Cupboard Love: Tinned Tomatoes

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

In this issue’s Cupboard Love, Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell takes us through her chopped tomatoes love affair.

They say the way to tell whether an Italian restaurant is worth eating in or not is by testing their Arrabiata. This is a basic tomato and chili pasta dish. While this might sound a bit mad to us Irish (sure if you’ve ordered your dinner there’s no ‘testing’, just eating), the Italian Primi Piatti is the answer. While a bowl of pasta is a perfectly acceptable meal in Ireland, traditionally Italians eat a smaller pasta, risotto or soup before their meat or fish main course. And so, it is a good indicator of how good the pricey steak will be.

Shawn, the main Chef of Dimmi’s Bar and Trattoria in Yorkville, Toronto (an Italian restaurant where I worked for a summer and probably the best service job I’ve ever had) told me he used to slow roast garlic in olive oil overnight to create an infused oil to use in the Dimmi’s tomato sauce. Dimmi’s primarily served a variety of pasta and pizza dishes and was the best Italian food I’ve ever tasted. I still dream about Shawn’s Arrabiata. 

I lived in Italy myself, you know. Balsamic Vinegar and Valpolicella course through my veins. Well I lived in Venice for a grand total of eight days before the global pandemic hit. All the same, I can say I lived in Venice. Now as a tourist you don’t come across too many proper supermarkets, however rest assured, they exist. When doing a grocery shop in Venice you will find aisles upon aisles of pasta and tomatoes. Don’t bother trying looking for any remotely Asian ingredients (including rice), but you can choose between 40 different types of tinned tomatoes. And boy are their tomatoes good. I would never usually use passata (a thick, strained tomato puree) as is, it would need salt or a little basil and garlic. But in Venice I could.

The humble tinned-tomatoes should grace every cupboard. You can get chopped, whole, halved, and peeled tomatoes. You can buy tinned tomatoes with mixed herbs, tomatoes with basil, tomatoes with chilli, there are any number of variations. However for this recipe all you need is the simple can of chopped tomatoes and whatever you have knocking around. 

To begin I generally start with a generous dollop of olive oil. While a 1cal spray will stop the sticking, the same taste and depth just won’t be there. When appropriately warm, I add chopped garlic. Leave the garlic quite chunky, if it’s too fine it can burn and ruin the whole thing. However if you think that you will not blend your sauce maybe make your garlic a little smaller so that it’s not a big ole chunk when you go to eat it.

If I’m using fresh ingredients I add them to the oil before the tin of chopped tomatoes. I feel the whole thing infuses better, and so this would be the time I add chopped onion, fresh basil, delicious beef tomatoes, or even sundried tomatoes if I’m feeling fancy. If it’s in your fridge, you can also add a squidge of tomato paste now. Once everything is nicely caramelizing it’s time to add the tin of chopped tomatoes.

Tomatoes need sugar. Just a pinch mind, this isn’t a strange dessert, but the sugar will offset the acidity of the tomatoes. I had been making tomato-based dishes before I had learned this and it makes a significant difference. If using fresh tomatoes, I usually need a little more.

The thing about cooking (and the reason why it's preferable to baking) is that you can taste as you go. For something like a tomato sauce the more you taste, the better the result will be. After maybe throwing in a little basil or rosemary and a generous hand of salt, it is your taste buds which will tell you what to do. Does it need a dash of balsamic vinegar or red wine? Do you want a deep smoky flavour from a little parmesan cheese? Perhaps you’re looking for something a little lighter and so fresh herbs will suffice. 

A big moment for your tomato sauce is the decision to blend or leave as is. Blending the sauce really has an impact on the taste. If you decide to whizz it, it will probably need a little more salt and TLC to get it to the flavour you want.

And there you have it - your very own tomato sauce. Depending on what you fancy (and what’s in your cupboard of course) you can make many different iterations. If I’m making Parmigiana, a tummy-hugging layered aubergine dish with plenty of parmesan, I would add a dash of balsamic. If it's bolognese, a healthy glug of red wine and an extra pinch of sugar will do the trick. A cheat tip I have is if your cupboard is running very bare is that you can use a stock cube to pack a heavier punch.

Disclaimer: I imagine neither Shawn nor Luigia and Marco Panfili (real Italians I am very fond of. Italians are really great - straight-talkers but very warm) will give a true Italiano stamp of approval to my tomato sauce but nevertheless it's very tasty and is sure to serve your cupboard well.