No sooner did I set foot in Italy last summer than the entertaining began. We just arrived in Tuscany and there was already a huge bash happening that night at the villa to celebrate Gianni’s niece’s 18th birthday. A gran gala complete with all the trimmings of an A-list affair had been in the planning stages for months…only for the junior jet-set. My daughter was going with all the cousins and an international guest list of youngsters flown in from London, Paris and beyond. Formal attire was de rigueur for the event — black tie for the boys and long gowns for the girls — and festivities would include champagne (perfectly legal for 18-year olds in Italy), white-glove dinner service, dancing under the stars…the whole shebang. Sounded like fun. But we, the “adults”, were not invited. Only the young and beautiful would attend — a kind of changing of the guard. “That’s ok,” my friend Maria Pia sniffed, “we’ll have our own party for all the parents at our house”. My usual question of “what should I make?” was answered with “qualcosa per un buffet” or something for a buffet dinner. At that exact moment, Maria Pia’s beautiful daughter strutted into the kitchen and announced with aplomb, “I’m wearing a red dress to the party.” Hmmm, I had something rosso on my mind but it was not a dress. There was no question what I would prepare for our dinner party that night and it was also red. Summer was in full swing with record heat waves so tomatoes were ultra-ripe and abundant. And, when you say tomato to me, I immediately think of…Pomodori al Riso.
Pomodori al Riso is a traditional dish from Rome that pays homage to height-of-summer tomatoes like only Romans can — by placing them center stage as divas of baked vegetables that seduce both the eye and the appetite. Voluptuous tomatoes — kissed first by the sun and then by the oven — are transformed into hollow vessels stuffed with fragrant, garlic-and-herb-infused rice that playfully peeks out from under wrinkly red “caps” perched atop their plump curves like festive hats. In addition to a stunning presentation and easy to serve portions, these intensely flavored stuffed tomatoes are prepared in advance and served at room temperature — making them perfect for summer entertaining.
As with all Italian cooking, making good stuffed tomatoes requires good ingredients: ripe yet FIRM tomatoes, excellent quality rice, fruity extra virgin olive oil, fresh mint, parsley and garlic plus…a little manual dexterity and a lot of patience (I’ll explain later). At the local vegetable stand, I chose tomatoes more-or-less the same size (slightly larger than a tennis ball) by gently squeezing each one to make sure it was firm enough to remain intact during baking. These were pomodori ramati, or cluster tomatoes, that are bright red, round and meaty with a herbaceous, vine-ripened scent. In fact, the ones I selected still had stems attached, some of which I’d leave on for presentation purposes.
Back in the kitchen, I sliced the rounded tops off the tomatoes to create “lids” then carefully scooped out the pulp, seeds and precious juices from inside each one to form hollow shells with thick walls. This required the use of a serrated grapefruit spoon and a bit of care to avoid piercing the delicate tomato flesh and outer skin (remember the patience I talked about). The hollow tomatoes were turned, cut side down, to drain while the stuffing was made. I pureed the tomato pulp and juices through a food mill to eliminate bitter seeds and tough core then poured in plenty of extra virgin olive oil (I talked about amazing Tuscan olive oil in this previous post). Next, using the resident mezzaluna — a half-moon shaped knife in every Italian kitchen — I made a battuto, or fine chop of garlic-mint-parsley. The rocking motion of the curved blade over this particular combination of herbs released a familiar aromatic scent that reminded me of another classic Roman dish I often make — Carciofi alla Romana — and gives the stuffed tomatoes that unmistakably Roman taste.
Rice plays a starring role in this dish and the quality is important. While Arborio works well and is commonly used, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano (also risotto rice) are even better because of their superior quality. I added the raw rice and minced herbs to the tomato juice and gave the mixture a good stir before letting it rest for about half an hour. While the rice soaked up moisture and flavor, I peeled and thickly sliced some potatoes.
With all the prep work done, it was time to put this dish together. I arranged the tomato shells upright in an oiled baking dish and filled them almost full with rice and juices before placing their lids back on. Then I strategically wedged potato slices in between the tomatoes to hold them snugly in place as they baked. The rice would absorb the liquid, plump and cook while the tomatoes baked being held upright by the potatoes that cooked at the same time. At that point I stopped to marvel at the brilliance of the Romans and their clever culinary creativity. But that wasn’t the only thing I was admiring. The sight of the assembled dish was so gorgeous that I grabbed my camera to capture the beauty of nature at work.
As a final gesture of love, I drizzled the tomatoes and potatoes with more olive oil and sprinkled with salt (tomatoes are very needy) before sliding them into the hot oven. The kitchen soon filled with an irresistible aroma, letting me know that the stuffed tomatoes were almost done. When I took them out of the oven after an hour, they were deeply bronzed with wrinkly skin and the potatoes soft with golden edges. I tasted the rice for doneness and it was tender, moist and very tasty. Now came the hard part, but it had nothing to do with work. Tradition dictates that pomodori al riso rest at least one hour before serving to allow flavors to mingle and marry. The temptation was very strong to sneak a tomato, but I resisted. Maria Pia had already set the table and plated the other items for the buffet. There was nothing left to do but wait for guests to arrive and admire our beautiful daughters in their long gowns as they headed off to the gala.
As we, “the adults”, sat around the large round table under the stars, music from the party at the villa drifted over through the trees and became the background sound to our animated dinner conversation. It was effortless, elegant Italian entertaining at its best. And tonight, Maria Pia’s daughter wasn’t the only lady in red. My baked rice stuffed tomatoes made a spectacular entrance on the table and were enjoyed by all. So, when you say tomato, I will always say “pomodori al riso”.