Back to Basics: Pantry Staples – Tinned Tomatoes and Tomato Products

Now we’ve been dealing with the Virus That Shall Not Be Named for several months now, I feel like I may be somewhat late to the table with this advice. However, I feel that in this new year there may be a few people still out there who have decided the drive-through and Uber Eats Lyfe is no longer for them, and want to do more home-based cooking…but maybe don’t know where to start.

I’ve compiled a list and will be discussing, one by one, many of the widely available, basic pantry staples in the standard North American and European diet that will help you create a meal out of almost anything (within reason), some instructions on how to cook certain items, and links to my favourite recipes to get you started. Please see my other posts in the Back to Basics category for more recipes and meal ideas.

History

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, canning is the method of preserving food from spoilage by storing it in containers that are hermetically sealed and then sterilized by heat. The process was invented after prolonged research by Nicolas Appert of France in 1809, in response to a call by his government for a means of preserving food for army and navy use.

After breakthroughs by Louis Pasteur in explanation of how canning food destroys bacteria, thus rendering it safe to store unrefrigerated for months and sometimes years, commercially canned and home-canned goods became highly popular and even commonplace. However, the varying acidity of tomatoes made home-canning for many home cooks a concern, and as such, the prevalence of commercially canned/bottled tomatoes and tomato sauce with its standardized sterilization methods has risen monumentally.

Pros and Cons of Canned Tomatoes and Tomato Products

Pros:

According to the Food Network:

Canned tomatoes (just like fresh, in season ones) are low in calories and packed with vitamin C and fiber. The canning process destroys some of the vitamin C and fiber, so be sure to read the labels to get the most from your canned tomatoes. Canned tomatoes (as opposed to fresh) are an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene, shown to help lower the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer and macular degeneration (poor eyesight as you get older).

http://www.FoodNetwork.com

Another huge pro for canned tomatoes are their time, money, and space-saving properties, not to mention their seasonality: using canned tomatoes and prepared tomato products instead of blanching and peeling tomatoes for homemade sauces, salsas&chilis, soups or stews is an incredible time-saver. Canned tomatoes are also considered very economical, though there is a fairly wide range of pricing depending on the quality of the tomatoes you choose (generic field tomatoes will always be less expensive than San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy, for example). Being able to have and use tomatoes year-round instead of just during harvest season is especially useful during the winter months, and are shelf-stable for storage in your pantry for 12-18 months.

Cons:

On the other side of the debate, however, are the potential health concerns from using canned food products. Firstly, home-canned food products are not the only originators of a nasty bacteria called botulism, though they are much more prevalent in a non-standardized environment such as a home-canning setup. Fortunately, the botulism bacteria don’t commonly thrive in acidic environments such as tomato products, but cases of foodborne botulism have cropped up in the past in canned tomatoes.

The best and easiest way to minimize your exposure to foodborne botulism and similar bacterial infections is to simply avoid cans that are dented, rusted, leaky or swollen, and immediately discard cans that are foamy, cloudy or foul-smelling upon opening. Store your cans in a cool dry pantry space instead of out in the open, and follow the “use by” date printed on each can. In addition, don’t store unused portions in opened cans, but instead transfer to a food-safe container and refrigerate for no more than 4 days. This is good advice overall, as cans were not designed for refrigeration, and often times the food ends up tasting unpleasantly like metal.

Another concern that has been rising in popularity is over the chemical BPA used in the lining of canned goods. While research is still ongoing as to the long-term health effects of consuming BPA, the best method to minimize exposure is to look for brands that advertise themselves as BPA-free.

Lastly, there has been historical concern over additives in canned foods. Canned tomatoes and tomato products, as with other canned vegetables, often contain a great deal of salt that’s used in their processing for flavour and preservation purposes. A general label check of various brands will show an average of 5-13% of your daily recommendation of sodium. You will also find other food-safe preservatives such as calcium chloride (supports the tomatoes in staying firm instead of turning to mush), and citric acid, which preserves colour. The best tip for minimizing exposure to too many additives is being a “label lawyer” and advocate for your own health by steering more towards lower sodium/preservatives brands.

