How to Find the Best Tomatoes, Year Round

I have a confession to make.  I’m a food snob when it comes to tomatoes, and well, most foods to be honest.  For example, I wouldn’t think of eating a “fresh” tomato in February.  It was probably shipped from California or Mexico, I’m in NJ, looks round and red like a tomato, but tastes like cardboard with about as much nutrition. My 13 year old daughter now wrinkles her nose at out-of-season tomatoes, to my delight and my wife’s consternation 🙂

True tomato season, at least for the northeast is from May until September. So what to do when you crave tomatoes out of season? Make dishes with canned tomatoes. That brings us to finding the best type, which many connoisseurs believe, and I agree, you can’t beat the San Marzano.

It’s a plum tomato, best for making stews and sauces, including pizza.  It has superior sweetness, adds *umami and will transcend your favorite dishes to masterpieces.

*Umami is the 5th taste and can be described as the delicious, deep, creamy smoothness of a ripe tomato, soy sauce, beef stock and asparagus. More about umami here >

Just watch out for imitations.  To make sure you’re getting San Marzano’s look for the DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) seal on the label. Picture below.

san marzano seal

How do you use these tomatoes?  I use them as the base for most of my stews, soups and sauces. You can also pop them out of a can, drizzle with olive oil, fresh tear of basil leaves, grinding of sea salt, and scooped up with a fresh baguette or semolina loaf. I first tried this dish when my upstairs neighbor’s relative, Aunt Josepine, would bring them down when I was home sick from school. It was an epiphanous food moment for me, and I think from that moment I secretly worshiped Aunt Josephine.  I just talked myself into a big bowl when I finish this post.

For my stews, I typically start on a high heat in a dutch oven where I brown any meat I’m using on all sides – beef, lamb, chicken, etc.  Don’t crowd the meat or else it will steam instead of brown. I remove the meat then saute onions for 10 minutes, add garlic, saute for another 4-5 minutes then add a can of San Marzano’s.  I crush them by hand, I learned that’s the only way from my old boss who’s parents owned a small mom & pop Italian restaurant.  I might add a little or a whole bottle of wine, depending on the dish, always with beef stew, add the meat back in, bring to a boil and pop into a 250 degree F oven for 2-6 hours.  The longer the more tender the meat and more umami flavor you get as the tomatoes and meat meld.

Here’s my favorite beef stew recipe recipe from Jacques Pepin, Beef Bourguignon.

Beef bourguignon 2

Serves 5-6 with leftovers, 4-6 hours cooking time

What you’ll need

beef chuck, 2 pounds, cut into 1 inch cubes, (local, grass fed)

short ribs, 4 large, on the bone, (local, grass fed)

bacon, 2 thick slices, smoked, nitrate free, chopped

red wine, 1 bottle of your favorite, I like a Bordeaux or Burgundy

carrots, 3 large, chopped fine

onion, 1 large, chopped fine

celery, 3 stalks, chopped fine

garlic, 5 cloves, chopped fine

olive oil, extra virgin, 4-5 tablespoon

San Marzano canned tomatoes, 28 ounce can

thyme, fresh, 2 tablespoons,, or 1 tablespoon dried, chopped

bay leaves, 3 dried

sea salt & pepper to taste

To Prepare

1 Preheat the oven to 250°. Heat over medium-high heat a large enameled cast-iron casserole or Dutch oven. Arrange the meat in a single layer and cook, turning once browned, on all sides.  Do not crowd the meat. Remove to a plate and repeat with any remaining meat.

2 Adjust the heat to medium, add the bacon and cook until crispy, stirring often.  Add the chopped onion and 1 tablespoon olive oil and cook over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally until the onion is softened, 5 minutes, scraping up the bits of meat.  Add the garlic, carrots, and celery, and cook for 5 more minutes.  Add enough wine to scrape the remaining bits of meat from the bottom, Add the rest of the wine, tomatoes – crushing them by hand, bay leaves and thyme, season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil.

3 Cover the casserole and transfer it to the oven. Cook the stew for 4-6 hours, until the meat is very tender and the sauce is flavorful. (It will probably be ready in 1 1/2 hours, but cooking it for 4-6 hours transforms it from a good dish to a masterpiece.)

To serve, ladle over vegetables, noodles or pasta, like orzo, and garnish with  fresh chopped parsley and drizzle of olive oil. Bon Appetit!