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Pappa al pomodoro (Tomato bread soup)

August 20, 2008
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Serves 4

Italian cooks make the most of stale bread. Instead of just tossing their day-old, even week-old, loaves to the birds, they whip up all manner of frugal treats: Toast the bread as bruschetta, toss it with salad vegetables for panzanella, or make the miraculous pappa al pomodoro, essentially fresh tomato sauce thickened with stale bread. The texture - a luxurious red mush - resembles a savory bread pudding (or baby food). It sounds humble, but this dish is serious alchemy. Start by cooking garlic slowly in olive oil. Add fresh tomatoes and when they fall apart, throw in the bread and then a few handfuls of sweet basil. After a few minutes it will be thick and bubbly, ready for another drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan. While tomatoes are in season, you'll find yourself letting the bread go stale on purpose.

8large tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 loaf day-old, slightly stale, crusty bread, roughly torn or cut into cubes
1 cup basil leaves, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil (for sprinkling)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1. Core the tomatoes. With the tip of a paring knife, make a 1-inch "x" at the bottom of each one. Place the tomatoes in a large heatproof bowl. Pour enough boiling water over them to cover them. Set aside for 10 seconds to loosen the skins. Drain the water. Peel off and discard the skins at the slits. Roughly chop the tomatoes.

2. In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for 3 minutes until soft but not brown. Add the tomatoes and their juices and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the tomatoes begin to soften and break down.

3. Add the bread to the tomatoes. Continue cooking for 5 minutes or until the bread soaks up the sauce.

4. Stir in the basil, salt, and pepper. Simmer 5 minutes more. Ladle into bowls, and sprinkle with more olive oil and Parmesan. Jonathan Levitt

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