Add a little ground fennel seed to any of the following recipes. You can't go wrong !!
ASK MICHELE > ARCHIVES
What should I use for sauce in the winter when the fresh tomatoes have no taste?
In the winter, when tomatoes are out of season and the only flavorful tomatoes are cherry tomatoes usually imported from Israel, it is better to use quality, canned tomatoes. A wide variety of canned tomatoes are available, but they can vary in taste and texture that can change from season to season depending on the climate and -- more importantly -- additives that enhance or falsely change flavors. After opening 20 cans of tomatoes and being overwhelmed by the task at hand, I invited several local chefs and food purveyors to join me. We tasted, and tasted, and tasted -- and the results may surprise you as much as they surprised me and my guests. Learn about the different canned varieties and which brand came out the winner -- I've also included cooking techniques and some recipes.
I've outlined the different varieties of tomatoes , the results of taste testing 20 cans of tomatoes with several local chefs and food purveyors, and some helpful cooking techniques and recipes for sauces.
The tomato is a fruit native to Guatemala, which reached Italy by way of the Spanish who ruled Naples for centuries. Now regarded as the Italians' favorite vegetable, it was originally thought to be an "evil poisonous fruit" and was not welcomed into the kitchen until the 18th century. Although approximately 5,000 varieties of this typical Mediterranean fruit exist worldwide, it's easiest to categorize them broadly into round, plum, and cherry varieties.
Styles of Processed Tomatoes
Pomodori pelati -- These are peeled, whole tomatoes which usually need to be seeded and chopped before use. Plum tomatoes are stated as such.
San Marzano (the best plum variety) -- In 1902, the San Marzano tomato was created taking its name from the growing area. The exceptional quality of the rich soil on the pre-Apennine hills, the volcanic ash slopes of Vesuvius, and the mild climate and Mediterranean breezes has made this variety a favorite of cooking enthusiasts and the most popular tomato cultivar in the world. It has now been accorded recognition by the European Union (DOP).
These fire-engine red, very oblong plum style tomatoes are widely cultivated by small scale growers to be peeled and canned for sauces. The growing area encompasses many town districts in the provinces of Naples, Salerno, and Avellino. The flesh is thick, sweet, and firm with a strong flavor and contains fewer seeds than other varieties. Since there are many impostors, look for the letters "DOP" -- the seal of the consortium -- and an expiration date . Because the plum tomato contains less water, sauces made with it do not have to be cooked as long to evaporate excess liquid.
San Marzano-style -- This confusing label without certification could refer to any variety of tomato from anywhere in the world. Beware -- some might be tasty, but many are not!
Pomodorini di collina -- Cherry tomatoes with skin, typically seen from Naples to Sicily and used in a quick sauce. These usually have a naturally sweeter flavor but have skin and seeds.
Polpa di pomodoro -- Peeled, seeded, canned, chopped tomatoes for quick and easy use.
Passata di pomodoro -- Very thick tomato juice or puree made from blanched, skinned, and sieved tomatoes. They're frequently used in place of chopped tomatoes for a smoother sauce. Look for passata packed in glass jars.
Concentrato di pomodoro -- Tomato paste that comes in various concentrations (doppio -- double or triple). The best concentrato is sold in tubes. Pastes are often used in Italy to add an intensity of color, flavor, and thickness to soup, ragu, and bean and lentil dishes. It's rarely used in a sauce in Italy because Italian tomatoes are fleshy and very flavorful.
Since the typical store bought American-Italian style tomatoes weren't usually substantial enough in flavor to stand alone in a sauce, Italian Americans began adding tomato paste to impart a boost of flavor, thicker texture, and more depth of color. This adaptation reminded them more of the tomatoes back home in Italy. However, used in excess, it can destroy a sauce by making it heavy, bitter, and too acidic.
Estratto di pomodoro -- Intense tomato extract made by drying tomato paste in the hot Sicilian sun. This Sicilian specialty, four to six times as concentrated as tomato paste, is usually used to flavor a ragu. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to find outside of Sicily.
back to top
Rating the Tomatoes
The following tomatoes were rated:
Tomato Taste Test Winner
La Regina, San Marzano, DOP, peeled plum tomatoes in juice. The only ingredients were tomatoes and tomato juice! Unfortunately, no date. Trader Joe's whole peeled plum with basil in juice, no salt
Trader Joe's whole peeled plum with basil in juice, with salt
Muir Glen organic, whole peeled, with salt
Muir Glen organic, diced, no salt
Non male (not bad) flavors can be enhanced in a sauce with other ingredients:
La Valle, peeled, plum tomatoes
Whole Foods, Italian organic whole tomatoes in puree with basil
La Valle, pomodorini di collina Italian in tomato puree with basil
La Bella San Marzano, pomodorini di collina Italian in tomato puree with basil
Rienzi, peeled plum tomatoes with thick puree
Pastene, peeled plum tomatoes
Parmalat Pomi, chopped tomatoes Progresso Italian style, peeled with basil
Evitare (avoid) acidic, tinny, off flavor, too salty, watery
Cento, Italian style, peeled with basil
Tuttorosso, Italian peeled, pear shaped in juice
La Bella San Marzano, in puree with basil Red Pack pear shaped, peeled with puree
Do not assume that tomatoes from Italy are always the best . Overall, we found American brands to be the best. Many Italian brands are flavorless and do not come from Italy (check the label thoroughly). And, since they are undated, they may have been sitting in that tin can for a long time. Look for an expiration date on the label.
