Tomato Trifecta: Sauce, Soup, and Puttanesca

Friday, September 23, 2011

Remember the picture of those succulent tomatoes I posted earlier this week? I really should have made sauce that very day. Alas, between shopping and a long run it wasn’t able to happen. Nor on Monday or Tuesday, for that matter. (See? I get it. I don’t always have time to cook, either.)

A bit messy, I know, but I was simmering two sauces, whisking polenta, and searing tuna simultaneously. You must check back tomorrow for the final tuna presentation. Much, much prettier.

On Wednesday, my tomatoes could wait no longer, and I spent part of the evening making a classic Italian tomato sauce along with a puttanesca sauce. This post will be dedicated to the former, as the other two recipes build upon that base. And, if I may whet your appetite, I’ll be posting soon about the puttanesca, which was served with seared tuna atop a bed of creamy polenta, and the velvety tomato soup.

As for the “how” you make tomato sauce, it’s rather straight forward, and I’ll post the recipe tomorrow in case you’ve never done it before. Today’s post will be dedicated to the “why,” given one goal of my blog is to explore why what you eat matters, not just how to cook.

First things first. Have you ever made homemade tomato sauce, in any fashion? Using canned tomatoes counts. I use those too, in the winter sometimes. That said, I’ve noticed increasingly I am able to obtain local, fresh tomatoes grown organically and hydroponically in the winter when tomatoes are out of season, so my dependence on cans may soon end. Anyway, if you’re making tomato sauce from scratch using cans, that’s a solid step in the right direction, and you can follow the same recipe I’ll provide, or another of your choosing.

So, why homemade, you ask, especially given there are so many wonderful jarred sauces out there? So many reasons. Let’s start with the obvious, given this is the week of the tomato. (In my world, that is. Not like it’s an official holiday, or anything. That I know of.)

First reason: Taste. As I mentioned, tomatoes are still in season and they are so exquisite that they need to be enjoyed while they can. Clearly you cannot get these in a can, since most canned tomatoes are basically run of the mill field tomatoes and/or plum tomatoes. But even the popular San Marzano tomatoes – think expensive canned tomatoes from Italy that all the Food Network people use, if you’ve never heard of them – are just one kind. Perusing all the colors and varieties of tomatoes and selecting a good mix to make tomato sauce is simply something that cannot be reproduced from cans. Literally.

Second reason: Better for you. Some of the basic nutrition of the tomato will be found in the canned variety, which includes lots of antioxidants, carotenoids such as lycopene, vitamin C, and potassium, for starters … alongside a whopping amount of sodium, in many cases. And don’t get me started on the jarred varieties, which in addition to the sodium have a lengthy list of preservatives, thickeners, added sugar, and lots of other stuff that, frankly, interfere with the tomato-y goodness of fresh sauce and compromise its healthfulness. Americans consume far too much sodium and high intakes are associated with development of hypertension, for one thing. Canned foods in general are the biggest contributors to sodium intake, so limiting intakes is always a good idea and/or specifically look for low- or no-sodium varieties in a pinch.

Third reason: Better for the planet. This is the perfect time to address how cooking whole foods is not only healthier for you, but there is much less waste created when cooking from scratch. One day in the winter when I’m making sauce and there are no fresh tomatoes to be had I will take a picture or do a video further demonstrating just how much refuse there is from all of the cans. (If you do use cans please make sure to recycle, but remember that reduce is the fundamental step of sustainability.) And let’s not get started on the food miles it took to get those canned tomatoes to you … especially if they are the fancy ones from Italy. Without question, my bag of fresh tomatoes from the market was much kinder to the planet as well as my palate.

Fourth reason: Better for your wallet. Yes, really, and especially if you are accustomed to purchasing jarred tomato sauce, which can be pricey, in my opinion. I used to buy it on occasion, too, so I know all about this, as I really love tomato sauce and I always used to have jars on hand (way back when). I will put it on my list of things to do to quantify the price difference at some point in the future, but in the meantime believe me.

Fifth reason: It’s fun! Okay, well, I think so. (Obviously.) Also, it doesn’t take too long to prep – less than an hour, for sure, with the rate limiting step being chopping all the tomatoes. Even if you aren’t sure you feel like spending time dicing veges (yet!), go ahead and use cans for now as a start, which will reduce the prep time substantially.

Convinced yet? Remember, those tomato days are numbered now and it’s not too late to make a batch this coming weekend. I guarantee the redolence of garlic-imbued tomato sauce simmering away on the stove top will leave your mouth watering. I’ll actually be making another big batch of sauce this weekend to freeze since I used most of mine in my dishes this week that you’ll hear about. Do note that the sauce spends a lot of time on the stove reducing (i.e., the water evaporates from the sauce and it gets thicker), and even a very large pile of tomatoes ends up making less sauce than you’d think. So buy a lot, and make a huge batch to ensure you have enough to enjoy for the evening meal and leftovers later in the week; you might even try out some my dishes or get creative and make up your own. Homemade tomato sauce is very versatile indeed.

Finally, if you do make sauce you simply must ensure you make enough to freeze at least one container. I do so every time so it’s on hand. Sort of like keeping jarred or canned sauce in the pantry, but so much better than that! Tomato sauce freezes beautifully, and if you remember to take it out of the freezer in the morning some cold winter day you’ll have farm-market-fresh tomato sauce to remind you of warm summer days, and the next tomato season.

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Dr. P.K. Newby is a nutrition scientist, speaker, and author with expertise in all things food, farm to fork, whether preventing obesity and other chronic diseases through diet or teaching planet-conscious eating. As a health expert and food personality, she brings together her passions for food, cooking, science, and sustainability to educate and inspire, helping people eat their way towards better health, one delectable bite at a time. Healthy Hedonism (TM) is her philosophy: Because healthy food shouldn’t suck.

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