Monday, May 11, 2009

Not all tomatoes are created equal

Even though it wasn't at all cold last night, I was still in the mood to make something cozy. While roast chicken tends to be the default Sunday night dinner in our house, sometimes you must break from tradition. I decided to make baked ziti.

I clipped this recipe from the Chronicle during the frenzy of "The Sopranos" a few years back, when people were having Sunday night Soprano parties and whipping up Carmela's ricotta pie and bragiole. Well, the Sopranos are long gone, but am I ever glad I cut out a hokey-sounding recipe entitled, "Baked Ziti, Soprano-Style."

I'm sure I've made this recipe 50 times. Everyone loves it, and it never fails. It's your classic baked pasta--tomato sauce with sweet Italian sausage, wine, and oregano--tossed with pasta, creamy ricotta, parmesan, and baked until the mozzarella on top is bubbly and golden. With a crisp green salad, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying dinner.

Last night I got the water boiling, the oven heating, and began throwing together the sauce, which calls for canned, whole, peeled tomatoes. For a number of years, I've bought canned tomatoes at Trader Joe's. They were inexpensive and decent, which seems to be the criteria TJ's aims for and consumers expect, including me. When it comes to certain ingredients, particularly those of the canned, dried, or boxed variety, I've often adhered to the Gertrude Stein philosophy: a canned tomato is a canned tomato.

But, it turns out this is not true. Not all canned tomatoes are created equal. Recently, the tomatoes from TJ's have been inedible. I've opened several cans and they all revealed hard and lumpy tomatoes, with yellow-green ends, and slippery skins that never seemed to break down no matter long I let a sauce bubble away.

I was reminded of this last night, and poked around the pantry for an alternative. I had some Muir Glen tomatoes, which I busted out and discovered were even worse than the TJ ones--they looks as if they'd been chewed up and spit back out in the can. I chucked them all into the compost bin.

Thank goodness, perhaps in a prescient moment, at some point I'd decided to buy a can of the San Marzano tomatoes everyone keeps raving about. They sat on the shelf for a long time. I looked at the can skeptically last night. At $4.65/can, I thought, these better blow me away. Once opened, I peered in and found myself looking at perfectly-oval, unmarred, dark red tomatoes. I almost wanted to eat one right then, but resisted, because let's face it, that's weird. Once in the pan, they broke down fully with no help from the back of my spoon. After ten minutes of simmering, the sauce had dark, complex, tomato-y essence. They are, without a doubt, the most delicious canned tomatoes I have tasted. As a result, it was quite possibly the best rendition of this baked ziti I have ever made. I suggest you give them a try.


  1. So weird. I just had my first experiment with the tomatoes you describe last night as well. Nothing as fancy as you made. We just had homemade egg noodles with meat sauce, but the tomatoey part of the sauce was pretty good, now that I think about it. Guests were all pretty pleased as well.

  2. I think homemade egg noodles sound pretty fancy! And delicious.

  3. How much a can? I will need my pay cutr restored before I can try it, but it sounds so good!