María José San Román is one of my all-time favorite Spanish chefs, even though I’ve never actually been to any of her famous restaurants in the dazzling seaside city of Alicante, on the southeast coast of Spain. (Restaurante Monastrell and La Taverna del Gourmet, a sort of gastropub, are the best known.) If that seems odd, forgive me, but I’ve encountered this vibrantly enthusiastic and super-generous chef in many other guises and she always impresses with her talent, her culinary wisdom and her undying curiosity.
A few years ago, when I first met her, San Román had turned that curiosity to the subject of saffron. “I didn’t know a thing about it,” she said, “but I decided I have to know … everything!” So she put her mind to it and is now widely recognized as the Spanish authority on the golden crocus stigmas or threads that add flavor and color to so many Spanish dishes. (One of many kitchen trucs I learned from her: Start soaking saffron, in water or in milk, in the morning in order to use it that evening.)
Now she has applied similar wisdom to the subject of olive oil. “I just started learning about aceite two years ago,” she confessed, using the Spanish term for olive oil, “and I still find there is so much to learn. Almost every day I find out something new.”
So of course I was more than delighted when she decided to join us at AmorOlio, the olive oil week we celebrated this October at Villa Campestri in the Mugello Valley north of Florence. We were there to learn as much as possible about olive oil and so was San Román, who came with her husband Pitu Perramón. But in addition to learning about oil, San Román also contributed a lot to our understanding — especially of how extra virgin olive oil can function in a modern kitchen like hers, not just as a garnish but as a foundation of the cuisine.
One dish in particular fascinated me — San Román’s take on a simple tomato sauce like the ones so often served with pasta in Tuscany. She cooked down a large amount of tomatoes — using plum tomatoes available in local markets — then, with a hand blender, added extra virgin olive oil, a little at a time, as if she were making a mayonnaise. In fact, she doesn’t call this a sauce but an “emulsion.”
I tried the tomato emulsion as soon as I got back to my own kitchen and was delighted with the way the sweetly pungent olive oil flavors balanced the acidity of the tomatoes. (I admit I was lucky to be using freshly pressed Villa Campestri oil — but I’m willing to bet it would work just as well with a somewhat less intense selection.) You can serve this on its own as a sauce for pasta, stir it into a risotto, or use it as an ingredient in a more complex dish. I used it as the tomato element in a standard Sicilian caponata, first sauteéing onions, garlic and peppers, then eggplant and zucchini, before stirring in San Román’s tomato emulsion. Here’s how I made it:
San Román’s Tomato Emulsion
Makes 2 to 3 cups
- Rinse the tomatoes and cut them in halves or quarters, depending on their size. Add them to a saucepan with salt and sugar and a couple of tablespoons of water, just enough to keep the tomatoes from burning before they start to release their liquid.
- Set over medium low heat and cook uncovered, until the tomatoes are completely soft. Give them a stir from time to time. When the tomatoes are very soft and collapsed, remove the saucepan from the heat. If necessary, drain off the liquid, but set it aside to be added back if you need it.
- Let the tomatoes cool slightly, then use a stick blender to blend the tomatoes to a thick puree right in the saucepan. Let the sauce cool a little more, then start blending in the olive oil, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until the sauce is thick. You can add even more olive oil if you wish. Taste the tomato emulsion and adjust the seasoning.
- Alternate methods: Transfer the tomatoes to a food processor, or put through the fine disc of a vegetable mill. If using a food processor, add the oil as described above. If you use a vegetable mill, beat in the olive oil with a wire whisk.
If you don’t need all the emulsion at once, it will keep in the refrigerator for a week or more. Or you can freeze it in small quantities to add to soups and stews.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photos from top:
Cooking down tomatoes in saucepan.
María José San Román in the kitchen.
Credits: Nancy Harmon Jenkins