A smooth, ripe, red tomato is firm at the first bite, then softens to reveal the tender inside, followed by a delicious burst of juiciness. The flavor is mysterious; not quite sweet like most fruits, but not quite vegetable either. A tomato at its best is satisfying in any variety, from the more robust beefsteak, to the delicate and delightfully juicy cherry. Each time I cut tomatoes for a recipe, I can’t resist a quick taste, rolling the seeds over my tongue and licking the juice from my fingers when the prepping is done.
While I adore fresh tomatoes, ideally straight from a garden, canned tomatoes have become an important pantry staple at my house. I’ve discovered the improved flavor and money savings that comes with making my own sauces, soup bases, and salsas. With a few key ingredients regularly on hand – chicken stock, flour, spices, cream, canned tomatoes, onions, and garlic – I can make a variety of delicious homemade meals. I’ve even been caught unawares on several occasions recently for potlucks and dinners and these staples have made all the difference.
With three kids, one now in school, a freelance writing job, and the everyday demands of life, my meal plans don’t always work out quite the way I’d like. And, let’s be honest, “plan” is a bit of an ambitious word for what I do most of the time. Ideally, I pull out a few cookbooks every Saturday, identify meals for the week, and shop accordingly come Monday. In reality, I flip through cookbooks, glance at ingredients, and often stick with old standbys. Plus, sometimes Monday arrives and grocery shopping plans take a back seat to tired kids or deadlines.
I prefer to use Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen recipes, which I consider to be the standard for home cooks. They are unfailingly delicious, created with home cooks in mind, and always worth the effort. All Recipes is often my friend, though, rescuing me when the day gets away from me, the demands of baby make a planned meal impossible, or I am simply too tired to tackle whatever I have scheduled. I try to be adaptable and most evenings my pantry staples save me from completely submitting to mundane meals, casseroles, and pre-packaged dinners.
In the past five years or so, I’ve experimented with cooking tools, techniques, and resources, looking for my niche. I feel like I’ve come into my own in the past year or so, growing in confidence and knowledge. Where I used to rely heavily on recipes, I’ve found that the right ingredients, combined with a bit of experience, can save me when I don’t have the exact ingredients or much time. Quite frequently, I’ve also found that canned tomatoes – diced, whole, pureed, seasoned – are an important part of improvising a good meal.
This proved true on three separate occasions over the past month where I, admittedly, had tomatoes on the brain. Red Gold Tomatoes sent me a gift package, with several varieties of canned tomatoes, a recipe book, and a few other goodies. The package arrived serendipitously before a church potluck I’d forgotten to plan for. Sunday morning rolled around and I didn’t want to bring dessert or bread yet again, but I lacked the time to create a main dish. I decided to turn to Red Gold’s Heartwarming Recipes for the Busy Cook for a bit of inspiration.
Many of the recipes proved simple, but actually depended on processed or canned items I didn’t have on hand and lacked time to create substitutes for. I discovered a recipe for Mexican Pasta Salad and decided to use if for inspiration. I scanned my cupboards and mixed together the following to create a hearty salsa, mentally crossing my fingers that it would work:
1 can Red Gold Diced Tomatoes Mexican Fiesta
1 can Red Gold Diced Tomatoes
1 cup frozen corn, microwaved
1 can black beans, drained
4 green onions, thinly sliced
Fresh cilantro, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and Pepper to taste (be generous)
Served with tortilla chips and a colby jack cheese blend
I was dubious about my creation, but relieved to discover that the blend worked, with friends going back for seconds. I decided to test the waters again last week, beginning with a recipe for weeknight chili and adapting it to the ingredients I had on hand. Canned tomatoes once again played a feature role in making that crockpot dish successful. They also helped me make a quick Tuesday night meal of Cook’s Illustrated Chili Mac, a new recent family favorite.
Do you love tomatoes? Are they a pantry staple? What are some of your favorite recipes using tomatoes?
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