Sunday, February 07, 2010

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

What happened to the tomatoes in México? Generally, the ones we get are nearly tasteless. The majority are the "saladette" type, what we yanquis would call Romas. Yet they have almost no resemblance in taste to the San Marzano pear-shaped tomatoes from Italy.

Los jitomates bolas, when you can find them, are a little more flavorsome, but are usually watery.

See this WikiPedia
article on tomatoes and their origin. Mexico helped give tomatoes to the rest of the world, but in recent years, they are slacking off at the job. Maybe it's different outside of Michoacán. I hope so.

The local tomatoes are o.k. in Huevos a la Mexicana, in salsas frescas, or any dish where they serve mostly to bulk up and buffer a spicy concoction. But for those of us wanting to make Italian style sauces, one must locate some good canned tomato products. This has become easier in the last couple of years. It wasn't too long ago that a friend in Morelia found a #10 can of tomato paste, which he ended up giving to me when he moved.
It was more of a curse than a blessing, for we had to find a way to store and freeze the surplus once the huge can was opened.

That, and various canned or boxed puré de tomate was about all we could find just a few years ago. Then came the Tomato Breakthrough. Cans of Progresso Brand Crushed Tomatoes in Puree started appearing in larger supermercados such as Wal-Mart and Superama and Soriana.

The graceful, Modigliani necked bottles of Cirio Passata Di Pomodori made their entry into the higher echelons of Morelia stores. The Cirio tomatoes were light, but flavorsome, but more expensive. For a while, Cirio twin paks were found in Costco. Then they vanished, to be replaced first by Contadina Prepare Pizza Sauce, which is very thick, cheap, decent when serving pizza to a crowd, but not for pasta sauces.

Then the Spanish, not content with having conquered Mexico's native people, brought up its best weapons in the tomato conquest stakes: Cidacos brand tomatoes; including very good Tomates Triturados (ground or crushed), and whole peeled tomatoes (Tomates Enteros). They are usually available at Wal-Mart and Superama. Mega Comercial used to carry both Cidacos and Cirio, but has pretty much reverted to its popular base lines of Purés de Tomate. (Del Fuerte is the best brand of that lot.)

A year or two later, the canned tomato battlelines shift frequently, as we now found rich color Progresso Brand Crushed Tomatoes in Puree, which is a great start for pizza or your pasta fazool.

On a recent visit to Superama, just after buying the Progresso tomatoes at Soriana, we couldn't help but pick up some cans of both Cidacos Tomates Triturados and even better, some canned Cirio Pomodori Pelati Entero. (Please excuse the mixing of languages.)

The next day we visited Costco in hot pursuit of more tomatoes.
Costco carryies a nice line of American style canned tomatoes; we especially like the S&W Tomates Guisados Estilo Italiano, in a case of 12. They are Italian seasoned stewed tomatoes. But on the day of our last visit they were not available on Costco's tomato shelves. The S&W diced tomatoes do fine in a pinch. They are best in soups, stews, pot roasts and the like; less successful in pasta sauces. Now, if you own a restaurant, or else are truly nuts, you can buy #10 cans of tomato sauce or puree, and, yes, I think also tomato paste, at your friendly Morelia Costco. You probably won't find as great a range of S&W tomato products as pictured here at Costco, Morelia.

In conclusion; it's not so difficult to find decent canned tomato products, at least in Morelia. It's nearly impossible, so far, in Pátzcuaro. But its day will come.

Here, below, a promised recipe for a pizza sauce; adapted from
The Vegetarian Epicure, Book 2, by Anna Thomas. (Yes, it's an expensive, out-of-print book.) I ramp it up the quantity in order to use the entire contents of the cans.

  • 2 cups canned pureed tomatoes (Cidacos Tomates Triturados or better, Progresso Tomatoes Crushed in Puree)
  • 1/2 cup tomato paste (case of 12, 12 oz cans available at Costco)
  • 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped peeled tomatoes. (a can of S&W diced or Italian syle, for example. Or better, a drained and crushed can of Cirio Pomodori Pelati)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp or more orégano, crushed. (Mexican orégano is fine.)
  • 1 tsp basil, crushed
  • 1/4 tsp thyme (tomillo)
  • dash of marjoram (mejorana. I leave it out.)
  • dash of cinnamon (El toque especial. Just go easy. It shouldn't taste like a CinnaBon treat.)
  • 2 Tbs. red wine vinegar, or red wine
  • 1 tsp sugar, or too taste. Go easy on the sugar. You could even omit it.
  • 2 or more cloves of garlic, crushed or minced.
  • I add a Tbsp of olive oil and a few shakes of hot red pepper flakes. You can crush a dried red chlie in a molcajete. That is optional.
Taste for seasoning (it will tend to be more concentrated when your pizzas bake), and espesally for thickness. It's important that pizza sauce not be runny. Add more tomato paste if it needs thickening.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Feasta Pizza

Pizza is one of my favorite foods to make and to eat. What could be better than to share with friends? We decided to invite friends both old and new. In the end there were 9 guests and we two hosts.

