Plant ’em in the spring eat ’em in the summer
All winter without ’em’s a culinary bummer
– Homegrown Tomatoes, Guy Clark
As a society, we tend to buy roughly the same grocery store items over and over by reflex. We don’t like change much. What’s the easiest or cheapest to buy? I’ll take it, thank you.
I live in a town of about 34 square miles. If it were a true square, that’d be just less than 6 miles from one side to the other in any direction. I could walk it if I was motivated. And in that space, I have maybe a dozen grocery stores and that’s not counting the box stores and mini-marts that also sell groceries. We live in a time of staggering abundance. (Yet there are parts of town that are not close to one of these. Boggles the mind.)
For the record, I have no relationship with any of the companies mentioned here other than I’ve purchased their products. All opinions are mine alone.
In the early 1900s, a grocery store had maybe 200 different products for our shopping pleasure and convenience. And by 1975, it was still less than 10,000. But today, and still growing, it is up to 40,000 to 50,000 different grocery items!
And some of the new super stores are like day trips where you need to pack extra water and a sandwich to visit. I wear an activity tracker on my wrist that counts my steps during the day and tries to nudge me to walk more and sit less. And I can tell you, it jumps for joy when we go for groceries.
But wait…it gets better…as you go from the grocery store on the corner to the one down the street, you’re going to find different products! Many the same, sure, but not as many as you might think. Or wish.
That’s just plain crazy overwhelming and frustrating and it’s no wonder so many people hate grocery shopping!
Update 4/30/2018: And even more as I visit more stores! It’s almost become a hobby at this point. Notice, they’re like snowflakes, no two alike. It’s overwhelming.
Once upon a time…
On this particular adventurous day of mine, it made finding a can of good quality, good tasting, and reasonably affordable tomatoes quite the challenge. It brought the whole needle and haystack thing rather forcibly to the front of my mind. To the point where you have to wonder whether they actually want you to buy tomatoes or is it just a ploy to sell more anxiety medicine. Good grief.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened.
A few years ago, I actually spent the time to choose a canned tomato product that made me happy when I cooked. Only two stores in town carried it (same store, two locations, that is). And even though I have a few stores closer to the house, I make the regular trek over to get these particular tomatoes. (Yes, I know 2.4 miles probably doesn’t qualify as a trek.)
So, nothing beats homegrown or locally-grown-by-a-farmer-you-love tomatoes. Hands down. Don’t even talk to me.
But I can’t get those year-round. And I can’t keep them in the pantry for last-minute meals. I’m too lazy and disorganized to can my own. And frankly, as much as I love to cook, it has to be a barn burner of a meal with special guests invited before I reduce my own tomato sauce or paste as part of a larger recipe.
Grocery store fresh tomatoes? Not usually. Not unless they’re vine-ripened and local, which isn’t too often. Most are picked and shipped while they’re still green. Then, they’re artificially reddened often using ethylene gas. They’re pretty flavorless compared to the real deal. So unless you have no other choice….
That said, one of my favorite things in this world is a simple pot of pasta sauce on the back of the stove bubbling away. It brings joy to my world. Not to be maudlin, but I know that when my people one day look back and remember me, the smell won’t be a favorite cologne, it’ll be some form of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and basil.
AND THEN THE STORE QUIT CARRYING IT.
No warning. No closeout. Just gone. Their prerogative, sure, but argh.
I happened to have my oldest child (almost 24 now) in tow on this particular day and he was rolling his eyes something spectacular as we asked for and cornered the store’s product manager and he then spent five minutes poking at his computer (I know my way around a computer and he was poking at it, just saying) to tell me they no longer carried it. Duh.
I went so far as to reach out to one of the owners of the tomato company and ask for help. He was sympathetic but obviously it wasn’t his fault.
I looked online. And yes, I can buy my favorite tomatoes and have them drop-shipped to the house. At a jaw-dropping markup. Like, I could have someone in Italy home-grow and hand-pick a basket and ship them to the house in a handmade quilt-lined container type of markup. So that’s not happening.
And that brings me to today. On to the adventure.
I went to all of those grocery stores and scoped out their canned tomatoes. I went online to a few of the larger stores in the country, like Wegmans and Publix for example, that we don’t have here. And I hit the books and papers to catch up on the latest tomato news.
I FOUND WELL OVER 100 DIFFERENT CANS / BOTTLES / BOXES OF TOMATOES!
In a 34 square mile town.
And I bought tomatoes. More than a dozen cans, jars, and boxes of them. I didn’t buy them all — who has that kind of money? and in some cases, yuck — but rather the ones that I guessed might have a decent chance in the running. The ones with stray chemicals didn’t even get a start. Read those labels.
I tasted each one several times, comparing them, and taking notes.
So many of these products add salt (to boost the taste,) calcium salts (to help preserve the shape and firmness), citric acid (to help regulate acidity), and often basil (which I don’t really understand at all).
