For many of us, tomatoes are the perfect food of summer, when gardens and farmer’s markets overflow with every color, shape, and size of super-ripe, juicy sweetness. I find this deeply annoying. Because I? Do not like raw tomatoes. I do not like their mealy, mushy flesh, and I do not like their squidgy jelly-coated seeds or their thin skin that lodges uncomfortably between my teeth and creates a lacquered film on my palate. In summer, everyone is bound and determined to place farm-fresh tomatoes on anything that isn’t nailed down, and I am forever moving them to the side or picking them off or waving away the shared plate or saying no to the bruschetta or the endless caprese. I do not eat gazpacho or fresh salsa, and if you try to hand me a glass of tomato juice I might very well recoil in horror.
Having said all that, I do love any tomato that isn’t raw. I like ketchup and tomato sauce and roasted tomatoes and tomato soup. I like roasted tomato salsa, a stuffed tomato, and tomato paste. I like them sun dried and packed in oil, and confited and made into jam, and I really, really love them canned. A canned tomato is a thing of beauty and possibility, and if you have good quality canned tomatoes in your pantry, you are mere moments away from any variety of delicious things.
Canned tomatoes are, for me, the perfect combination of super-ripe and cooked. I tend to seek out European tomatoes, especially Italian tomatoes, which are known to be superior. San Marzano is ground zero for tomato perfection, and I always look for the PDO or DOP designation on the label, since apparently any fly-by-night cannery can call their tomatoes San Marzano if they like, but only the ones that have been verified by the EU are allowed to put those designations on the labels. It might seem silly to be looking for that in a canned tomato, especially when some domestic cans cost as little as 99 cents, but if you are spending between $4-$7 per pound for fancy fresh heirloom tomatoes, why wouldn’t you seek out the same quality in your canned tomatoes? It’ll still cost you a fraction of the price.
The thing I love about European canned tomatoes is that they are usually actually riper and deeper in flavor than any fresh tomato you can buy at a grocery store. This is because they don’t have to travel to the canning plant. Instead they’re allowed to fully ripen on the vine, and then they’re processed within hours of picking: they’re cooked only briefly so the skins slide off, and then they’re packed in their own juices. Generally, I like to buy whole peeled tomatoes because I find them more versatile; I usually have both whole plum, or Roma-style, and whole cherry tomatoes in my pantry. I might also keep some passata—or puree—on hand, and double-concentrated tomato paste.
Even if you love fresh tomatoes in season, that season is short, especially in the colder states. A good quality canned tomato will keep you happy the rest of the year.
Canned tomatoes can be easily turned into salsa with the addition of chopped onion, cilantro, chiles, and lime juice. Marcella Hazan’s famous magical tomato sauce is just canned tomatoes, onion, and butter, and it makes for the most glorious anointment any pasta ever enjoyed. Puree it with some stock and aromatics and you have perfect tomato soup. Add some beans and vegetables and little pasta shapes and it becomes minestrone.
Sometimes I take the whole peeled cherry tomatoes, strain them, and paint them with a paste of salt, sugar, and olive oil, and roast them in a slow oven for two to three hours until they turn into little sweet and sour tomato raisins that are spectacular on your next cheese board or charcuterie platter or as a salad garnish.
For an amazing and quick bruschetta, I drain and chop up a can of whole plum tomatoes and sauté them briefly with garlic and onion and then season with red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, and oregano, and if I’m really feeling fancy, some chopped oil-cured olives or capers for pops of brine.
For the most delicious and soul-warming winter dinner, rip up a loaf of sourdough or hearty country bread, toss it in olive oil and salt and pepper, and toast until the bits of bread have gotten browned and crispy on the edges but are still tender inside. Then mix in two cans of peeled cherry tomatoes with their juices, season with salt and pepper, and pile it all into the bottom of a roasting pan and top with whole sweet or hot Italian sausages and some sliced onion or shallot. Prick the sausages with a fork or the top of a knife so they don’t split, and roast in a 400-degree oven until the sausages are brown on the outside and 180 degrees inside. Garnish with a drizzle of really good olive oil and a scattering of chopped fresh parsley, basil, or mint, and you’ll have heaven in a bowl.