The Search For The Perfect Tomato

A parallel-sliced onion. Do not do this. 
On November 22, 2010, the Italian carabinieri confiscated 1,470 tonnes (1,450 long tons; 1,620 short tons) of improperly labelled canned tomatoes worth €1.2 million.

This is going to be a rumination on international law, community building, and my personal quest for the best tomato. However, I vowed many years ago that if I ever wrote about a recipe I would actually start by giving the recipe, which I have stolen from Marcella Hazan by way of Deb Perelman. But if you are in fact here for the tomato chat, it'll be just below.

The rough plan is:

  • Recipe
  • A brief intro to international food law
  • My quest to make good pasta
  • Broader thoughts on special tomatoes
  • Even broader thoughts on the culinary canon as a whole

Stupidly Nice And Easy Tomato Pasta

Ingredients

  • An 800g (28oz) can of nice tomatoes (more on what that means later)
  • 70g of butter
  • An onion
  • Some salt
  • (You will also need to make some pasta separately. I recommend spaghetti or penne.)

Recipe

  • Get a saucepan, and put all the tomatoes in whole, with as much of the sweet sweet tin juice as you can get out.
  • Cut the onion in half, and take off the inedible outside and ends. I recommend cutting it perpendicular to the axis, rather than parallel, because it makes it less likely that the onion will fall apart, but it doesn't matter that much and it might fall apart anyway. I put a picture of a parallel onion at the top: here is a perpendicular one, below.

A perpendicular-sliced onion: Much better, good job!
  • Put the onion halves and the butter in the saucepan with the tomatoes.
  • Heat the saucepan up until the tomatoes are simmering gently, bubbling a bit but not aggressively boiling. No lid: let the steam drift away. Remember that tomato juice can stain, so don't cook in your lovely new linen shirt.
  • Occasionally stir the pan to make sure the bottom doesn't burn. See if you can gently break up the tomatoes by pushing them against the side of the pan.
  • Keep simmering for a good 40 minutes, or until you see droplets of fat floating around.
  • Pick out the onion. By now it will have infused the sauce with onion-y goodness, but it's time for it to leave. It also tastes great on its own, but if you want to throw it in the compost or whatever then go for it.

That is all. You have now made a truly excellent pasta sauce. I have some separate thoughts on how to make pasta well, but if you want to read those, you're going to have to wade through my musings. Or scroll down.

Protected Designation of Origin

One of the greatest blows I faced as a teenager was the revelation that [Infohazard alert] Parmesan wasn't vegetarian. It's a weird edge case actually: none of the ingredients are meat products, but it's produced using enzymes in rennet, extracted from the stomach of calves.

But it's not like you need rennet to make a wedge of umami-rich hard cheese that tastes sublime when grated over your pasta, it just wouldn't be Parmesan. Much as Champagne must be made in the Champagne region of France, Parmesan must be made in a very specific part of Italy.

And when I say specific I mean specific: the city of Mantua spans the river Po, and only on the south side can you make Parmesan. It was years before I discovered the existence of a perfect vegetarian substitute for Parmesan which, for legal reasons, is known as 'Vegetarian Hard Cheese'. Yes, as cheese names go, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, but a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and I can tell you, dear reader, that a vegetarian hard cheese by any name remains firm, crumbly, and possessing of a deep, rich flavour.

It's hard for me to emphasise how significant it was for me to find that Parmesan wasn't vegetarian. Back then I was very firmly attached to my principles, and, to a lesser extent, to Parmesan. That rich umami flavour is hard to find, and I just didn't know where to look for a substitute. Back then I hadn't heard the good word of MSG, and I didn't know to look for 'Vegetarian Hard Cheese'.

These are both instances of a wider set of PDOs - Protected Designation of Origin - which I personally find makes for a fascinating read. I hadn't really heard of most of them, but they give an easily comparable view into many cultures. I'm considering^ writing another post of highlights from the PDO list.

Anyway, the PDO we're going to talk about today is San Marzano. Let me just quote Wikipedia here.

Amy P. Goldman calls the San Marzano "the most important industrial tomato of the 20th century"; its commercial introduction in 1926 provided canneries with a "sturdy, flawless subject, and breeders with genes they'd be raiding for decades."
[They were] first grown in volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. One story goes that the first seed of this tomato came to Campania in 1770, as a gift from the Viceroyalty of Peru

It's one of only two types of tomato that can legally be used in Neapolitan Pizza. But it's not all it's cracked up to be!

The Problem with San Marzano

For a San Marzano to get the DOP label it needs to be grown specifically in the Valley of the Sarno, which is the most polluted river in Europe, partly due to agricultural waste. But that doesn't really matter to me: I only found it out while idly googling as I wrote this. What matters to me is that they're kind of expensive, and I feel like it ought to be possible to get nice tomatoes more cheaply.

