Best Canned Tomatoes

We’re still in the food doldrums, those weeks at the tail end of winter and the beginning of spring, where it can be a bit of a challenge to find good stuff to cook with. Oh, good things are there, given the massive food economy we labor under, but to be honest, I balk at spending $5 a pound for the ‘best’ tomatoes that really aren’t all that good. And let’s face it, tomatoes are key to many of the things we want to cook and eat at this time of the year, AKA, hearty and comforting stuff.

As such, it’s time to consider canned tomatoes. Certainly there are good and bad in this regard, with everything from indifferently chosen and packed to fabulously tasty, and cheap to outrageously expensive. Fact of the matter is, when making soup, stew, and tomato based sauces, canned are preferable to fresh at any time of year, due to the volume needed to achieve the desired end, and because most of us grow tomatoes that excel when used fresh; many of those varieties, and a whole lot of heirlooms, don’t sauce very well at all.

With that in mind, let’s explore what is worth your hard earned money; UrbanMonique has gone to bat, and done the research for you. We tested stuff that ranged from a buck a can to the $8 per range, and found that, as fate would have it, price has little to do with taste. In fact, some of the priciest variants don’t even warrant honorable mention. Here’s what we found.

First, the general caveats.

1. Sound logic dictates that you should avoid the basest, generic variants. White cans with TOMATOES printed in black, block letters thereupon are not likely to be tasty, (And if you’re old enough, remember those?).

2. Check the can to see if they’re BPA free. Beyond what’s in it, what’s part of it should not be something you have to ingest.

3. The house brand from your favorite grocery may or may not be decent. These vary from region to region, so you’ll need to do a bit of label reading to discern the bore and stroke of yours. Buy a can or two and taste test before you go to town with them. Taste them as we did, straight from the can with nothing added, and keep in mind that tomatoes are often a base layer in cooking, and all the augmentation in the world won’t make bad ones taste better.

4. Read the label before you buy; don’t assume that there’s nothing in there but tomatoes. Added water, salt, preservatives, or other veggies of dubious lineage are to be avoided.

5. All canned tomatoes are going to have some degree of metallic taste from the container. The solution to this is cooking time and a little fresh citrus; if you don’t give them those treatments, the metal flavor will remain, and it is most unpleasant.

6. Famous name does not mean good taste; fact is, not one tomato labelled San Marzano was good enough to make our recommended list. I know food shows and chefs go wild for them, but fact is, our domestic contestants simply taste better. I suspect this is somewhat in the same vein as ‘Italian’ olive oil or balsamic vinegar; what you see may not be what you’re getting…

7. Get whole canned tomatoes whenever you can. More flavor survives in the whole fruit than the processed variants, and with a stick blender, you can make any consistency you like in a snap.

We judged tomatoes on flavor, acidity, texture, and appearance; all those metrics are purely subjective, of course, so again, you should put in your due diligence when deciding what to stock your pantry with. I will say that, for the most part, everything we looked at and rated looked and felt pretty good; the final results were awarded predominantly on flavor first, and acidity second.

And the winners are…

 

365 Organic. This brand is available in our neck of the woods through several grocery chains. They have a nice balance between sweet and acid, and make great sauce.

 

Trader Joe’s house brand. Dang near a tie with the 365, and notably cheaper. Joe’s also happens to have the best and cheapest frozen pizza dough.

 

Muir Glen Organic. As good as the top two, but notably pricier, hence the third place finish.

 

Hunts 100% Natural. A bit on the acidic side, but still a very nice, balanced offering, and can be a discount brand from time to time.

 

Haggens-Top Foods house brand. A very decent tomato, often on super sale, (As in 15 9 ounce cans for $10 cheap). Not quite as flavorful as the top contenders, and not available outside the Pacific Northwest.

 

And to celebrate, we offer our go-to pizza sauce recipe.

 

1 9 oz can whole Tomatoes

1 small Lemon

1 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 teaspoon Balsamic Vinegar

1-2 small cloves Garlic

2-3 leaves fresh Basil, (1/4 teaspoon dry OK)

5-6 leaves Oregano, (1/4 teaspoon dry OK)

Sea Salt & fresh ground Pepper to taste

OTPIONAL: A couple inches of tomato paste from a tube, or a light scoop from a can.

 

Rinse and zest lemon. Peel and mince garlic. Chiffonade basil and oregano.

Process tomatoes with a stick blender to your desired degree of chunkiness.

Add zest, vinegar, oil, garlic and herbs and blend thoroughly.

Start with a quarter lemon and add juice, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Blend through, then adjust seasoning and citrus as desired.

Allow flavors to marry for at least 30 minutes prior to using.

Don’t cook this sauce; the tomatoes got cooked before they were canned, and you’ll cook it again with whatever dish you prepare.

Sauce will keep for a week, refrigerated, in an airtight, non-reactive container.

 

 

 

Simply Super Salad

We’ve got pals coming over tonight for dinner and some guitar playing.

We’ll be doing a nice surf and turf with grilled Angus beef and butter poached true cod; for stuff that rich, you really need a refreshing salad that’ll cut through the fairly hefty proteins. This simple version is a long time fave of ours. The shallot, arugula, and garlic chives are a bit outside the box, and a real delight as well. If you can’t find fresh garlic chives, grow some; they’re easy to raise in a window box herb garden and go wonderfully with lots of stuff.

