TomatoMania- What’s a Paste Tomato?

orane oxheart tomatoIt’s time for another Maniac Monday.

Scott is back to help us understand that tomato term known as paste tomato. Or what I like to call a cooking tomato.

But before we bring Scott out I want to say.  I realize I have been a bit lax about posting this past week. I have been traveling. I had every good intention of keeping to my “new post a day” regime. But well, travel is stressful and I got busy. Besides today is a Holiday anyway. It’s amazing I even found my way to the computer.

But do not worry. I will  be back home soon and right back into my self imposed blogging schedule. You’ll get more Sup than you know what to do with! I promise…(maybe)!  GREG

San Marzano tomatoSo what IS a paste tomato anyway?

It’s the meaty one.
It’s the kind that’s easiest to process.
It’s that Italian one.
OK, maybe one of the above. Or all of the above. But really, what’s a paste tomato?
To qualify as a member of this elite group a tomato should be meaty, yes. More mass, less seed, cavity and liquid. They should be easy to process for canning or to add to the pot on the stove. (You’ll often collect lots of them at the same time and it can be quite a lot of work.) And yes, the San Marzano tomato, Italy’s unofficial ambassador of good taste, is quite the standard bearer.
So what group of tomatoes meet the above criteria?
Roma-types are the usual suspects. San Marzano and friends such as Viva Italia, La Roma, Martino’s Roma and Health Kick. This is the style favored by many cooks and commercial interests, and for good reason. They work well in this scene.
However, look back at those qualifications at the top. Isn’t there something missing? What about the TASTE quotient? Shouldn’t a paste tomato TASTE GOOD? Yes, I’ve heard many tomatomaniacs wax poetic about that perfect San Marzano tomato they tasted in Italy. It was so sweet and so meaty and so… Come on. Isn’t everything better in Italy? And there was that glass of wine or two right?
OK, maybe that’s not a complete fabrication but with most roma types (even if you pick them when they’re truly ripe and getting a bit soft) they will be at best a four or five on a taste scale of ten. The spices, dressings and seasonings you add to the pot or your sauce or salad make up the difference.  But why start with a less-than-impressive tasting tomato for that sauce you’re going to feature in a special dinner?  Is there an alternative?
Well, yes. Oxhearts or the larger paste varieties will knock your socks off with great tomato taste. Amish Paste, Long Tom, Polish Linguisa, Speckled Roman, Opalka. Some are long or oddly shaped, some look like peppers and have a pointy end. All these offer full-bodied tomato taste, with less seed and less liquid added to the package. Oxhearts in particular are so meaty their weight in hand will surprise you every time. The hitch? These plants are not nearly as productive as your average roma so you may not have them when you need them.
So if you insist on being a tomato purist there are trade-offs. If you want lots and lots of fruit for canning? Plant romas. They tend to be determinate varieties so they’ll provide more ripe fruit at the same time and are ok on the counter for a while if you need to wait to gather enough. Want the best possible tasting sauce? Use the larger paste varieties. Or split the difference of course and mix them together for best results.
Or, break some rules people! Here’s the bottom line. Any tomato in your garden can perform well in a sauce or a paste. Black Krim? Of course. Yellow Brandywine? Perfect. This season while teaching a class in LA I had one gardener tell the group that the best sauce she ever made was with sweet roasted cherry tomatoes. I mean come on, if you’re constantly using them how often will you ever have exactly enough paste tomatoes anyway? You might have to work a bit harder to remove skin or seeds from some varieties if that’s important to you, or you may have to simmer a bit longer to get the consistentency you’re after but you can definitely make it work. And you might even make it a different color! It’ll work perfectly.
So the moral of the story is that while we have some obvious pathways to getting what we want in the garden and then in the kitchen, all the rules don’t apply all the time. You’re growing wonderful tasty food in your own garden. When it’s ripe and ready use it in every way possible!
Scott Daigre