Serious Eats

The Crisper Whisperer: 5 Reasons to Love a Can of Tomatoes

You may know Carolyn Cope as Umami Girl. She stops by on Tuesdays with ideas on preparing the abundance of fruits and vegetables you might get from your CSA or the market. —The Mgmt.

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[Photograph: Carolyn Cope]

There was the one time last March when both kids started shrieking in the produce aisle the moment we walked past a hulking stack of cherry tomato pints. That day, I'll admit, I caved and bought quite enough out-of-season tomatoes to plug their little pie holes (lovingly, of course), and a few extra pints for good measure. I'm not a martyr. Not even an aspiring one.

Usually, though, I'm not the least bit tempted to buy fresh tomatoes in the winter. In part it's due to the horrific and now widely publicized story of an industry walking the line between merely unethical labor practices and flat-out slavery. A story like that doesn't make a girl hungry. But I don't fool myself into thinking I never buy other products, knowingly or not, that come from a similar place. I hope I don't buy any of those, but I probably do.

With tomatoes, though, the choice is easy. The taste of an out-of-season fresh tomato simply isn't worth the cognitive dissonance. Frankly, the taste is rarely even worth the effort it takes to extract it by chewing. Plus, there's such an excellent alternative. Good-quality canned tomatoes are a treasure.

Whether you can your own or simply pick them up at the grocery store, it's a good idea to look for BPA-free products when possible. Since tomatoes are acidic, they can leach a substantial amount of the chemicals from the liners. I haven't heard any overly compelling arguments that adults who eat canned tomatoes occasionally are at high risk from BPA exposure, but the more often you eat them, and the more young children you feed, the more it's worth keeping an eye on developments in this area.

Unfortunately, at this time there aren't any literal canned tomatoes sold in the U.S. in BPA-free cans, in part because that same pesky acidity requires a pretty tough container, which plastics containing BPA can provide. Both Eden Organic and Muir Glen have expressed eventual plans to switch their tomato products to BPA-free cans. One currently (and commonly) available BPA-free alternative is Pomi tomatoes, which are packaged in a Tetra-Pak box and come in chopped and strained varieties. It's worth noting, though, that Tetra-Pak boxes are lined with plastic, so it could be only a matter of time before one of their own three-letter acronyms becomes a four-letter word.

If you can find them, tomatoes packed in glass jars would have BPA only in the lid liners, if at all, substantially reducing the tomatoes' exposure to the chemical. And, of course, canning your own tomatoes in glass jars would limit BPA exposure as well. You know, if you're into that sort of thing.

Beyond BPA, it's a good idea to choose whole, peeled tomatoes whenever it makes sense. Companies tend to save the best-quality tomatoes for that style of packing, since it's easier to see the quality than it would be in, say, a puree or a paste.

Here are five of my favorite uses for canned tomatoes, which are starting to sound awfully appealing as the weather gets cold where I live. What about you? What are your favorite uses for canned tomatoes?

1. Why, good old pasta, of course

Nothing says comfort to this proud Italian-American like a pot of sauce simmering on the stove. My simplest version is two finely diced, medium onions sauteed in plenty of olive oil (don't skimp!); half a head of garlic, finely chopped and added to the sautéing onions a minute before they're perfectly soft; two large cans of whole tomatoes, crushed in my fingers, and all their juices; two big handfuls of whole basil leaves frozen from the garden last summer; all of the tender inner stalks and their leaves from a bunch of celery; and a nice big hunk of parmesan cheese rind, all simmered for a couple of hours in a Dutch oven on the stovetop. Whether it's served over simple spaghetti, layered into a lasagna, or taken to more sophisticated heights, there's no better way to eat.

2. Soups

Too many soups to mention benefit from a can of tomatoes. For a full-on tomato soup, try roasting the contents of a couple of cans of tomatoes in a shallow baking dish in a medium oven for an hour before combining them with diced onions, garlic, and a dash of cream on the stovetop. You'll be amazed at the intensity of flavor. And as the weather turns cold, don't forget about minestrone and lentil soup.

3. Chilis

Whether meaty or vegetarian, Texas, Cincinnati, or what have you, it ain't a red chili without tomatoes. If you've got amazing fresh tomatoes, they will always work, but canned tomatoes preserved at the peak of their freshness will never let you down.

4. Beans

Beans and tomatoes are fast friends, and I heartily enjoy being the third wheel in that relationship. Two of my favorite meals are white beans such as great Northerns or cannellinis in tomato sauce, and vegetarian tacos filled with black beans that have cooked in a chili powder and cumin-spiced tomato base.

5. Stews and Braises

Whether chicken, beef, pork, or lamb; whether braised for hours or browned and then finished until just cooked through, a can of tomatoes fortifies, tenderizes, and generally bathes in love just about any soul-warming meaty winter dish. Try browning bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs in a Dutch oven. Remove the browned chicken to a plate for a few minutes. Then sauté a sliced onion and some garlic in some of the pan drippings. Add back the chicken parts along with a large can of tomatoes, half a cup of red wine, some kalamata olives, and some chopped oregano. Cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked through. Toss some feta cheese on top and serve with orzo. It's as good as it is easy.

About the author: Carolyn Cope writes Umami Girl and manages a CSA in New Jersey.

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