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.


jennifer rose said...

So, why don't you just grow your own tomatoes?

Steve Cotton said...

Tomatoes have been my greatest culinary disappointment in Mexcico. My experience mirrors yours exactly with fresh tomatoes. I wonder how Mexico got in this fix? Maybe its tomatoes have always been bland, and the rest of the world developed better strains while Mexico's remained bland.

You present some great options. Unfortunately, we have very few here in my small fishing village by the sea.

Don Cuevas said...

Excellent idea, Jennifer. My wife started some tomatoes last year in a raised bed, but circumstances intervened. We had to go to the U.S. for 3 weeks in August.

Meanwhile, the grasshopper plague struck, and decimated the poor remaining specimens. The basil and dill flourished, but cukes and tomatoes did not thrive.

Maybe now would be a good time to plant them, if I can get her to go out in the rain.

Don Cuevas

Kathleen said...

My personal opinion on what happened to Mexico's wonderful tomatoes is that agri-biz took over. Gone are the locally grown tomatoes of ten or fifteen years ago. Instead, production is on a massive scale, so quality and flavor take second place to shipping and lasting qualities.

Locally grown is still the best, if it can be found.

Don Cuevas said...

Kathleen, tienes razón. On another forum, "Any Port In a Storm", "Bixaorellana" wrote:

"Re: Tomato bases and sauces

I know I've mentioned this elsewhere, but when I first visited Mexico in the early 70s, I was astounded at how many different varieties of tomatoes there were. Now, it's overwhelmingly one single kind of plum tomato, occasionally varied with hothouse globe tomatoes. I'm sure these plum tomatoes -- called "saladet" -- were chosen for their "shippability" more than anything else."

sparks_mex said...

I don't know much about the taste because my Romas are always being cooked in something. Maybe for color or texture?

They can't be too bad as my cat has taken to eating them when I leave them out on the counter. Now I buy a few extras

Theresa in Mèrida said...

Oh this post makes me so sad, I thought that tasteless tomatoes available here in Merida were only because they had to be shipped in. Now I learn that the rest of Mexico suffers from tasteless tomatoes!
One of the problems of growing your own tomatoes is finding seeds for excellent eating tomatoes. Because of phytosanitary concerns most NOB seed houses won't ship to Mexico. I finally got some seeds from England (Thompson & Morgan)but all my tomatoes got a virus and didn't do well.

Don Cuevas said...

Did anyone smoke or otherwise use tobacco near your tomato plants?

Don Cuevas

Leslie Harris said...

We've got those same bright, tasteless tomatoes is northern Jalisco. I'm going to attempt to grow my own this year, because I have a real craving for Fried Green tomatoes!

Bob Mrotek said...

Don Cuevas,
I am happy to report that I have succeed in solving my own tomato problem. I grow my own tomatoes in large "macetas" made of clay...essentially large flower pots. They do quite well. My cherry tomatoes especially have been providing me with tomatoes all winter long, imagine that. I also grow a lot of basil in containers and when I have to buy store bought tomatoes for cooking like right about now I just use a lot of fresh basil with them. I noticed that there are a few varieties of canned tomatoes starting to become available but my wife frowns on me buying anything in cans so I make do with what I have :)

Don Cuevas said...

Thanks, Bob, for the tomato growing tips.

My wife already grows basil and thyme in macetas. Next; tomatoes?

What do you do about grasshopper hordes, or don't you have them up in Irapuato?

I have a great, simple basil tomato sauce recipe from a cookbook written by Marcella Hazan.

Don Cuevas

Don Cuevas said...

From Any Port In A Storm:

Yesterday at 10:21pm, bixaorellana wrote:
"Where are the cooking directions, please? You don't cook the tomato paste separately?"

Don Cuevas replied:
"An oversight on my part. I should have mentioned that it's not cooked, as it's made entirely with canned, cooked tomatoes. It's simply mixed well, and applied to the rolled out pizza crust. Then it cooks some more in the oven.

(One more reason I hate writing out recipes. There's always some little detail to explain to someone, which to me is obvious.)"

Don Cuevas

Bob Mrotek said...

Don Cuevas,
We pick off the grasshoppers and fry them in a little olive oil. They make a great side dish :)

Theresa in Mèrida said...

No one smokes so it wasn't tobacco mosaic virus. Leaves get this trail looking thing and the plants get weak and don't produce much fruit. I grew eggplants that same year with no problem and they are nightshade family too.Of course it could be something in the soil that I bought. They use tobacco to kill insects here so maybe it got in the mix? I am thinking of trying a rooftop garden this year.

Calypso said...

Tomatoes over here in Xalapa-Xico are still good. We miss them anytime we leave the area.

Part of the flavor issue is a lack of nutrients left in the soil (dare I even mention top-soil).

Now tomato paste seems to be an impossibility around here.

Don Cuevas said...

Calypso, we've been meaning for some time to revisit your area. We were last there in 1994. What time of year is best?

Don Cuevas