I have never felt comfortable calling myself a proper gardener. Not really. Though I have always loved growing things (particularly things to eat): I've rarely been able to bring myself to thin carrots; I have felt bad about pulling out weeds; and though I know I should be pruning my tomatoes of side shoots (to increase yield and help prevent disease), year after year, I have let them go. Until now.
If homegrown food tastes better (it does), homegrown tomatoes eaten still-warm straight from the vine are nothing short of addictive. The fruit from your own vines tastes as a tomato should taste - and there is no better reminder of the importance of eating locally, in season. But it isn't just the fruit that has seen me dedicate at least half my growing space to tomatoes each year - I do so also for the leaves. If colours could smell, surely green would be the scent of tomato leaves on a gardener's fingers. Heady and warm, I have always found their fragrance delicious - making it a joy to spend an hour or so in the vegetable patch tying the vines as they reach toward the sun.
I have flavoured pasta with everything from nettles and squid ink to saffron, beetroot and red wine. And each year when our neighbour prunes her enormous fig tree, I hang some of the leaves to dry and use them to make fig leaf fettuccine, but it never occurred to me that I could use tomato leaves to flavour my dough. Indeed, I had always assumed that the leaves were inedible as with other members of the nightshade family.
Let us put this to rest once and for all: tomato leaves are not toxic and are perfectly fine to eat. Though the leaves have a strong, herbal aroma, it is not an overwhelming flavor in this pasta.
As soon as I read these words I put down Jenn Louis' "The Book of Greens", picked up the secateurs and went out to prune the tomatoes. I also harvested the my first tomatoes of the season (cherry tomatoes which are often the first to bear fruit), snipped a couple of sprigs of thyme and basil, and collected a few freshly laid eggs. Needless to say I felt very good about dinner that night, and I made it again as soon as there were enough ripe tomatoes on the vines.
By growing a little of the food we consume, we are more conscious of waste; we tend to eat more fruit and vegetables - and we benefit more from the nutrients that begin to diminish as soon as they are harvested. Even if you live in an apartment, you can grow basil or mint on a windowsill and understand how it feels to eat what you grow - and you don't even need to be a gardener!
Tomato Leaf Pasta with Slow-Roasted Tomato Sauce
(Pasta recipe adapted from Jenn Louis' "The Book of Greens")
SERVES 3 - 4
180g tomato leaves, stripped from the stems to yield roughly 150g
2 - 3 large organic eggs, at room temperature
300g '00' flour
Semolina, for dusting
for the Slow-Roasted Tomato Sauce -
700 - 800 g cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
2 - 3 cloves garlic, flattened with the back of a knife but left whole
5 - 6 best quality anchovies
80 ml extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and dried chilli flakes
thyme, oregano or marjoram (optional)
20 - 30 g unsalted butter
basil or flat leaf parsley (optional)
Pecorino Romano, ricotta salata or fresh goat cheese, to serve
Prepare the tomato leaves by blanching them in lightly salted boiling water for about two minutes, drain and plunge them into an ice bath to cool immediately. Squeeze out the excess moisture and add them along with two of the eggs to a food processor or blender. Pulse until the leaves are chopped very finely and the mixture is smooth. Make a well in the flour, scrape in the egg mixture and mix with a fork to combine. If the mixture feels dry, whisk the remaining egg in a small bowl and add a tablespoon at a time until it comes together; if feels too wet, add a little extra flour. Knead for about 8 - 10 minutes until you have a smooth, elastic piece of dough that springs back when you press on it with a finger. Wrap in plastic and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to two hours, at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 180C / 160C fan forced. Place the tomatoes, garlic and anchovies in a heavy-based saucepan that can go in the oven (I like cast iron), and drizzle over the oil. Season with sea salt (taking into account the saltiness of the anchovies), dried chilli and add a couple of sprigs of thyme or oregano if you have them. Roast for an hour or so, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are very soft and beginning to brown in places.
Meanwhile roll out and cut the pasta. Dust with semolina to keep it from sticking and allow to dry a little until the sauce is ready. Remove the saucepan from the oven and stir through the butter.
Cook the pasta in plenty of well-salted, boiling water - it should be 'as salty as the sea' - at least one litre of water and one teaspoon of salt per 100 g pasta, checking for 'doneness' after about two minutes. When it is almost cooked, remove the pasta with tongs straight into the waiting pan of sauce allowing a little of the cooking water to go with it. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce and serve immediately on warmed plates with freshly torn basil or chopped flat leaf parsley and some cheese.
'La pasta non aspetta' (the pasta does not wait)
C(h)ook's notes -
- Italians are infamous for giving instructions peppered liberally with 'QB' (quanto basta / enough) and 'dipende' (it depends), and it is only by kneading your dough by hand that you begin to understand not only why, but also when your dough feels too wet or too dry. Everything from the freshness of the flour to the humidity in the kitchen will alter the flour to liquid ratio.
- Of course you can leave out the anchovies, but I would implore you not to. Rather than make the sauce taste at all 'fishy'; they impart a wonderful umami flavour to the dish.
- The pasta will only take a few minutes to cook .
- If you like, you can also use semolina in place of up to 50% of the '00'.