It was 2019 when I first came across recipes which insisted that San Marzano was the difference between a herby vegetable blend and an authentic pizza sauce. I was never quite sure, but when I came across the Hazan recipe I finally felt like I ought to try.

The recipe is so simple! It all rides on the quality of the ingredients. So the only way to fairly judge it, I figured, was to try making it with Premium Quality Vesuvius Soil tomatoes. More generally I've come to believe that it's better to get really nice versions of cheap things than really horrid versions of expensive things, if you have to choose.

So I splurged and got the fancy tomatoes, and reader I must tell you, they were excellent. So good that I would go on to make the same recipe another four times in slightly different ways.

You know what doesn't work? Cooking the pasta in the tomato sauce. It gets all starchy and horrid, and getting the salt balance right is hard. I stand by the experiment, because I think if you never try things that go wrong, you're not being experimental enough. But this one went wrong.

Small pasta, also bad. And olive oil doesn't quite come together, it's gotta be butter.

But I do think I found some improvements which work for me. Unlike in the original recipes, I don't throw away the onion: I like to eat it separately, because it's just a tender, sweet onion infused with tomato flavour and salt. I recommend trying it.

And, most importantly: You don't need San Marzanos. It's gotta be whole plum tomatoes, and you want them sweet, not too acidic. But it's fine if they're not San Marzanos. I used these, and I couldn't tell the difference. I also tried supermarket own brand and it was way worse. That's it, that's my contribution.

But there is a point at stake here. I'm sure you're dying to know, what do I actually think about the institution of the San Marzano?

The Institution of the San Marzano

Honestly, I don't know how I feel. I think it's good that there are people who can recognise when a tomato is truly exceptional, and that they can draw a line in the sand to make sure that that exceptional quality isn't lost.

However, I do think it's prohibitive that you simply can't make Parmesan without the stomach fluid of a calf. And I think there's a degree of snobbery in insisting that if it's not from the Champagne region of France, it's merely a sparkling white wine.

But that's a choice we make. I choose to eat Vegetarian Hard Cheese, and Organic BPA-Free Plum Tomatoes, and I recognise that the integrity of these much less venerable institutions is contingent on the people who do in fact buy Real San Marzanos From The Shadow Of Vesuvius, so in a way I'm grateful to them. Plus, I know that one day the brand of tinned tomatoes I found might vanish, or slip in quality, but I choose to believe that the venerable institution of San Marzano will not fall.

The Culinary Canon

One of the more surprising discoveries I've made as I've ventured into the world of cookery is that there are some things which aren't up for debate, and some people who just got it right.

There is one recipe for chocolate chip cookies - Toll House - which is the recipe against which all others are measured. For all that cookery is an art, if you want to make dough without kneading it, there's only one way to do it: the way Jim Lahey does it.

Nachos were invented in 1940, in the middle of World War 2. It's named after its inventor, Ignacio 'Nacho' Anaya. His name is now known by, I would guess, upwards of a billion people.

The soulful gaze of the man who invented Nachos

I find myself wondering, as I set out on the journey of blogging, what role creativity and originality will take. The things I already know are, to me, obviously unoriginal rehashes, and at best awkward mashes of other people's original ideas. Do I dare disturb the universe?

If you were waiting for the really tortured metaphor, here it is. I think the best thing I can do is to look for the highest-quality ingredients I can find, and combine them carefully, in the right proportions and the appropriate order. Hopefully I'll get better at guessing how it'll come out, and how to season it. I don't expect much more than an incremental improvement on the method, but I do think that I can make something worth, uh, consuming. So, welcome!

Here I throw my hat in the ring. Hazan's recipe is good. You should try it. Don't mess with it, at least the first time. But you don't need San Marzanos: just get the nicest canned plum tomatoes you can find. They'll still be kind of expensive compared to normal cans, but the recipe overall remains cheap, easy, and extremely tasty.

But also, experiment! Find out what you like! Find out what works!

Addendum: how to cook pasta

  • Salt the water a whole bunch. You should, at least once in your life, have put too much salt in the water. If that's never happened you probably always don't put enough in.
  • Bring the water to boil before you add the pasta.
  • The pasta doesn't have to be vigorously boiling: you want it to be bubbling a bit, not madly frothing.
  • Don't just drain the pasta and mix in the sauce in a big bowl: after you drain the pasta, add the drained pasta to the saucepan to cook in the sauce for like a minute, on the lowest heat. It lets the sauce infuse a bit. Depending on what the sauce is, a cup or so of starchy pasta water can help it stick to the pasta a lot.
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