What do you see in a can of tomato paste?
For only six ounces, it holds a world of possibility. It holds pizza, curry, or chocolate cake (true story – read Patricia Polacco’s Thunder Cake for the recipe). It is the warmth of tomato soup on a winter night. It is marinara; it is the miracle and the multitude. Loaves and fishes don’t have anything on a six ounce can of tomato paste.
Canned tomato is never to be confused with fresh tomato. It is an entirely different species. Fresh tomatoes are the definition of fleeting. They exist for a brief season. The end-of-summer ripeness is beautiful, but it is over quickly. Once the flood of vines retreats to the hot house, it is time to surrender the fresh tomato.
In its place arises the canned tomato. Once tomatoes are rendered into sauce and again rendered into paste, the water content is traded in, along with the bright gush and sugared tang. In return, tomatoes become immortal. Their taste gains umami muscle; their texture, a lipid silkiness. Simply put, it gains “zing.” It is a transformation that invites experimentation.
Actions that would be a sin with a fresh tomato are a delight with tomato paste.
Like all good companions, it is open minded. It has the head of an adventurer and the heart of an egalitarian; the luck of the draw plays to its strengths.
Produce in varying stages of freshness? No matter. It embraces all vegetables, cooked down or roasted. Parmesan or parmigiano reggiano are equally welcomed.
It takes well to oils, tolerates fat-free, accepts vegan and vegetarian options, and displays affinity for all major culinary traditions; there’s probably something in your pantry that will go well with it. Garlic? Ramen spice packets? Ranch dressing? Fish sauce? All fair game.
Ginger, coconut cream, cardamom – cumin and cilantro; the “Scarborough Fair Combo” of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme; a fire drill of peppers, from black to bird’s eye. It loves cheese, bread, eggs, fish or fowl, and takes an ecumenical interest in beef and pork; each of these receive the best tomato paste has to offer. On occasion, it even provides modest cover for the mysteries of sausage or hash.
In conclusion: there’s a lot to learn from tomato paste – a lot to enjoy.
Now – if only I could find the can opener.