N.B. Since the acid in tomatoes interacts with the metal used in cans, try to find tomatoes packed in cans lined with enamel. Likewise, Do not cook tomatoes in an unlined aluminum pan. Canned tomatoes should be used very soon after being opened. Tomatoes oxidize very quickly and lose a great deal of their mineral value once exposed to the air.
Since I find that seeds are bitter and have an unappealing texture and appearance, I simply remove them by pushing them out with my fingers. I then crush the tomatoes with my hands or a fork. There are two basic approaches to cooking a sauce.
This approach begins with a sauté of chopped raw vegetables and aromatics to give the mixture body and a fruity flavor. The choice of vegetables and aromatics reflects regional preference and may include garlic, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, mint, or other herbs. These are first sautéed in butter or olive oil or both. These become the foundation upon which the sauce is built.
This approach involves simmering the tomatoes in a pan without fat until the desired consistency is achieved. After cooking, olive oil or butter is added for flavor.
More complex sauces are also built on the foundations of the simple ones with the addition of vegetables to add body and flavor; butter or cream to impart sweetness and smoothness; and wine to deepen flavor. Use only fresh vegetables and herbs and never use dried garlic or onion powder, dried parsley and the like. If delicate fresh herbs such as basil, mint or marjoram are included, add them closer to the end of the cooking time.
Quick cook or long simmered?
Only when a tomato sauce includes meat should it be long simmered. The long, gentle cooking is necessary to tenderize meat and allow its flavor to marry with other ingredients.
A simple tomato sauce implies fresh, fruity flavor and the shorter the cooking time necessary to evaporate excess liquid, the better. It takes at least 10 minutes before the acidic flavor of the tomato is transformed and the tomatoes sweeten, then another 10-20 minutes -- depending on the tomato -- for excess liquid to evaporate. A quick sauce can be made in about 20 minutes and should rarely exceed 45 minutes.
Salsa di pomodoro con burro
This quick chunky sauce is butter based and suitable for fresh and dried pastas. Add a little chopped herbs after cooking.
35 oz can, peeled plum tomatoes in juice
1 small onion, minced
4 T unsalted butter
salt and pepper
optional: chopped herbs
Drain the tomatoes, discarding the juice (or save for another purpose). Using your fingers push out the seeds and discard the seeds. Chop the tomatoes with your hand, fork or potato masher. Set aside.
In a large saucepan over low heat, combine the onions and 2 tablespoons of butter. Sauté until the onions soften and become translucent-but not brown. Add the tomatoes and salt; simmer to blend the flavors, about 15 minutes.
Remove from the heat, stir in the remaining butter and season to taste with salt, freshly ground pepper and optional herbs.
This classic Neapolitan sauce begins with a generous vegetable base making it fruity, fragrant and with a great deal of texture. It's more suited to firm, textured dried pasta like bucatini and rigatoni.
2 1/2 C canned, peeled tomatoes in juice
4 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, bruised
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 med celery stalk including leaves, finely chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 T parsley, chopped
2 T tomato paste (if the tomatoes are not intense in flavor)
2 sprigs of basil, torn into small pieces
salt and pepper
Drain the tomatoes, reserving the juice. Over a sieve, remove the seeds from the tomatoes, capturing the juice and discarding the seeds. Chop the tomatoes and set them aside from the reserved juice.
In a saucepan over medium heat, add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the garlic, and onion, and sauté until the garlic is golden (not burned) and the onions are translucent. Add the celery, carrot, parsley and basil and sauté until the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.
Press down on the vegetables with a wooden spoon to release the flavors. Add the tomato paste, if necessary, and continue to sauté for about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice and simmer gently until thickened, about 40 minutes.
Remove and discard the garlic cloves and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Finishing the sauce:
For a chunky sauce, remove from the heat and stir in the last tablespoon of olive oil.
For a smooth sauce, remove from the heat, cool a bit and pass the sauce through a food mill pressing out as much pulp as possible. Return to the heat just long enough to heat through. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil.
N.B. Both of these sauces can be made 4-5 days in advance and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator or in the freezer for 3 months. Before storing, leave out the remaining butter, olive oil and herbs. Stir them into the sauce after reheating.