This was going to be the year. Your starts kicked butt and took off after transplanting. You were on your way to a mother lode of tomatoes. By this time in the season you were going to be busy in the kitchen, canning like mad.
But then reality set in and now you have nothing but unripe, undersized little fruits, if any at all. You are wondering if you should even leave them in at this point. Yep, that's the Pacific Northwest. Last year's tomato explosion is ancient history. Better to now focus on cabbages. You are in for another year of canned tomatoes from the store - but that doesn’t have to be bad news, particularly if you plan on sourcing them from PFI.Canned tomatoes are unique in the canned food world in that they can often taste better than what is available in the produce section of a conventional grocery store. Those "fresh" tomatoes are so seldom ripe that it is usually pointless to buy them. Canned tomatoes, the good ones at least, are often incredibly sweet since they were actually ripe when they were canned. You can usually judge the quality of these tomatoes by their appearance; the deeper the red the better.We have a lot to choose from in the canned tomato department. The major types are whole peeled tomatoes, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes and strained tomatoes. Whole tomatoes can either be packed in puree or juice, the puree being a little bit thicker. Diced tomatoes often contain calcium chloride that helps them maintain their shape. This may or may not be an attractive characteristic. Crushed tomatoes and strained tomatoes are similar but for their relative chunkiness. The strained variety has the solids strained out but can still vary with regard to thickness.Another important distinction between different types of tomatoes is whether or not they have D.O.P. status. This stands for (in English) Protected Designation of Origin and is used throughout Europe to protect various cheeses, wines, cured meats and other products that are associated with specific geographic regions. For tomatoes, the D.O.P. comprises 41 municipalities near the foot of Mount Vesuvius. The San Marzano tomatoes grown here thrive in the volcanic soil and are the gold standard for sweetness. This certification does elevate the cost a little bit, but the whole idea behind these designations is to preserve quality as well as tradition so at least you know that it will be good. That being said, it is difficult to grow really lousy tomatoes in Italy. Sure, they exist, but often non-D.O.P. certified Italian tomatoes are of equal quality. As for domestic brands, the quality varies a little bit more. As mentioned above, color is a good indication of quality.But don't think that you need top shelf canned tomatoes for everything. In a lot of applications the tomatoes are going to be cooked thoroughly with several other ingredients and so their relative quality matters less. Chili comes to mind here. On the other hand, you will want the best tomatoes available for simple sauces or applications where they will be cooked less or not at all. For example, here is a traditional, Italian-style tomato sauce method that will highlight a good quality canned tomato: Combine minced garlic and onion with olive oil in a pan and heat it all up together. When the garlic and onion is soft, add a can of whole tomatoes, liquid and all and mash the tomatoes with a wooden spoon as you stir. Add salt and some basil and oregano if you like and simmer until the taste and texture is just right. This could be all day or twenty minutes depending on your circumstances. This is a good base upon which to build or a fantastic sauce on its own. You can add wine or vinegar for more tartness, anchovies or mushrooms for richness, or anything else you can think of.
This method results in a thinner sauce than what is common in North America. We tend to like thicker sauces which is why diced tomatoes can have calcium chloride added and why a lot of crushed tomatoes are super-chunky. In Italy, thinner sauce is favored, so strained tomatoes have greater popularity there. I like to use plain strained tomatoes for pizza sauce. I simply dump it on the pie with olive oil, salt, basil and oregano and that's it. Whatever leftovers I have get used in sauces or Bloody Mary mix.
One last note: we have heard a rumor that this year's tomato crop in Italy is not shaping up to be that great, so the prices are likely to rise slightly. That means come and get 'em now!!!
Big John's PFI 1001 6th Avenue South Seattle, WA, 98118, USA
Monday: 9 AM - 5 PMTuesday - Friday: 9 AM - 6 PMSaturday: 10 AM - 4 PMClosed on Sundays