuna e buon mangiare!

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