If I were a tomato, I’d be a beefsteak. A “don’t mess with me” tomato. How about you? Cherry tomato? Sweet little grape tomato? Or maybe a sassy Jersey tomato? Then again, I would definitely want to hang with the San Marzano clan on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvio, looking out onto the Gulf of Naples. (No one messes with them either.) There are now over 7,500 varieties of tomatoes, ranging from big and beefy to small and green.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey for the tomato. In the beginning, there was just one, your standard, garden variety tomato. It got no respect. In fact, everyone thought it was a vegetable. It wasn’t until the 15th century that the tomato made its way to Europe, on a ship back from South America with the explorers, who were then jailed for returning with poisonous fruit instead of gold. And then they were thrown at performers to signify audience contempt. People didn’t start eating tomatoes in Italy until the 18th century, when they made their way onto pasta — for poor people, who ate spaghetti with their hands. They eventually made their way onto pizza, also a street food. From there, as they say, the rest is history.
With over 500 shapes and sizes of pasta in Italy, you do the math. How many combinations of pasta and tomatoes can you get from these two ingredients? When you consider the endless combinations, plus the countless nuances of flavors and textures, and the many methods of cooking and preparation, it boggles the mind. (And creates fodder for Sunday Pasta for years to come.)
All of this reminds me of one hot Sicilian summer afternoon, when I ate surprisingly fluffy gnocchi with a simple sauce of Pachino tomatoes and basil. Light enough for a summer day, but satisfying enough for any time of year. I’d like to thank the entire tomato family for that.
Check out our wine pairings to complement this recipe.
Heat the oven to 350° F degrees. Pierce the potatoes with a fork and bake until soft, or for about 90 minutes. While still hot, cut the potatoes in half and scoop out the middle. When cooled, pass the potato through a potato grater. Add the white pepper and then the egg yolk. Add about 1 cup of flour to the mixture. Mix thoroughly with a fork or pastry cutter and then form a ball. On a well-floured work surface, knead and fold mixture until the flour is incorporated, adding another ½ cup along the way. The dough should not feel sticky, so add a little more flour if necessary. Cover with flour and let rest for five minutes. Divide dough into 8 pieces. Roll out each piece into a long tube of about 1 inch thick and then cut into lengths about 1 inch long. Next, use a fork to make each piece into the shape of gnocchi, by rolling each piece up and down the tines of the fork. (If you do not plan to use the gnocchi within an hour or so, freeze them until ready.)
Wash and dry the tomatoes. Take about a quarter of them and cut them in half. Set them aside for garnish. Place the remaining tomatoes in a blender or food processor. Pulse lightly until coarsely chopped, but not pureed. In a large skillet, sauté the garlic in the olive oil until golden. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon. Add the tomatoes to the olive oil. Add half of the basil leaves and a teaspoon of each salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat for about 20 or so minutes, until slightly thickened.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Carefully drop the gnocchi in water and cook until they float to the surface- 2-3 minutes. Carefully drain and add the gnocchi to the tomato mixture. Heat together for about a minute. Serve with a garnish of the remaining tomato halves and basil. Serve immediately with a sprinkle of Parmigiano.