Ok, enough of the blah-blah-blah; it’s time for a recipe! And what better recipe that showcases the deliciousness of canned tomatoes and tomato sauce than a hearty minestrone soup?

The recipe for this hearty and delicious “stoup” (too thick to be a soup, not quite a stew) actually hits many of those great Pantry Staples buttons, so it could just as easily fit into the “pantry staples-tinned vegetables” post I’ll be writing soon; however, that the base of this “stoup” is tinned tomatoes, so it best fits here. This recipe is heavily inspired by good friend of mine who created the original soup recipe (which she calls a “minestrone”), as she needed something in a hurry to feed her family while rushing out the door for work. Her slow cooker got a lot of love on those hectic days. She just waited until she got home to boil up some pasta to add to the soup at the last minute so it wouldn’t go squidgy cooking all day, or she made it without pasta (which is just as delicious and suitable for gluten free diets as well).

This “stoup” is also delicious spooned over hot rice for a super cheap, extendable, and filling meal. Feel free to change up the vegetables to your favourites that are equivalent in weight and density, and it should work out fine. If you only have tinned vegetables that you need using up, that’s fine too; just remember they need far less cooking than fresh or frozen (add any drained tinned vegetables like peas, corn, carrots, mushrooms, green or waxed beans, sliced potatoes etc. in the final hour of cooking). Sautéing the mirepoix vegetables always adds a beautiful depth of flavour, but if you’re in a hurry and need a toss-and-forget soup for your slow cooker while you do other things, it can be omitted.

Pantry Slow Cooker Tomato Bean “Stoup”

This version has ground “meef” (vegetarian soybeef) in it – this soup is great if you want to add meat to this soup to make it more stew-like

YIELD: 6-8 servings | PREP: 5-10 minutes | COOK: 8 hours (slow cooker) or 30 min (stovetop)

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups frozen mirepoix vegetables (celery, onion, carrot) – or the next three items instead
    • 2 stalks celery, trimmed and diced
    • 1 medium onion (white or red), peeled and diced
    • 1 carrot, peeled and diced
  • 2 tsp/10mL jarred minced garlic – or 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced finely
  • 2 cups fresh, frozen or tinned vegetables of your choice
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning (or 1 tsp each dried oregano, basil, and thyme)
  • 1 tsp lemon pepper
  • Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
  • 2 medium sized tins (about 3 cups) diced tomatoes (seasoned is fine)
  • 1 750-900mL bottle passata (or equivalent in tomato puree/crushed tomatoes)
  • 2 medium tins beans of your choice (red or white kidney beans, black beans, pinto, romano, cannelini, etc.)
  • 4 cups vegetable broth (preferably low sodium)

Optional Additions:

  • 1 tbsp/15mL lemon juice
  • 1 cup/~85g uncooked macaroni-type pasta (substitute your favourite GF pasta if preferred)
  • 1/4 cup/25g finely shredded Parmesan cheese (or a sprinkling of nutritional yeast for vegan version)
  • 1 cup/220g pre-cooked ground beef/meef/chicken/turkey/taco meat, cooked diced chicken or turkey, or crumbled tofu
  1. If you have time, quickly sauté the mirepoix vegetables, garlic, and any fresh vegetables of your choice in the olive oil until the onions are translucent; add the herbs and seasonings in the last few minutes of cooking, and then dump the lot into your waiting slow cooker or large soup pot.
  2. Add diced tomatoes, passata, beans and broth to slow cooker and mix to combine; slow cook on low for 8 hours/high for 2-3 hours, or over the stove for about 30 minutes at a simmer. Adjust for seasoning at this point and add the optional lemon juice to “brighten” the flavours.
  3. If adding pasta, meat and/or tinned veggies, add them at the last 30 minutes of slow cooking, or the last 10 minutes of stovetop cooking.
  4. Serve hot with (optional) cheese or nutritional yeast.

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