If I see a basil leaf floating in there, I toss it straight away.
“Fresh tomatoes readily cook down to a smooth puree, but many canned tomatoes don’t. Canners frequently add calcium salts to firm the cell walls and keep the pieces intact, and this can interfere with their disintegration while cooking. If you want to make a fine-textured dish from canned tomatoes, check the labels and buy a brand that doesn’t list calcium among its ingredients.”
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
Update 4/12/2018: I included the photo below of the DiNapoli label to show the firming agents included. After hearing from Rob DiNapoli, and sending him the picture, I got some great news back. “Wow! Thank you for that. We will get that line changed ASAP as we have not used Calcium Chloride in over five years! Thanks again Bill.“ And a few days later, he sent me a proof for the new labels with ingredients: Sun-ripened pear tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, citric acid, and fresh basil leaf. This gives me joy. Thanks, Rob.
After tasting all the different brands, my favorite tasting was easily DiNapoli. The San Marzano style peeled tomatoes variety, specifically. The brand the store quit carrying was Bianco DiNapoli, organic, by the way. I’d much rather have those organic but….
Only two of the brands I tried didn’t have salt added. And straight out of the can or box, they seemed bland in comparison. But once I added a touch of salt, they were great. Well, one of them was.
#1 When I need the good stuff, I want Bianco DiNapoli Organic.
#2 Barring that, regular DiNapoli San Marzano style (albeit knowing they have Calcium Chloride and/or Calcium Sulfate).
#3 The Kirkland Signature organic series from Costco are my go-to fallback. These are quite good and my kind of affordable. Organic California Roma tomatoes, vine ripened, freshly packed.
#4 I’ll grab a box of Pomì if needed. Nothing added 100% tomatoes — which I love — and they tasted very good. Just a bit pricey.
Myself, I prefer a rustic sauce. So my favorite method is to simply squish the whole tomatoes with my hands in a bowl before I start cooking. By the way, puncture each tomato with one of your fingers before you squeeze it or you’ll end up wearing a good deal of decorative tomato.
One of the kids doesn’t like the texture of onions and garlic. The taste is fine, just not the texture. I know, I don’t get it either, but it is what it is. So I often take an immersion blender to my sauce. What Emeril called a “boat motor” and we still do. And all problems pretty much solved. It’s not silky smooth but that’s okay.
There is something about the terroir of a true San Marzano tomato that makes it special.
Be aware though, so many canned tomatoes have the words San Marzano on the outside, but that’s not exactly what’s inside.
If you see it followed by the word style, that’s fine, it’s a plum-type tomato with thicker cell walls and fewer seeds, shaped somewhat like an egg, and life is good. Just be aware. Like olive oil and Parmesan, there are unfortunately many fakes out there. See The Fake Rolex of Canned Foods and Apparently Most Canned ‘San Marzano’ Tomatoes Are Fake.
You know me, I prefer organic food. Poison is poison regardless of the dosage. But I’m also realistic. It’s not always black and white.
And organic doesn’t automatically mean better, though it usually still means more expensive. Organic doesn’t mean it tastes good either. Whatsoever.
Case in point.
Huge disclaimer: I assume every single one of those cans on the shelf is put there by a company who wants to provide us the very best product they can at all times. And that sometimes it’s no more than a difference in taste and palette between us. Like my former boss used to say, “Always assume positive intent.”
But I do not like Muir Glen tomatoes (a General Mills company) and I’m talking only for myself here. I think they’re bland and taste like grocery store tomatoes in a can. I realize that’s harsh and I mean no offense. And to my sadness, my nearest “organic” grocery store has erected what amounts to a shrine to them with every offshoot variety top-to-bottom and virtually no other brand on the shelf.
Your mileage may vary.
But, tomatoes are sadly #10 on the EWG Dirty Dozen.
So I reached out to DiNapoli for some help and I learned “the DiNapoli brand tomatoes are delivered by hard-working California farmers who’ve worked the soil for many generations. Farming practices include occasional use of pesticides and herbicides however no tomatoes with detectable levels enter the cannery.” (Emphasis mine.)
I also learned that my favorite “organic Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes are grown by Scott Park and the soil has been farmed organically for over 20 years.”
So for now, I’m good enough. I can continue to develop recipes that make people happy otherwise unimpeded.
All’s Well that Ends Well
I will still keep an eye out for the return of Bianco DiNapoli Organic.
And to my local grocery, be prepared for a regularly occurring product request card in that little box up front by the service desk.
If you’re curious, I later made an all-in stockpot-sized batch of pasta sauce that was actually quite good. It was certainly the most complex tasting sauce I’ve ever made with mixed notes of deepness, richness, and watery-blandness with several differing types of basil.
It’s not an approach I’d recommend but, seriously, we enjoyed it. (I froze most of it.)