NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT (NYTIMES) - At last: Canned tomatoes are back in season.
Summer tomatoes are glorious, of course, and tomato salad is something I could eat every day. But I also feel compelled to use them in cooking, where (let's be honest) the skins are irritating, the taste is unpredictable and the liquid content can get out of control. So in the fall, it is with some relief that I turn back to the canned variety for all kinds of everyday cooking like pastas, stews, curries and enchiladas.
Canned tomatoes with predictable behaviour and excellent flavour are particularly necessary at a place like Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, one of the most celebrated pizza destinations in the country. Since the restaurant opened in 1925, pizza has sustained four generations of the Pepe family, and generated eight more locations across the Northeast, each with a coal-burning oven identical to the original here.
Because pizza has just three basic elements - crust, sauce and cheese - each one must be reliably perfect and perfectly reliable. To accomplish this, every fall, two grandsons of Pepe conduct a blind tasting of new-harvest tomatoes from the area around Naples, Italy, that is known for producing (and canning) the best tomatoes.
"We're looking not only for taste, but also for the density of the fruit, whether the texture is fibrous or weak, how the flavour changes from the beginning to the end," said Mr Francis Rosselli, 65, who began working at the pizzeria alongside the founder at age 14.
The Pepe sauce is not cooked, or even seasoned; the tomatoes are simply pureed with their juices before going onto the crust and into the oven. So it's urgent that the unembellished tomatoes and juice are just right.
Last week, I sat in (but didn't vote) at the annual tasting. First, we tried seven kinds right out of the can. Four were rejected (too weak, too strong, bland at the end), and the remaining three were carried off to the kitchen to be ground into sauce and tested immediately on an unembellished pie - no cheese or toppings, just tomato and olive oil. All three made good pizza, but we agreed that only one retained its clear, fresh tomato flavour after a turn in the 285 deg C oven.
Now a trained taster, I had to replicate the experiment at home.
I blind-tested 10 widely available brands of American and Italian canned tomatoes, mixing imported and domestic, organic and not, salted and salt-free, in puree and in juice. I tasted only whole tomatoes because whole ingredients tend to be less processed, and it's easy to dice or crush them as needed. (I use a potato masher for the best texture in tomato sauce.) I did not include true, certified San Marzano tomatoes, since they are at least two to three times more expensive - not what we want for regular weeknight cookery. I did not miss them.
Among the supermarket brands, most canned tomatoes had the balance of tang, saltiness and sweetness that is the hallmark of good tomato flavour. But four of them were especially high-performing.
Here's how I found them: First, I carved and tasted each brand right out of the can. Out of 10, I chose four top candidates.
Next, I used those four to make the simplest, most luscious tomato sauce for pasta: Marcella Hazan's recipe, which calls for a can of tomatoes, a chunk of butter, a peeled and halved onion, and salt. All four were delicious.
Carried away with success, I invented a final, grueling test: The two freshest-tasting specimens were drained, filleted and stuffed into a BLT.
Those two - Muir Glen Organic San Marzano-style and Bionaturae Organic - made surprisingly good substitutes for fresh tomatoes in the sandwich, and in my favorite weeknight minestrone. Rounding out the top four were Cento San Marzano Organic and Simpson Brands San Marzano tomatoes. All four made intensely flavoured sauces with good mouthfeel.
Here were some larger patterns I detected: In this sampling, the organic tomatoes tasted distinctly riper and more like fresh tomatoes - though it's not clear why or whether organic tomatoes consistently taste better than conventionally grown ones. (There are many good reasons to buy organic food, but better taste is not necessarily one of them.) Mr Andrew Smith, a director of agriculture research at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, said that although the research is in its infancy, it is clear that organic produce tends to have more concentrated flavour. Organics have less water, he said, and soil content and natural growth cycles also contribute to taste. "We just don't understand the mechanics yet," he said.
