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I have been informally polling my chef friends about their Stuff in the House ingredients. There is a wide variety depending on the chef, and most of the ingredients they mentioned I do have in my kitchen, but the one that came up with almost every chef was tomato paste.
Yes, humble tomato paste.
This makes sense. There is a lot of flavor in tomatoes. Raw, they are tart, but depending on their degree of ripeness, they're also sweet. As they are cooked they lose some of the tartness and the sweetness is enhanced. The longer they cook, especially if they are roasted, tomatoes become more savory with an intense umami flavor. Tomato paste is the distillation of all these flavors - umami, sweet and tart. Most producers will add some salt to round all of this out, but this is unnecessary, and as with unsalted butter, you should look for no salt added tomato paste.
Traditionally tomato paste comes in a can. Hunt's, Contadina, and others, for example, make pretty good tomato paste (with no salt added in some cases) but a can contains about 10 tablespoons. Since it doesn't keep well - maybe 5-7 days at the most - you will need to plan to use it up pretty. Yes, you can freeze the remainder, but that's a bit of a hassle and the whole idea is to have things on hand that are ready to use.
The solution? Tomato paste in tubes. It's it much more convenient as it keeps quite well. That convenience does come at a price, however, and the tubes cost about twice as much as the more conventional canned. That said, I have wasted a lot of canned tomato paste so in the end I think it's worth it.
There are a lot of great products on the market, and the imported Amore and Cento are both pretty good (the Amore has less added salt). Whole Foods brand is good as well, but not as widely available, obviously.
There are options beyond plain tomato paste, however. A lot of options. At the top of the list is not a tomato paste but chipotle paste by a a company called Olo's. This is not as strong or as spicy a flavor as you might think. Most people think of chipotle peppers as really spicy but they are actually have a subtle spice and smoky flavor and that comes through in the Olo's product. This can add a lot to your Southwestern or Mexican dish – a little goes a long way in recipes. One of the best ways to use their chipotle paste is as a spread: just put a couple of teaspoons on your sandwich.
Amore makes a sun-dried tomato paste that is good, but the flavor doesn't really come through in cooked dishes in the way you want it to. That said, this is a great choice if you are making a salad dressing or a pan sauce (as long as you don't cook it for very long).
My other favorite is harissa. My first tube of harissa came back from Tunisia with a friend of mine who brought it to me as a gift. Harissa is a ramped up version of the chipotle paste made with serrano, roasted red peppers and baklouti peppers. The flavor is smoky and rich but spicy, and has a heat that doesn't leave you breathless but actually leaves you wanting more. I will admit that I am not as much of an aficionado of various harissas and have stuck with a good thing in the first brand that I received: Le Phare du Cap Bon. This is available in specialty stores but also on Amazon.com. Go slow with harissa. It can easily overpower a dish, but a teaspoon or two can transform a simple meal into a great one.
So, while almost every chef that I spoke with has tomato paste on hand, most of them also have alternatives on hand that bring not only the umami flavor of a roasted tomato or roasted pepper but also the complexity of the spice that chipotle paste or harissa can bring to your dish.
Try a recipe using today's featured ingredient(s):
Boston Baked Beans
Shrimp with Fusilli and Sun Dried Tomato Sauce
Tenderloin with Harissa Sauce
Roasted Salmon with Red Thai Curry
Lamb Stew with Chickpeas
Fish Sandwiches with Sun Dried Tomato Tartar Sauce
Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP