Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Talking About Tomatoes: Canned, Sauce, or Passata?

tomato products

Over the years I've learned a lot about cooking with tomatoes and what to use when I'm making things from scratch. Believe it or not, it makes a difference in the outcome! Are you stumped over which kind of tomatoes to buy? Do you need tomato sauce or crushed when you make chili? And what's passata, anyway? What makes it so great?

I used to watch Food Network and could never understand why the chefs always seemed to have these thick, amazing looking canned tomatoes I could never find. Well-now I know their secrets, and I'm going to share them with you.

Passata is Italian strained tomatoes. It's harder to find at the store; I usually can only find the Mutti brand at London Drugs for $1.99/ 670 ml glass jar. The glass jars make the sauce really convenient to just open and use, then put the leftovers in the fridge. The Mutti brand has added salt and contains 160 mg of sodium per 60 ml, and 3 grams of sugar (none is added) I've mentioned passata here before, and over the years it's become one of my more favourite ingredients to cook with. I find that my family prefers the flavour of passata far more than any other tomato product unless I've cooked it from fresh tomatoes myself.

The advantage with passata is that it's very thick but also very smooth, so when I add it to sauces I usually do not have to also add tomato paste. I often make spaghetti sauce, chili, or even pizza sauce with passata. If I could find a brand without added salt I would, but since it's already hard to find I'm not sure I would. This is something I must investigate further. You can get some with added basil, which adds some great flavour to pasta or pizza sauce.

Quick pizza sauce or a basic pasta sauce:

1/2 jar of passata
1/2 onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp basil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp honey
salt and pepper to taste

In a saucepan, saute the onion in a bit of olive oil over medium low heat until softened. Add the garlic and continue to saute until fragrant (don't let it brown). Stir in the rest of the ingredients and let bubble for a few minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Let cool and spread on your pizza dough! I've been known to use this sauce for lasagna, and for pizza just spoon on plain passata straight out of the jar.

Crushed tomatoes can come in a 28 oz (798 ml) can. Some people find that canned tomatoes have a 'tinny' taste, but I don't seem to notice. Crushed tomatoes aren't as smooth as passata. As a rule, they are often cheaper-you can get cans of crushed tomatoes on sale at Target for under $2 each quite easily. In my cupboard right now is the Unico brand, but you can get other brands of tomatoes-some with salt, some without. The crushed tomatoes that I have at the moment have less salt (105 mg per 60 ml) and sugar (2.5 g per 60 ml) but the numbers are fairly close. Crushed tomatoes are good and I often use them for a sub for passata, although they are even thicker-almost too thick sometimes.

Italian diced or whole tomatoes (Italissima is a common brand) are often packed in juice (pureed tomatoes?) that is much thicker than their Canadian counterparts and are a fantastic substitution for passata. They are often more expensive and harder to find, but are well worth it if you can get your hands on them. Sometimes in recipes from UK cooks such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson or even Gordon Ramsay, I've found that they work better when I can find Italian tomatoes or passata because the end result is thicker. Otherwise I have to add tomato paste.

Tomato sauce is more than just tomatoes, and can contain ambiguous things like 'flavour' or 'spice'. I find that the metal flavour is more pronounced with the sauces. One popular tomato sauce has about 235 g of sodium per 60 ml and 3 grams of sugar. At one time I used tomato sauces to make things like chili and spaghetti sauces, but I switched because I found I didn't like the flavour as much. You can, however, buy some salt free varieties as well. Canned tomato sauces are often thinner than crushed tomatoes or passata, and you still may need to add tomato paste to thicken it.

Then again, you can can your own tomatoes and that adds a whole different dimension.

What's your favourite way to cook with tomatoes? Any tips? New products?

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