The Problem With Tomatoes

Well, canned tomatoes that is.  Since I'm making scratch sauce for Chicken Parmesan tonight, I thought it would be a semi-interesting subject.

Because, not all tomatoes (canned or otherwise) are created equal.

The sad thing about fresh tomatoes is that the choices are so limited.  Any given grocery store will have run-of-the-mill giant beefsteak tomatoes, overly expensive hothouse tomatoes (and/or 'tomatoes on the vine'.  The problem with the former to is, that they hae little to no flavor, and a compromised nutritional value.  Beefsteaks are bred to grow large and fast, which doesn't give time for the flavors to develop, and to make things worse are largely water – which you're paying by the pound for.  Hothouse tomatoes are often hydroponic, so besides the advantage of little or no pesticides, they grow fast, ripen fast, and the end result is the same, exept for the cost.

Here, we almost exclusively buy romas.  There are a number of reasons to like them – flavor, thicker 'meat' (so you can even make salsa) and are just generally more versatile. The downside vs, say hothouse tomatoes is that they're globally sourced, but no one's gotten sick from my cooking (yet).

There is, of course, the dual exception.  One being home-grown, and the other being local sources that grow heirlooms.  Especially both.  But, they're both also highly seasonal, and though the most awesome, hard to find in February.

So yeah, romas.  If you're cooking with fresh tomatoes, those are your best bet.

Which brings me to canned tomatoes, but I'll save the tie-in for later.  In my youth, I stocked multiple types of canned tomatoes – mostly sauce and diced, which I would combine for pasta sauce to add a base tomato and a bit of texture.  It was….okay.  Later I switched to buying whole, canned tomatoes, but I'll come back to that in a minute too.  

The problem with the sauce/diced tomatoes is that they never really provided the mix of thickness and texture I was looking for.  Tomato sauce is good for a lot of things, but the diced tomatoes always came across as weird – you have to cook them for ages to get rid of the inherent firmness they have.  And if you're not careful, everything else in your dish is overcooked.

So at some point, I started buying whole (peeled) canned tomatoes.  It was like a light went on.  I could control the texture and consistency like I never could before.  There was again one trade-off.  Whole canned tomatoes, like diced tomatoes, are packed in what they call 'tomato juice', which is really red-colored water.  After a while, I realized I was adding tomato paste to my pasta sauces more and more to thicken it up, and really, tomato paste is best left for pizzas.

So where does this all wrap up?  You got my thoughts on fresh tomatoes, but canned tomatoes are ultimately more important, because they go into so many things.  The biggest culprit here is pasta sauce – whether it be for linguine or lasagne or chicken parmesan.  We actually buy cans in bulk these days.

What do I use?  I'm stuck on a particular brand, and there's a good reason.  As I mentioned, most canned tomatoes are packed in 'juice' which is not only watery, but is deficient in flavor, since so much of it is water.  Cento's Italian tomatoes are not – they're packed in tomato sauce and the only real drawback is that you want to pick out the hunks of basil that are also in the can.  Immediatly there is a rich saucy sauce that can be tweaked immediately to move towards the final result.  We buy ours by the case, which makes the costs much more comparable to the cheaper alternatives in the grocery store.