Everything turns red and pink at this time of year, and I always quite like it. I’d never go out for dinner (too cringy) but I do like to do something – maybe a takeaway, maybe a meal deal, always some sort of little gimmick. But since Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday this time, there’s a real incentive to cook actual food, proper food; food you love and have time to think about and thoughtfully prepare; food for a chilly Saturday in February when there’s rugby on.
One option for Valentine’s Day which is a) red and b) delicious is pappa al pomodoro, a Tuscan tomato and bread soup which is the closest food to a hug you’ll find.
I first had it in a backstreet restaurant in Lucca on a misty day in late November several years ago, and it made a big impression. I loved its thick, comforting texture and its beautiful rich colour and flavour, and I loved the way the waiter added a luxurious swirl of olive oil to it with a (very Italian) flourish at the table. I had it again when I was back in Lucca several summers later, and it was just as good as I remembered, even in the heat of August.
I made it again recently, cooking it slowly so I could get the texture just how I remembered it, using a mix of tinned and fresh tomatoes and some day-old bread. It didn’t disappoint, and I think you’ll love it too, Valentine’s Day or not.
PAPPA AL POMODORO
This is an all-year-round soup: you can make it with either the freshest, softest tomatoes of August and serve it with basil, or you can make it with good quality tinned tomatoes and parsley or diced rosemary in winter; either way it’s lovely and very quick to make.
The other good thing about it is that it’s very forgiving – you actually have to use stale bread in it, making it a great option for when there’s nothing in the house. One note however: plain old sliced won’t work in this, as it needs a rustic style of bread like ciabatta or sourdough or a white country-style loaf.
2-3 cloves of diced garlic (smoked, if you have it)
1.5 cups of day-old bread, cut into large cubes
500ml chicken or vegetable stock
1 tin of good quality tomatoes
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups of fresh tomato
Salt and pepper
1tbsp olive oil
1 bay leaf
Good quality extra virgin olive oil
Fresh herbs (basil in summer; rosemary or parsley in winter)
Fry the diced onion in the butter and olive oil until it’s soft and golden. Add the garlic and the bread chunks and the bay lead and continue to fry for another minute or two. Remove the bay leaf and add the fresh tomato (skins removed if you’re using larger tomatoes, or just leave them whole if they’re small) and cook for a few more minutes. Season and add the tinned tomatoes. Then add the stock and leave to cook for about ten minutes. Blitz using a hand blender and add a little more weak stock if necessary and keep cooking till it’s thick but still a soup. Serve warm with a swirl of olive oil and chopped herbs.