In Colonial New England, tomatoes were thought toxic. I'll admit the plastic-tasting horros in our supermarkets in January are pretty bad, but they are not toxic.
Nevetheless, I won't eat them and I won't cook with them. I've been spoiled by garden-fresh tomatoes from the farmers' market in September, and I know that if a tomato does not smell like a tomato when you buy it, it won't taste like a tomato when you eat it.
So what to do when tomatoes are out of season? Good quality canned tomatoes were at least ripe when they were picked and processed, and these days they no longer taste like tin cans the way they used to.
And just as different places produce differing qualities of fruits and vegetables, with a little searching you can find a great variety of canned tomatoes from the places known for them.
During the Covid19 "plague days" of 2020-21, being unable to explore New England as we normally do, I did a lot of research into Italian traditional and regional cuisine. Italians take tomatoes very seriously!
When buying canned tomatoes, you must be alert to get what you want! There is a terrible proliferation on market shelves these days with tomatoes with basil, tomatoes with "Italian Herbs", tomatoes with chilis, low-salt tomatoes, and God knows what else. I always get plain tomatoes, especially Cento brand, which has no preservatives. I prefer to add my own herbs of known freshness and potency, and I can adjust the salt myself as needed at the end of the recipe.
Why are supermarket tomatoes so inferior to garden tomatoes? Most tomatoes in the USA come from Florida (in the wintertime), the California (not in winter), a few other states, then Mexico and Canada. It's a long way to your kitchen! In the USA, the logistical chain from farm to your kitchen goes something like this:
(On Day 0, the tomato is on the plant, absorbing sunshine and water and turning it into complex sugars for the tomato fruit.)
- On Day 1, a farmworker picks the tomato. At this moment, sugar production stops. The tomato has as much sugar as it will ever have.
- The tomato was graded and processed overnight and loaded onto a truck from Florida. The truck drives north.
- The truck delivers the tomatoes to a distributor (like the Sysco distribution center in Plympton, MA), who may or may not repackage them. It is important that tomatoes (and other fruits) destined for travel be tough enough and thick-skinned to withstand this amount of handling.
- The distributor puts the tomatoes in cold storage and applies ethylene gas to artificially "ripen" the tomatoes.
- Still ripening.
- The distributor takes the "ripest" tomatoes and starts filling orders from supermarkets, smaller groceries and smaller specialty distributors.
- The high-end markets buy the tomatoes first, at the highest price, and sell them freshest to you at the highest price.
- The rest of the tomatoes sit in cold storage, "ripening" ...
- After a few days, the price drops and the supermarkets buy them.
- The tomatoes travel from the distributor to the supermarket distribution center, where they are again graded and maybe repackaged, then sent to the supermarket.
- The tomatoes are finally on the shelf at your local supermarket. How long before they spoil? It depends on all of those stops in the chain so far.
- After a few days more the shelf life is getting short! You decide to use yours or throw them away. Meanwhile back at the distributor, the price plunges and discounters buy them, and some supermarkets buy them for Specials.
- On Day 1, small farmers and farmworkers on big farms pick the tomatoes. They are trucked overnight to a processing plant and the farmer is paid.
- The tomatoes are graded and processed at peak freshness. Some are whole, some have worms or bad spots cut out and are chopped and canned. Whatever remains might be processed into tomato sauce or paste - quality depends primarily on the manufacturer's reputation, backed up by national laws and enforcement of them.
- On Day 1, a farmer picks the tomatoes at peak freshness.
- The next day the tomatoes are in a basket at the farmers' market. That evening you serve them with dinner. The farmer's reputation and sales are strong incentive for quality.
Here are some specialty tomatoes to look for:
- Fresh Plum or Roma Tomatoes: Usually the best fresh type available for cooking in New England, with a convenient shape and less juice than the big Beefsteak and other rounder varieties. Only use these in season.
- Canned San Marzano tomatoes: This variety is known for superior flavor and thinner skins. They are picked fresh and canned immediately.
The name San Marzano is both a plant variety and a protected food product: you can grow San Marzano tomatoes in your backyard, but that's only half of the story. The DOP (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta) tomatoes are grown in the Sarnese-Nocerino region in Campania where they thrive in the volcanic soil of Vesuvius. It is this terroir that gives the DOP San Marzano tomatoes their reputation. If your tomatoes do not have the red-and-yellow DOP seal on the can, then they are the right variety without the terroir. The tomatoes in the well-known red-and-white can pictured above are grown in the USA from San Marzano seeds!
- Canned Cherry Tomatoes: Americans mostly use cherry tomatoes in salads and as snacks, but Italian cuisine uses a lot of cherry tomatoes (pomodorini) cooked into dishes. As a result, you can find canned cherry tomatoes from different locales; as with San Marzano tomatoes, the best are considered to be those grown near Mt Vesuvius in Campania.
- Semi-Dried or Air-Dried Tomatoes: In southern italy, especially Apulia and Basilicata, cherry tomatoes are air-dried to somewhat concentrate their flavor while maintaining the softness of a ripe pomodorino. These are very hard to find, but totally fabulous with pasta or under fresh fish,
- Sun-Dried Tomatoes: Ripe tomatoes are often sun-dried (or oven dried) completely and packed in oil for storage. These can provide a serious burst of flavor to any dish or cheese plate, but of course quite a lot depends upon the quality of the oil and the added ingredients.