While it's theoretically possible to serve pizza and nothing more than beverages, that would not be the Don Cuevas way of doing things.
So it was, after considerable planning, shopping and changes of menu, I finally came up with this:

Pizza Party Menu January 30, 2010
  • Mezze Platter: Garbanzo Salad, Kalamata Olives, Sweet Red Peppers Stuffed with Herbed Feta Cheese (purchased); on a bed of cress.
  • Batones de jícama sprinkled with lime juice.
  • Cucumber, Tomato, Onion and Black Olive Salad. (Made by Shirley A.)
  • Improvised, last minute Minestra di Cavolo Negro, potato, small white beans, turnip and greens, carrot, onion, garlic, tomato; served with a dab of pesto. Greens and turnips were from Mercado Buen Provecho and they were first rate!
  • Italian style Coleslaw.
  • Pizzas: 2 Margheritas. (All pizzas had a cheese blend of approx. 70% mozzarella and 30% smoked provolone.)
  • 1 Mushroom and Onion.
  • 1 Italian style fennel sausage and sweet peppers.
  • 1 Pizza Poblana: thick, smoky bacon, rajas de chile Poblana, onions and cheeses, cilantro garnish.
  • 1 of sweet peppers tricolores.
  • Various wines, beers, agua de Jamaica.
  • Sticks of fresh cut pineapple.
  • Chiapas coffee.

We'd hoped to cook the pizzas outside on the charcoal grill, but the weather turned cold and rainy. Thus we reverted to using the less than entirely satisfactory oven. The problem with the oven is that it has a capacity of only two 16" perforated pizza pans. The maximum heat obtainable is about 425º F, if I'm lucky. The bottom shelf does not achive as high a heat as the upper, therefore an exchange from shelf to shelf is necessary.

There were 5 balls of pizza dough, but only 3 perforated pans, and I had to use the 2 non-perforated black coated pans. Those did a much better job than the perfs.

The Action Plan was this, more or less. The sausage (recipe follows) was already made and in the freezer. The greens and beans for the unplanned, last minute soup were cooked ahead. The salads were prepared in the morning. The food processor saw a great deal of action to prepare vegetables and cheese. The Herbed Feta Cheese Stuffed Peppers were purchased from Costco and only needed to be opened, drained of oil, and sprinkled with some red wine vinegar. You can use fresh lemon juice. A few anchovy strips were draped over a selected few.
(Garbanzo Salad recipe follows.)

The pizza dough was made in two batches, The first had a 6-hour preferment with some rye flour; the second was made as a straight dough without any preferment. The second rose faster and was somewhat easier to extend into rounds.

The sauce was more or less an old favorite, from The Vegetarian Epicure, by Anna Thomas. (recipe in another post to come, "On Canned Tomato Products in Mexico", or some similar name.)

The story on the Unplanned, Last Minute Improvised Minestra was that I'd been joking with Doña Cuevas that what we needed was a soup. I could whip it up in 30 minutes in the new pressure cooker. The joke became reality as the weather turned cold with rain. So, using 1 or 2 carrots, a peeled potato cut into chunks, a large peeled turnip cut into chunks, 1 roughly cut onion, 2 cloves of garlic, some chopped celery, some dried basil, fresh parsley, then sauteeing these in a little olive oil in the bottom part of the 8-quart pressure cooker. I then added 8 cups of water and 6 cubes of Knorr-Suiza Cubos de Costilla Jugosa, closed the lid, set the pressure to #2, and when it came up to steam, set a timer for 15 minutes.

When the 15 minutes had passed, I opened the quick release valve, and a moment or two later was able to open the lid. Then I added two cans of S&W cubed tomatoes, several cups of the precooked mixed greens (from Mercado Buen Provecho), the precooked alubias blancas chicas (small white beans similar to Navy Beans), a couple more cups of water, and brought it to a simmer fr a few minutes uncovered and without pressure.

