At last: Canned tomatoes are back in season.
Summer tomatoes are glorious, of course, and tomato salad is something I could eat every day. But I also feel compelled to use them in cooking, where (let’s be honest) the skins are irritating, the taste is unpredictable and the liquid content can get out of control.
So in the fall, with some relief, I turn back to the canned tomatoes for all kinds of everyday cooking, like pastas, stews, curries and enchiladas.
Canned tomatoes with predictable behavior and excellent flavor are particularly necessary at a place like Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Conn., one of the most celebrated pizza destinations in the country. Since the restaurant opened in 1925, pizza has sustained four generations of the Pepe family, and generated eight locations across the Northeast, each with a coal-burning oven identical to the original.
Because pizza has just three basic elements – crust, sauce and cheese – each one must be reliably perfect and perfectly reliable. To accomplish this, every fall two grandsons of Pepe conduct a blind tasting of new-harvest tomatoes from the area around Naples, Italy, that is known for producing (and canning) the best tomatoes.
“We’re looking not only for taste but for the density of the fruit, whether the texture is fibrous or weak, how the flavor changes from the beginning to the end,” said Francis Rosselli, 65, who began working at the pizzeria alongside the founder at age 14.
The Pepe sauce is not cooked, or even seasoned; the tomatoes are simply puréed with their juices before going onto the crust and into the oven. So it’s urgent that the unembellished tomatoes and juice are just right.
Recently, I got to sit in (but didn’t vote) at the annual tasting. First, we tried seven kinds right out of the can. Four were rejected (too weak, too strong, bland at the end), and the remaining three were carried off to the kitchen to be ground into sauce and tested immediately on an unembellished pie – no cheese or toppings, just tomato and olive oil. All three made good pizza, but we agreed that only one retained its clear, fresh tomato flavor after a turn in the 550-degree oven.
Now a trained taster, I had to replicate the experiment at home.
I blind-tested 10 widely available brands of American and Italian canned tomatoes, mixing imported and domestic, organic and not, salted and salt-free, in purée and in juice. I tasted only whole tomatoes because whole ingredients tend to be less processed, and it’s easy to dice or crush them as needed. (I use a potato masher for the best texture in tomato sauce.)
I did not include true, certified San Marzano tomatoes, since they are at least two to three times more expensive – not what we want for regular weeknight cookery. I did not miss them.
Among the supermarket brands, most canned tomatoes had the balance of tang, saltiness and sweetness that is the hallmark of good tomato flavor. But four of them were especially high-performing.
Here’s how I found them:
First I carved and tasted each brand right out of the can. Out of 10, I chose four top candidates.
Next, I used those four to make the simplest, most luscious tomato sauce for pasta: Marcella Hazan’s recipe, which calls for a can of tomatoes, a chunk of butter, a peeled and halved onion, and salt. All four were delicious.
Carried away with success, I invented a final, grueling test: The two freshest-tasting specimens were drained, filleted and stuffed into a BLT.
Those two – Muir Glen Organic San Marzano-style and Bionaturae Organic – made surprisingly good substitutes for fresh tomatoes in the sandwich, and in my favorite weeknight minestrone. Rounding out the top four were Cento San Marzano Organic and Simpson Brands San Marzano tomatoes. All four made intensely flavored sauces with good mouth feel.
Whatever the breed, tomatoes do not always hold up well in the canning process. Some end up tasting metallic, or acquire the flavors of the additives used to preserve them. So finding lively, fresh tomato flavor in a can is a gift, and worth staging your own test.
For Frank Pepe’s descendants, the annual tasting ritual is more than a business necessity.
“It takes us back to the roots,” said Gary Bimonte, 57, the other grandson. “Tomatoes were a big part of our grandfather’s life.”
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
1 large onion or 2 shallots, peeled and cut into chunks
1 celery stalk, trimmed and cut into chunks
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into chunks
8 ounces baby kale or shredded savoy cabbage (about 1/4 of a medium-size head)
2 celery ribs, cut into small dice
2 carrots, cut into small dice
1 medium zucchini, cut into large dice
1 (15-ounce) can cranberry, cannellini or other white beans, rinsed and drained
4 to 5 canned whole peeled tomatoes, seeded and cut into small dice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock, plus more to taste
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, marjoram or oregano
To finish: Crusty bread (optional, see note), extra-virgin olive oil and shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano
In a medium-size heavy soup pot, combine the oil and pancetta over medium-low heat to slowly render the fat and cook the pancetta, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine the onion or shallots, celery and carrot. Pulse until finely chopped. Add to pot with cooked pancetta and adjust heat so the vegetables soften and cook without browning, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes.
Stirring after each addition, add the kale or cabbage, celery, carrots, zucchini, beans and tomatoes. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Add the stock and 1 cup water (or, if you prefer a soup that’s not as thick, add additional stock to taste, up to 2 cups). Add the herb sprigs. Cover, raise the heat and bring to a full boil. Uncover, lower the heat to a bubbly simmer and cook 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper. Remove the herb sprigs.
Serve in bowls, drizzling a little olive oil and sprinkling a big pinch of cheese over each serving.
Note: If using bread, when ready to serve, toast or grill the slices and place 1 on the bottom of each soup bowl. Pour the soup over the bread and let it stand for about 5 minutes before adding the oil and cheese.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.