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Finding a way to be alone when working in a busy restaurant environment isn’t an easy task, but I believe it’s always important to carve out some me time. This is usually accomplished by scurrying into the pantry during a lull for a sneaky dry-storage snack, or dipping into the dish pit to scavenge through half-eaten bloomin’ onions.
My favorite midday excursions happened while I was working at a sprawling, multilevel, weightily staffed fine-dining Italian restaurant. Here I was blessed with countless nooks to crawl into and plenty of cooks to cover me on their over-staffed lines. This restaurant had multiple walk-in refrigerators, lined up side by side, each dedicated to a particular category of ingredient. Any chance I could find, I’d get myself into the dairy/cheese/condiment walk-in. Armed with a pocketful of spoons, I maintained focus on my target: La Nicchia Paté di Pomodori Secchi e Capperi, a sun-dried-tomato and caper spread.
In a room filled with burrata, it seems crazy to go for a tomato spread, but believe me, this stuff is epic. The chef regaled me with tales of Italian grandmothers hand-picking tomatoes grown in volcanic soil, then slowly drying them on screens set on sunny rooftops, and finally blending them with capers packed in salt from the Mediterranean Sea.
Okay, so none of that turned out to be true, but this stuff is still undeniably delicious. At the restaurant, this tomato and caper spread was combined with a 20-plus-ingredient mole before just a teaspoon of the mixture was smeared along the rim of a dish of lobster fra diavolo. Don’t be confused—you read that right. This glorious spread that’s perfect just the way it is was combined with a Mexican mole, its complex flavors overwhelmed by dried chilies, spices, and nuts.
Well, now is its chance to enjoy some time in the spotlight, not overshadowed by lobster or eaten in the dark; this spread deserves your full attention. Fleshy plum tomatoes are slowly roasted with thyme and garlic until they're jammy and concentrated. The sticky tomatoes are then pulsed with briny capers and flooded with extra-virgin olive oil. Although the resulting blend is perfect on crusty bread alone, it can also be tossed with pasta, spread onto pizza, or served alongside grilled or roasted meats.
How to Make Tomato and Caper Spread
Because this is such a simple dish, I like to start with the best ingredients I can find. Make this in the summer, when juicy, flavorful tomatoes are in season. Since tomatoes tend to attack in packs, this recipe is a great way to preserve them for winter. This is also the time to splurge on fancy-pants extra-virgin olive oil; try to buy the best you can.
Step 1: Blanching the Tomatoes
I start by peeling my tomatoes, which not only gives the spread a smoother final texture but also provides more surface area for evaporation, allowing the tomatoes to dry faster. If I’m dealing with just a few tomatoes, I’ll opt for a peeler, or even an open flame to help me quickly peel them, but for any more than a few, blanching is the way to go.
Using a small paring knife or tourné knife, I remove the core from the stem end of each tomato and score the opposite end with an x. Taking the time to do this now will make the tomatoes easier to peel after blanching.
Meanwhile, I bring a large stockpot of water to a boil and set up an ice bath for shocking the tomatoes. Working with four to five tomatoes at a time, using a kitchen spider, I drop them into the boiling water for just a few moments, until the skin begins to separate from the flesh where it's been scored. If the tomatoes are very ripe, this will happen in just seconds; underripe tomatoes may take up to a minute or more.
Once the skin begins to peel away, I remove the tomatoes from the boiling water and plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking. I next peel the skin and split the tomatoes in half lengthwise.
Step 2: Roasting the Tomatoes
I arrange the tomato halves, cut sides up, on wire racks set into rimmed baking sheets lined with parchment paper. The wire rack allows air to circulate all around each tomato, so they dry evenly. Brushing the wire rack with a touch of olive oil prevents the tomatoes from sticking as they cook. I brush each tomato half with a bit more olive oil before topping it with a slice of garlic and a fresh thyme sprig.
I roast the tomatoes until they've shrunk to about a quarter of their original size. I’m not looking to reproduce the leathery and brittle texture of store-bought sun-dried tomatoes, but rather to concentrate the tomatoes' juices until they're dense and sticky.
How long the tomatoes take to get there can vary greatly depending on the air circulation of your oven, as well as on the tomatoes themselves. In testing this recipe, I found that underripe grocery store tomatoes cooked down in half the time of ripe, juicy farmers market ones. Keep an eye on your oven, and allow for enough time to properly cook down whatever tomatoes you have.
Step 3: Mixing the Spread
After the tomatoes have roasted, I remove the garlic slices and thyme sprigs, then pulse the roasted tomatoes in a food processor with drained capers and dried basil until all the ingredients are just combined. I prefer to have some texture in the spread, so I only barely pulse them together. This can also be done with a chef’s knife, or even with a mortar and pestle.
To finish off the spread, I stir in a healthy pour of olive oil and season it to taste with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. At first, the spread may taste bitter from all the olive oil, but that harshness will mellow out after a day in the fridge, where the flavors can meld.
It may seem like a lot of work to score, blanch, peel, and then slowly roast tomatoes for hours, just to be left with a couple cups of this stuff. But just think of the grandmothers who are now perilously perched on rooftops, with baskets of Italian tomatoes balanced on their heads. Well, actually, that probably doesn’t happen, so instead, just think of me, risking a public shaming by my chef just to sneak in a couple spoonfuls. Trust me—it’s worth it.
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