Tomato Problem

It’s a sad day for lovers of canned tomatoes. While fresh tomatoes are obviously a superior choice, even for making sauces, we of the wintery climes cannot deny the year-round convenience of good quality canned plum tomatoes when it comes time to make sauce for pizza or pasta.

This is particularly true if you, like me, follow the school of tomato sauce thought that believes “the simpler the better.” When the sauce contains little more than the tomatoes themselves, and cooks for about as much time as it takes to make a side salad, then the quality and flavor of the canned tomatoes is of paramount importance.

yummy!For the past few years, my favorite canned tomatoes have been President’s Choice “Splendido” Italian plum tomatoes. I find them to be, in a word, superb. They are 99% as good as San Marzano tomatoes, which cost four dollars per 28 ounce can, yet the Splendidos go for only $1.39. All other canned tomatoes I have tried pale by comparison, with the exception of Pastene whole plum tomatoes (generally about $1.99 a can), which are almost as good as the Splendidos. Almost.

I haven’t seen Splendido plum tomatoes on the supermarket shelves for a month or so. Worried that they had been discontinued, I called the President’s Choice consumer hotline to inquire. Sadly, they confirmed that the product has, indeed, been discontinued. The person I spoke with was not able to say why, but she told me it is not uncommon for imported products to get dropped if shipping becomes too complicated or expensive, or if there is a problem with the supplier. She said it might also be due to low demand, but given the outstanding quality and very low price, how could that be?

I registered a complaint, and she told me I was not the first to do so. She also said that sometimes, according to consumer demand, they bring discontinued products back.

So here is my plea: if you live in Canada, please call the President’s Choice consumer hotline (1-888-495-5111, M-F, 8:30am – 4:30pm, EST) and register a complaint about the discontinuation of Splendido plum tomatoes (product UPC code: 6038370333).

As a “thank you,” I present below two recipes for basic tomato sauce. The first, which I consider to be “complicated” because it takes about 40 minutes and uses a sofrito, is from “Simply Recipes.” I highly recommend it as the sofrito provides a nice texture and depth of flavor. It is virtually identical to my own “Blork’s Basic Tomato Sauce #2.” Here is the “Simply Recipes” version.

The second is my basic recipe #1, inspired by a recipe I found in Byron Ayanoglu’s excellent book The New Vegetarian Gourmet. It does not use a sofrito, but achieves its depth through the use of sun-dried tomatoes and a bit of balsamic vinegar. This is the recipe I use most of the time (sometimes I skip the sun-dried tomatoes) because it is fast and easy and emphasizes the fresh taste of the tomatoes. Needless to say, for either recipe you should use the best quality whole Italian plum tomatoes.

I recommend you make a double or even triple batch. It freezes well and stays fresh in the fridge (use a glass jar) for up to a week. I use it as-is, or as a base for variations such as lasagna sauce, pizza sauce (with the addition of oregano) or whatever comes to mind. For example, warm up some already-made sauce and stir in a bit of finely grated parmesan cheese and some 15% cream to make a nice rosé sauce.

Blork’s Basic Tomato Sauce #1

Ingredients:

  • 28 ounce can of excellent quality whole Italian plum tomatoes (including juices).
  • 4 or 5 sundried tomatoes, lightly reconstituted and chopped
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped
  • 1/4 tsp. dried chili flakes
  • 2 tsp. dried basil, or 1/4 cup (or more) of chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 2 or 3 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Method:

  • Dump the canned tomatoes into a large bowl and use your bare hands (washed) to crush them.
  • In a wide, heavy bottomed pot big enough to hold everything and still have room for bubbling and stirring, heat half of the olive oil. Add the garlic and stir quickly for 30 seconds (it should sizzle, but don’t let it brown).
  • Add the chili flakes and continue stirring for 30 seconds.
  • Add the crushed tomatoes and stir vigorously for a minute.
  • Add the chopped sundried tomatoes, and if using dried basil, add it now.
  • Lower the heat a bit and let the tomatoes bubble for about 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste (if the sauce is quite dry you might want to add a couple of tablespoons of water).
  • If using fresh basil, add it now. Also add the balsamic vinegar and stir well.
  • Taste for seasoning. It likely won’t need much salt (if any), but a bit of freshly ground black pepper is nice.
  • Cook for another five minutes. Turn off the heat and drizzle in the rest of the olive oil. Stir it up and voila! Your sauce is ready.

Either of these sauces can be used as-is (I recommend a good “sauce catcher” pasta such as rotini or fusilli), or you can stir in some browned meatballs and serve with spaghetti. Alternatively, you can use them as the base for more elaborate sauces (such as the previously mentioned rosé sauce.)

Now call that number, and help me get my Splendidos back!

Blork’s Weight Loss Challenge

Loyal readers will remember that I magically lost 20 pounds last year. Actually, it wasn’t so magic – I cut back on the beer, improved in my eating habits (smaller portions, more vegetables, etc.) and developed an exercise routine that I stuck to pretty regularly.

