Stuff Your Face With Roman Rice-Stuffed Tomatoes
A couple of months ago, a bunch of us here at Serious Eats got into a very serious Slack discussion about the merits of room-temperature foods, which Miranda turned into a thorough exploration of the topic. While working on this piece, Miranda asked us to list the lukewarm dishes we have the hots for. Along with the usual suspects of cakes, cheese boards, and marinated grilled vegetables, I started thinking a lot about one of my favorite late-summer meals: Roman-style pomodori al riso, oven-roasted rice-stuffed tomatoes with potatoes.
Rome, like most of central and southern Italy, gets really, really hot in the summer. In the sweltering month of August, the sanpietrini cobblestones that pave the streets of the historic city center often get so hot that they become sticky and melty; it feels like you are walking around with gum constantly glued to the bottoms of your shoes. When I lived there as a kid, most of the city shut down, with Romans decamping to the seaside or mountains for vacation. This period is called Ferragosto, a holiday that can be traced back to Ancient Rome, enacted by Emperor Augustus to celebrate the hard work of the summer harvest.
The people who do stay in the city during the dog days of summer* have to figure out how to eat without heating up their non-air conditioned apartments even further by cooking (central AC is not a thing when you live in a building that was constructed during the Renaissance). For my family, this translated to going out a lot more for casual sit-down pizza dinners (a cruel passing of the culinary buck to the pizzaioli working infernally hot wood-burning ovens), or bringing home prepared foods that didn’t require a lot of cooking.
*”Dog days of summer” also has Ancient Roman roots.
Roman rice-stuffed tomatoes fall in the latter group. They are commonly sold at rosticcerie, little takeout rotisserie spots that are often also pizza al taglio shops, where you can pick up some “by-the-cut” pizza (the Roman version of a slice) as well as a roast chicken with rosemary-scented potatoes glistening with schmaltz on your way home from work.
The best pomodori al riso that I had as a kid didn’t come from a rosticceria though. They were made by Antonietta, the proprietor of our neighborhood fruttivendolo, the fruit and vegetable shop where my parents would shop for produce on days they couldn’t make it to the market. Over time, my mother befriended Antonietta and her husband, Lamberto.
Along with giving my mother guidance on how to cook vegetables like cicoria that we hadn’t encountered when living in New York, Antonietta eventually admitted her to a small circle of locals who were allowed to buy prepared food. She didn’t have a permit to make and sell food on the premises, so she would prepare these items at home, and then keep them stashed out of sight in the back of the shop, bringing them out only for a trusted group of regulars. It was the best speakeasy, rewarding people in the know with aluminum takeout containers of beautiful carciofi alla romana (braised artichokes) instead of moonshine.
In the summer, Antonietta had a clever solution to keep her own kitchen from overheating. She worked out a deal with the bakery across the street from her shop. Once all of the bread had been baked for the day, Antonietta would pop over with disposable baking pans full of rice-stuffed tomatoes and potatoes, and load them into the forno’s wood-fired oven, which is fueled by hazelnut shells left over from Nutella production.
The lingering heat of the oven slowly cooked the tomatoes until they were tender, jammy, and sweet, barely able to contain the tomato- and basil-scented arborio rice stuffed inside. The potatoes propping the tomatoes upright in the baking trays turned creamy and soft, fragrant with olive oil and fresh rosemary, with a hint of smokiness from the oven. It was a perfect dish. I would always ask for the maximum possible allotment of tomatoes that Antonietta was willing to part with when they were available, and would devour at least two of them as soon as I got home with a fresh batch. They taste best when served at room temperature.
So when Miranda asked us to list our favorite tepid foods, I had a lot to say. But my rave review of rice-stuffed tomatoes wasn’t met with unbridled enthusiasm from my coworkers. I get it; it’s not a sexy sounding dish, and most of us have been subjected to bad stuffed peppers at some point in our lives. However, I had won enough stuffed-vegetable goodwill with my Thanksgiving roast pumpkins that people were willing to hear me out on these tomatoes, so I got to work on developing a recipe.
The Problem With Most Pomodori al Riso Recipes: Wishful Thinking
I have eaten bushels worth of stuffed tomatoes in my day, but I had never actually made them myself, because as mentioned earlier, this is mostly a takeout dish in Rome. I scoured Italian cookbooks and cooking websites for recipes, and found a common, simple cooking procedure: The tops of tomatoes are cut off, their guts are scooped out and passed through a food mill and stirred together with raw rice, minced garlic, and chopped basil. The rice is soaked in the tomato pulp, ostensibly so that it can soften and absorb moisture, before being spooned into the hollowed-out tomatoes, which are roasted in a baking dish with potatoes that have been tossed in olive oil.
The rice, potatoes, and tomatoes are supposed to cook at roughly the same rate, and an hour or so later, you pull out a casserole of tender, roasted vegetables. This is what is supposed to happen. But it doesn’t. Starchy and soft vegetables don’t magically cook at the same rate, and grains certainly don’t cook in the same time, as well. Anyone who tries to sell you that narrative is a huckster.
While I had strong suspicions that the recipes that used this one-stop, set-it-and-forget-it cooking method wouldn’t produce great results, I still had to try it. So I set up an initial test, cooking four sets of stuffed tomatoes, using the same shoddy method with different types of rice: arborio, carnaroli, long grain basmati, and jasmine. Pomodori al riso are usually made with risotto-style rice (arborio, carnaroli, and the like), so I made sure to test with them, but then also wanted to see how other types would perform.
