The origin and creation of my Caramelized Tomato-Fennel Butter came from a childhood memory that I have never been able to forget. Decades have passed since I lived in Hilliard and this flavor always stuck with me. A few months ago when making dinner, I got a bit of tomato paste on my finger, and I licked it off. Out of nowhere, this memory of Luigi’s sub sandwich came flooding into my head, and I solved a mystery that I have wondered about my entire adult life.
The Childhood Memory
When I was a kid growing up in Hilliard, Ohio we would order pizza from Luigi’s Pizza at the corner of Cemetery Rd. and Lattimer Street. Luigi Tumeo, the owner, was a constant presence at the shop as was his star employee, Esther Lowry. I can see their faces in my mind like it was yesterday. We mostly ordered pizza which had this killer, cracker-crisp crust that I have never found anywhere else.
Occasionally, we would order hot Italian submarine sandwiches. Luigi did two things that I just loved. One was they put the iceberg lettuce on before it went into the pizza oven to get hot. I can’t explain it, but I loved the wilted hot lettuce. The other thing was they spread a layer of what I now believe was a tomato paste on one side of the roll. That intense tomato flavor made their sandwich the best in town.
When researching this post, I googled Luigi’s. It is still open (63 years). Luigi is gone. I imagine Esther too, but her daughter’s family bought it when Luigi retired and held onto his traditions all these years.
Caramelized Tomato-Fennel Butter
I made this recipe as a spread to put on sandwiches and for cheese boards. At a neighborhood gathering, I brought it to go with a meatball appetizer. Neighbor Natalie loved it and wanted to eat it on toast for breakfast. Hey, I bet it would be good if you put an egg on that toast. Yum.
And yes, I took this beyond just a can of tomato paste. And it takes less than 5 minutes to make.
1 can Tomato Paste
2 Tbsp Olive Oil + 1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 tsp Fennel Seed
1 tsp dried Oregano
1/2 tsp Garlic Powder
1/2 tsp Onion Powder
Heat a non-reactive skillet over medium-high heat. When the skillet is hot, add the two tablespoons of olive oil. It should glisten in the pan. Quickly add the fennel seed and oregano and move it about in the pan, so it sizzles and releases its oils but does not burn. (10 seconds). Add garlic and onion powders, and blend into the herbs. Now add the tomato paste and with a spatula flatten it into a thin layer about the skillet. It will bubble and sizzle and begin to brown up a bit. Move it about as it begins to caramelize to dark brown color on the edges and in the bottom of the skillet. Continue moving to keep it from burning. (1-2 minutes).
Remove the tomato mixture from the skillet, scraping up all the caramelization stuck to the pan. Place in a small glass mixing bowl.
Add the last tablespoon of olive oil. Using an immersion blender, blend in the oil, break apart the fennel seeds and caramelized tomato bits until smooth.
Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Serve at room temperature.
Ways to use Tomato-Fennel Butter
- As a condiment on sandwiches – Italian submarine, or a simple cheese and salami.
- As a spread on a cheese board or charcuterie plate.
- Make an appetizer. Below is a baguette slice with the Tomato-Fennel Butter and hard cheese. I would use shaved fresh Parmesan or Pecorino-Romano, crumbled Cotija, or thin sliced Gruyère.
- On toast for a savory treat with bacon and egg on top.
- The sky is the limit, so have some fun with this delicious butter. Download the Printable PDF Recipe: Caramelized Tomato-Fennel Butter
Are you a subscriber? If not, please do so now and never miss a post about food, wine, travel, and Joi de Vivre.
That is all for now.