Unfortunately, I put five or six pounds back on in December. It was the result of falling off my exercise routine (due to some unrelated health problems) and all that food and drink over the holidays. But now it is time to get back into my routine. As motivation, I have entered into a wager with Frank, the Chicagoan in Montreal.

The official start date of our weight loss challenge was yesterday (Sunday). Frank came over with his very accurate digital scale, we both dressed in jeans and t-shirts, and we weighted in. He wants to lose more than I do – I’m shooting for 15 pounds – so we have a pro-rated algorithm worked out to make it fair. The competition runs for six months, so it’s not a matter of just crash dieting – I’m hoping to lose the weight (and win the wager) based on the continuation of the so-called permanent habits that I established last year. Frank, on the other hand, is taking a different approach.

So today was day one. I got up and went down to the basement to work out. I didn’t get very far, however, as my foot is still really sore from the tobogganizizing incident of last week. But I managed to do some crunches and stretches. It’s a start.

Normally I would also go for a two- or three-kilometer brisk walk during the day, but you know… the foot thing. Hopefully that will get better soon.

At home after work, Martine and I made dinner together, an upscale version of sausage & beans. She made “smashed cannelloni beans” (a mash of beans, garlic, piment d’espelette, and sage), which we drizzled with some really green Tuscan olive oil at serving time. In the meantime, I wilted some baby spinach and tossed it with some kalamata olives that I had warmed along with some black pepper and chili flakes. (The beans and spinach were inspired by recipes found in the “Two Easy” book of recipes from the River Cafe in London.) These accompanied a couple of pork and bison sausages (one for each of us).

While “sausages” aren’t exactly diet food, I’ll remind you that I’m not on a “diet.” I’m just changing what I consider to be “normal eating,” and besides, these puppies have about half the fat of Italian sausages and considerably fewer calories.

Sausage & Beans Dinner

So there. We ate well, and we ate responsibly (OK, OK, I had seconds on the beans). Yay me, I’m gonna whup Chicagoan ass.

Oh, but then there was dessert. I’m not a big dessert guy, generally I can take it or leave it. But Martine has been hankering for cupcakes lately, so apparently today – day one of my weight-loss challenge – was a good time to try making them at home.

Allow me to present our first ever joint cupcake effort: chocolate chai cupcakes. (I helped make the icing.)
Desert

Shame on me. I ate more than one. But oh, are they good! No problem, I still have five months and twenty nine days left to kick Chicagoan ass.

But first I have to get up off of my own and do some exercise to counter those cupcakes.

On Idealism

The following is from an old email message I recently unearthed (circa 1998) in which I reply to a friend who had inquired about the apparent lack of idealism among the people of “Generation X.” I’ve been thinking a lot about old people lately, so finding this seems rather timely. Unfortunately, I can’t decide whether or not I was on to something back then, or if I am proverbially and perpetually full of crap.

You decide.

The young idealist is too naïve to know that his good ideas will never work. As he gets older and observes more, and experiences (read: fails) more, he comes to realize that nothing is ever as easy as his idealism implies, unless, like Stalin, you have an army standing behind it.

In the end, there is no such thing as an old idealist, at least not a sane one. Aging leads to cynicism, a natural and healthy progression. This is why I lament the so-called “Gen-X” generation, as they have never known the light and fluffy airs of idealism. Having been cynical and ironic from the beginning — even before they were old enough to truly appreciate the meaty gnarl of well-placed cynicism — where can they go from there?

My Gen-X test subjects, most of whom are now around 30, ought to be falling into disillusionment by now, but that is impossible since — due to their lack of idealism — they never had illusions. Instead, they are “maturing” in their tastes and opinions, but are bound to be angst-ridden for it. They do not follow the traditional path from idealism to disillusionment to cynicism to maturity (the latter I define as a true acceptance of difference and diversity, as opposed to the youthful and immature view of diversity in which diversity = “alternative” as the only “good” or “truth”). Instead they pass from immature cynicism to an angst-ridden “me” state in which they feel guilty for growing up and being successful and comfortable.

Incidentally, if aging leads to cynicism, then the achievement of old age means the achievement of perfection — at least for those other than Gen-Xers (the book is still open on them). Upon reaching old age, the former idealist-turned-disillusionist-turned-cynic reaches a state of Nirvana in which he or she is comfortable in knowing that all people under 70 are wrong in everything they believe — but if they live long enough they’ll figure it out. Figured out = “Who gives a shit? All you have is your own little life, so you might as well relax and enjoy it and be nice to people no matter who they are. You’re too damn old now to make a difference anyway, and my, what a liberating feeling that is!”

Photos from Cinque Terre (Italy)

Loyal readers will remember that Martine and I went to Italy last May. We spent four days in Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coast, and I’ve finally gotten around to making a photo set on Flickr for some of the photos from that leg of the trip.

You can see it here. Next up: Florence and Tuscany (don’t hold your breath – at this rate, I’ll be June by the time I get to it).