None of them worked. Soaking the rice in strained tomato pulp didn’t soften the grains, and they didn’t absorb the tomato juices as advertised. As you can see in these photos, the rice and tomato pulp remain separate even after roasting; the grains are mostly white, surrounded by the tomato pulp. And the grains themselves were all over the place in terms of doneness. The risotto-style grains as well as the basmati remained chalky and hard, while the jasmine rice turned to mush. And this is to say nothing of the tomatoes and potatoes, which were way over- and under-cooked, respectively.
It was clear that the simplicity of this cooking method sounds great in theory, but doesn’t work in practice. Along with all of the textural issues, it was hard to fill the tomatoes with similar amounts of rice after they’d spent time soaking in the tomato pulp. The flavor was off, too: The rice in a good pomodoro al riso is stained a deep rusty red color, with the tomato pulp cooked to an intense, savory sweetness, reminiscent of a Spanish sofrito. But using the simple cooking method, the strained tomato pulp still tasted raw and astringent, more like the topping for pan con tomate. And even after baking, the filling was soupy and loose. I had to go back to the drawing board.
I set up a second round of testing where I pitted four more casseroles of tomatoes against each other. It was clear that I needed to go with a risotto-friendly grain, so I settled on easy-to-find arborio. The rice clearly needed to be par-cooked before getting stuffed into the tomatoes. After settling on arborio as the grain of choice, I tested different methods for cooking the rice short of al dente prior to stuffing and roasting it. For two of the test batches I par-boiled the rice for a few minutes in water and then mixed it with the tomato pulp before filling the tomatoes.
For another batch, I par-cooked the rice for 10 minutes, risotto-style, using the tomato pulp as the cooking liquid. And for the final test batch, I tried the raw rice and tomato method once more to make sure that this was in fact an inferior method, adding more rice this time just in case my first failed attempt was a ratio-related issue.
The risotto method emerged as the clear winner in this round. In 10 minutes, the rice was cooked just enough to get rid of its hard, raw bite, and had absorbed the tomato pulp, which had reduced down to a saucy consistency and was full of sweet tomato flavor. I also solved the problem of the undercooked potatoes by giving them a head start in the oven while I worked on hollowing out the tomatoes and cooking the rice. After a lot of failed roasted tomatoes, I had figured out how to cook a Roman-style pomodoro al riso that would have made Antonietta proud.
How to Make Pomodori al Riso
The process begins by peeling and dicing Yukon gold potatoes into 1-inch pieces, and tossing them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary in a large baking dish. The potatoes go into the oven for a 30-minute roast, until they are tender enough to be pierced with a paring knife.
With the potatoes in the oven, it’s time to work on the tomatoes. Lop the tops off of six beefsteak tomatoes that are just shy of being fully ripe (save your super ripe and soft tomatoes for other recipes: they’ll lose their structural integrity too quickly in the oven). Use a paring knife to carve out the insides of the tomato, and scoop out the pulp with a spoon, making sure to leave enough flesh around the skin so that they don’t collapse.
Next, I season the interior of the now-empty tomato shells with salt and invert them on a wire rack–lined baking sheet to drain them of excess moisture. Set them aside while you process the tomato pulp.
In an ideal world, you have a food mill handy for this part of the process. Passing the tomato guts through a food mill gives you a deep red tomato purée with a more uniform texture and no seeds. But if you don’t have a food mill, you can use a food processor or immersion blender for this step; these electric appliances will introduce air, which makes the purée lighter in color, and some seeds may slip through—a very minor flaw at worst. Season the passed tomato pulp with salt, and measure it in a liquid measuring cup. You are looking for a 3:1 ratio of liquid to rice by volume, so you can make adjustments to the amount of rice you’re using at this point; if your tomatoes aren’t very juicy, you can bulk up the purée with chicken or vegetable broth.
The cooking process for the rice follows the general first steps of cooking risotto. Minced alliums (in this case I use a large shallot and one garlic clove) get lightly cooked in olive oil in a saucier until softened but not brown.
I then add the rice, toasting it for a couple of minutes until the outer edges of the grains are translucent; the sloped sides of a saucier allow you to stir the rice without grains getting stuck in the corners of the saucepan. Before adding the tomato pulp, I add a tablespoon of tomato paste, which gets incorporated into the mix, coating the rice and turning it a rusty red.
It’s then time for the tomato pulp, which is stirred in and the entire mixture is brought to a simmer. After 10 minutes, the rice will have lost its raw bite and the sauce will have reduced and thickened.
Stir in a handful of chopped basil and season the mixture well with salt. If you’re like me, and are always looking to get a leg up on savory punch, you can also add a splash of fish sauce at this point, which heightens the umami power of tomatoes.
I had some extra Colatura kicking around in the test kitchen, so I added a few drops of it to the rice, and it really makes it pop. High-quality Southeast Asian-style fish sauce will work just as well.
It’s time to fill the tomatoes: Dab the tomato cavities with paper towels, and nestle them into the baking dish with the now-cooled par-roasted potatoes, using the potatoes as scaffolding for the tomatoes. Fill the tomatoes with the rice mixture, pop on the tomato tops, and give them a final drizzle of olive oil.
The baking dish goes back in the oven, and the tomatoes get roasted for about 30 minutes, until their flesh is tender and the rice is cooked through. For a final flourish, crank the broiler to high, and slide the tops off to the side of the tomatoes. Broil the whole deal until the top layer of rice on each tomato is ever-so-slightly charred, and the potatoes are beginning to color and crisp.
These are pomodori al riso done right. And now comes the hardest part—waiting for the tomatoes to cool down before you dig in. Trust me, these are best eaten when warm, not piping hot. Cut into them with a fork, pour yourself a glass of wine, and enjoy this light, late-summer, (surprisingly vegan!) Roman takeout classic.
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