In Praise of Canned Tomatoes

By Tyla Fowler

Published on October 6, 2011

In summer, I long for nothing more than tomatoes, unadorned, ripe, and juicy. Lingering over the final panzanella of the season, I wonder how I'll survive without the fruit that has sustained me through summer. But as the heirlooms disappear from the market and the air turns cool and crisp, my cravings begin to change. Tomatoes are still on my mind, but instead of picking up fresh ones from the market, I stock my pantry with cans of San Marzanos in anticipation of the countless evenings I will return home desiring nothing more than tomatoey goodness to coat my bones and fortify me against autumn and winter winds.

It was just over two years ago during my first New York winter that I discovered the joy that is canned tomatoes. I stumbled upon Marcella Hazan's so-simple-it-can't-possibly-be-good recipe for tomato sauce--canned tomatoes simmered with butter and onion—which is in fact so delicious that I devoured it and then made it again two days later. I knew that if butter and onion could transform the tomatoes so magically the possibilities were endless. Myriad variations of that simple, canned tomato-based pasta sauce graced my table (and my freezer) that winter. Anchovies and capers. Mushrooms and parsley. Chickpeas and onions. Ground beef, pork, and veal. From there, I moved on to even more exciting prospects: tomato sauce for innumerable pizzas, creamy tomato soups, and my personal favorite, the Middle Eastern dish shakshuka, where eggs are poached in a savory spiced tomato sauce.

Unlike fresh tomatoes, which are delicious in season but even in summer can't always be counted on for consistency of texture and flavor, canned tomatoes are staunchly dependable. They're grown for flavor, picked at the height of ripeness, and perfectly preserved so that their flavor can be brought out at any time of year. (Even in summer: why would you waste the brightness of a beautiful farmers' market tomato on a long-simmered sauce?) And unlike fresh tomatoes, high-quality canned tomatoes are always available - always there to save the day when I open the cabinets to figure out what to make for dinner. It would be unfair for me to call them a staple. Canned tomatoes are a pillar of my pantry.

Tyla Fowler is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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