There was the obligatory "taste for seasoning". Very little adjustment was needed, but a spoonful of sugar and some black pepper.

I spooned a little basil pesto into each bowl (made during the herb growing season and frozen in small containers.) This soup was fragrant and hearty, in fact, one of the best I've ever made. The only meat in it was some bacon in the mixed greens.

Recipes below.

Garbanzo Salad
4-6 cups of cooked garbanzos. Preferably cooked from dry, not canned.
1 1/2 red onions, sliced thinly

Make a dressing of 1 cup olive oil (or less to taste)
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
salt to taste
3 Tbsp cooking liquid from the garbanzos
fresh-ground black pepper to taste
4 cloves garlic, minced
Minced fresh parsley, optional

Toss garbanzos with dressing. Serve cool or at room temp.
Source: The Vegetarian Epicure, Book 2, by Anna Thomas.
(The Salads and Cold Vegetables chapter is a highlight of this excellent book. My version of the pizza crust and sauce also come from there.)

Garbanzo Salad

Fennel Sausage
(from The Mediterranean Cookbook, by Joyce Goldstein.)

2 pounds medium gound pork, 1/3 third weight in fat. I have it ground to order at a reliable carnicería. I use Carnicería La Sin Rival for this, on Ibarra, near the corner of Espejo, in Pátzcuaro

1/4 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons brandy (or Tequila -mw)
1 tabelspoon ground fennel seeds ("hinojo" in Spanish)
1 to 2 tablespoons dried red pepper flakes (You can grind up some dried red chiles in a spice grinder or in a molcajete if you lack this ingredient.)
1 1/2 teaspoons dried or 1 tabelspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons dried orégano. (I use Mexican orégano, but be sure the little twigs are removed-mw)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons or to taste, freshly ground black pepper
2 feet hog casing (optional. I never use it.)

Mix ingredients well with hands. Slowly fry a small test patty. Taste. Adjust seasoning. Do not taste raw sausage.-mw

Pack about 8 ounces of sausage per small sandwich bag. Close tightly to exclude air. Freeze.

To cook: thaw first, broil or fry chunks in a skillet with a light film of olive oil. Good with a light pasta sauce. I suggest rigatoni pastas; very good with fried sweet peppers in a sandwich or on a pizza.

Pizza Dough
Based on a recipe in The Vegetarian Epicure, Book 2, by Anna Thomas.
This is not necessarily an authentic, nor artisanal method, but it's quite practical and easy.

1 pkg (2 tsps. or less) dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
2 tsp. sugar (I often use only 1 tsp.)
3 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. olive oil

Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of the warm water, add the sugar, leave for up to 10 minutes.

Next, in a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, add the rest of the water and the dissolved yeast.

Add the flour 1 cup at a time, then the salt, then as it starts to form a dough, add the olive oil.

Here follows my interpretation.
I mixed this on low speed in a 5-qt Kitchen Aid Stand mixer, using the paddle attachment. It's not necessary nor desirable to mix the dough to a firm, dry state. It's enough that it cohere and leave the sides of the bowl. It should be a little moist and slack.

Drizzle a little more olive oil down the inside of the bowl and coat the dough bowl. Cover and leave to rise approx. 1 hour to 2 hours, or until double in size.

Note: with the undermixing method I used, it's beneficial to gently lift and fold the slack dough 2-3 times over the period of an hour and a half.
Pease note also that our kitchen is unusually cool and that we are at an elevation of approximately 7000 feet a.s.l undobtedly affects the rising time. Overall, it's better to let dough rise slowly and under cooler conditions. The best flavor is attained that way. However, a difference of 30 minutes won't make much difference in taste.

This fully matured dough is divided into 2 equal pieces, then each is gently rounded and left to rest on a floured work surface for ~20 minutes.

Your oven should be preheated to at least 425º F, preferably 500º if possible.

Gently pat out and extend a dough ball with your hands and then begin rolling it out. Be patient. It sometimes resists, but that's not as likely with the slack mixed dough I described above.

I give the pans a light shpritz of PAM and a sprinkling of yellow cornmeal.
Dust a little flour on the dough circle, fold in two, and place on the pan. Unfold, and it's ready for the sauce and topping.

More pizza pics over the last few years, both in pizzerías and at home, in this Pizza Web and Other Italiana Slideshow. Click a pizza pic to see the larger version.

I note that this post was planned to precede the one on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, but there was a time-space discontinuity that unexpectedly occurred, and así es.

Update: Through the use of Post Options, I was able to alter the Continuum. Magic!