For the Salad,
2 Cups fresh Arugula
2 medium English Cucumbers
2 medium Tomatoes
1 small bulb Shallot
10-12 Garlic Chives

For the Dressing:
3-4 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar
1 fresh Lemon
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste

Peel, seed and thinly slice the cucumbers. 

Core, seed and dice the tomatoes. 

Mince the shallot, and chiffenade the garlic chives.

Zest and juice the lemon.

Combine all the dressing ingredients, and allow to rest for 15 minutes. 

Combine all salad ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and toss to thoroughly coat veggies; allow the salad to rest, refrigerated, for 30 minutes.

Serve with fresh, crusty bread.

Enjoy!

Tomato Time

We’re up in northern Minnesota for a gathering of the Luthier Community, and the heirloom tomatoes at Grant and Christie’s, some 25 varieties, are coming ripe every day. I’ve been in hog heaven cooking for the gang, let me tell you.

Here’s a post over on Big wild Food for you to play with.

E & M

Indigo Grafted Tomatoes

Ah, spring, the time when all garden fancier’s thoughts turn to planting. Here in the Great Northwet, the snows are receding, rains are nourishing the soil, and it’s time. Our planting beds, resting under straw all winter, are begging to be turned and filled.

If you’re a lover of great tomatoes, then fact is, you simply must be a grower of great tomatoes. Whether you occupy acres or square feet, there’s always room for your favorites and if, as for many of us space is an issue, tomatoes that bear well in a compact space are best yet. Which brings us back to the love of those little globes of wonder. Enter the Indigo grafted tomato.

First and foremost, one wonders, why grafted? The simple answer is, because it works. Grafting is neither new nor done as a novelty; it’s sound practice with a long history of success. The technique, as applied to these Indigo tomatoes, involves mating the root stock of one variety with the leafy stem of another.

My hands down favorite college horticulture course focused on grafting. That was back in the late ’70s and I hate to admit it, but even though our back yard apple tree is a grafted wonder offering four distinct varieties, I’d not thought much of the technique in terms of tomato plants until these Indigos came along. My Professor at the University of Washington, fondly referred to as Master Nishitani, explained that the Japanese had been successfully experimenting with grafting herbaceous edibles since the early 1900s. Still, grafted veggies been slow to catch on in this country, due predominantly to the supposed greater advantages offered by green revolution dependence on chemistry and standard hybridization techniques. Thankfully, a general return to sound environmental practices has lead naturally back to grafting as well

What grafting provides, in a sustainable and eco-sensitive manner, is the marriage of hearty rootstock to a bearing variety chosen for flavor and high yield. The rootstock variety offers a larger, more vigorous root system bred with greater resistance to fungi, bacteria and parasites; truly a godsend, given many tomato varieties susceptibility to such ills. Customized rootstock furthermore yields plants that can and will thrive in a myriad of environmental conditions, a gift any gardener can appreciate.

Indeed, and so it is with these wonderful little Indigos. Monica and I were blessed with several plants from our dear friends at Log House Plants. We picked them up and admired healthy, happy starts, but apparently nothing out of the ordinary, yet… It was after planting and those tenuous weeks of waiting for things to happen that we first noticed a difference; not just blossoms, but lots and lots of blossoms! As fruit began to form, these compact plants, topping out at about 2 1/2′ here in our little USDA Zone 7b garden, were absolutely loaded. I place purposeful emphasis on the word compact; regardless of the space you dedicate to tomatoes in your garden, these Indigos will provide enviable bounty and variety.

And such fruit! The Indigo varieties are named for that hue, naturally occurring in tomatoes, fully expressed in these little guys. Right away the colors just floored us; perfect little globes of deep purple-black, yellow-gold and seriously rich reds. Any honest lover of tomatoes will admit that color and shape have darn near as much to do with desirability as taste. These things were like candy as they matured, the colors becoming deeper and glossier as the days progressed. Photographing them wasn’t a chore, it was a treat.

Our favorite thus far is the Indigo Rose, a stunning blend that starts out purple-almost-black with brilliant green highlights, and matures into a deep purple-red with stunning crimson flesh. This first true purple tomato also contains anthocyanins, a potent antioxidant found in blueberries, raspberries and cranberries.

The real treat, of course, is the taste. These Indigo varieties are simply amazing. Plucked off the vine and popped into your mouth on a cool, quiet morning, this is the kind of rich, complex taste that forms lasting memories. cooking, preserving and eating these beauties is a joy, and therein lies the only other impetus you should require for growing your own Indigos. Variety is indeed the spice of life; these hardy, high-yield varieties offer the perfect home grown, home cooked solution.

Do yourselves a favor, and look these little guys up by name. Chances are a nursery near you will have them, and if not, you can find an online source to hook you up. If you have any problem finding them let us know and we’ll get you squared away.

So, type in the search terms ‘tomato’ and ‘green tomato’ up there on the little search box to the right; you’ll find lovely recipes featuring these wonderful Indigos, including a tomato and onion tart, chutney, relish, and some ideas on preserving your bounty as well.

Happy planting, harvesting, and cooking!