Tomatoes packed without salt or calcium chloride tasted and felt more like fresh tomatoes. Calcium chloride is a naturally derived additive that prevents the flesh from breaking down in the can. But using too much of it produces an unnatural crunchy texture and prevents the flesh from breaking down when cooked into sauce.
Whether the tomatoes were packed in juice or purée did not affect the taste. Whether the tomatoes were produced in Italy or the United States did not predict their taste. Whether the tomatoes were called San Marzano did not predict their quality.
This is why: Although many modern recipes call for canned San Marzano tomatoes, labeling is a murky business. San Marzano is not a brand, or even a breed, of tomato. Within the European Union, "San Marzano" is a term that can be applied only to tomatoes grown in a particular area around Naples, Italy, and only approved farmers can use the name and the union-approved stamp on their label.
Here, anyone is free to employ the term, and many do. My can of Cento brand San Marzano tomatoes announced "certified" on the label, but without a seal from the European Union (or any other official body), the term is largely meaningless. (The small print says "certified by an independent third-party agency.") The label on the Simpson San Marzanos looks authentically European, and uses the Italian term for peeled tomatoes on the label, but the tomatoes are entirely produced in the United States. (They are excellent, nonetheless.) Usually, the term does tells you this much: that the can is filled with plum or Roma tomatoes, which are in roughly the same botanical family as the archetypal San Marzano.
"It's a breed with thicker walls, fewer seeds and a sweeter profile" than the typical American canned tomato like Redpack, said Mr Brady Erickson, who works on developing new tomato products for Muir Glen, an all-organic producer in the Sacramento Valley that is owned by General Mills.
The company's new, accurately labeled "San Marzano style" tomatoes performed the most like fresh tomatoes in my tests, and won best in show in the BLT. The Cento tomatoes made the best sauce.
Whatever the breed, tomatoes do not always hold up well in the canning process. Some end up tasting metallic, or acquire the flavours of the additives used to preserve them. So finding lively, fresh tomato flavour in a can is a gift, and worth staging your own test.
For Frank Pepe's descendants, the annual tasting ritual is more than a business necessity.
"It takes us back to the roots," said Mr Gary Bimonte, 57, the other grandson.
"Tomatoes were a big part of our grandfather's life."
Yield: Six to eight servings
Time: One hour
For the soup base:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
55g pancetta, finely chopped
1 large onion or 2 shallots, peeled and cut into chunks
1 celery rib, trimmed and cut into chunks
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into chunks
For the vegetables:
225g baby kale or shredded savoy cabbage (about 1/4 of a medium-size head)
2 celery ribs, cut into small dice
2 carrots, cut into small dice
1 medium zucchini, cut into large dice
1 425g can cranberry, cannellini or other white beans, rinsed and drained
4 to 5 canned whole peeled tomatoes, seeded and cut into small dice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
950ml vegetable or chicken stock, plus more to taste
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, marjoram or oregano
To finish the soup:
Slice of crusty bread for each serving (optional, see note)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Make the soup base: In a medium-size heavy soup pot, combine the oil and pancetta over medium-low heat to slowly render the fat and cook the pancetta, stirring occasionally.
2. Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine the onion or shallots, celery and carrot. Pulse until finely chopped. Add to pot with cooked pancetta and adjust heat so the vegetables soften and cook without browning, stirring occasionally, eight to 10 minutes.
3. Add the other vegetables: Stirring after each addition, add the kale or cabbage, celery, carrots, zucchini, beans and tomatoes. Season generously with salt and pepper.
4. Add the stock and 1 cup water (or, if you prefer a soup that's not as thick, add more stock to taste, up to 2 cups). Add the herb sprigs. Cover, raise the heat and bring to a full boil. Uncover, lower the heat to a bubbly simmer and cook 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper. Remove the herb sprigs.
5. Serve in bowls, drizzling a little olive oil and sprinkling a big pinch of cheese over each serving.
If using bread, when ready to serve, toast or grill the slices and place one on the bottom of each soup bowl. Pour the soup over the bread and let it stand for about 5 minutes before adding the oil and cheese.