Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lose the Tomato

Don't get me wrong. I love tomatoes. When July rolls around, I'll be down at the Marion Square farmer's market every Saturday loading up my bags, and twice a week I'll plead with my father (who grows wonderful tomatoes in his backyard garden) to hook me up with another basket. They are perfect in fresh salsa, pasta sauces, BLTs, and my favorite summer salads. But recently I've started to use tomatoes less and less in my cooking, and it's had a remarkable effect.

Tomatoes have a mysterious power to make good things even better--hamburgers and sandwiches, for example. A handful of diced tomato sprinkled across a plate of enchildas not only brightens the look of the dish but makes the taste richer and more alive. A leaf of lettuce and two tomato slices have neglible calories. So, how can a plain ham and cheese sandwich seem so much more filling and satisfying when you dress it up with lettuce and tomato?

In part it is a matter of texture. Lettuce adds crispness that contrasts nicely with softer foods, and the tomato adds a little tangy flavor and some moisture to things that would otherwise be too dry. But, it turns out there's another factor at play: tomatoes really do make things just plain taste better.

Tomatoes are high in glutamic acid, a common amino acid. In its "free" form--when it is not bound up with other amino acids into protein--it imparts a savoriness to food and creates the perception of richness or thickness. Free glutamate is often called a "flavor enhancer", something that intensifies the flavors already present in foods. That is what makes monosodium glutamate (MSG) such a common (and notorious) food additive: it helps make foods seem richer and more flavorful. "Hydrolized protein" and "autolyzed yeast extract" are essentially the same thing. (Jeffrey Steingarten gives a great overview of glutamate and its food effects in It Must Have Been Something I Ate.) Tomatoes, in short, act as a natural form of MSG.

So, what's the problem with a little glutamic acid in the form of tomatoes? Despite all the controversy a decade or so ago, I have no real problem with MSG or the concept of flavor enhancers. In fact, the natural flavor-boosting properties of tomatoes seem something to relish and take advantage of . . . up to a point.

The problem with flavor enahncers is that--like too much sugar or too much salt--they can add a lot to a dish, but they also can change the basic flavor balance and sometimes overpower the more subtle tastes of the other ingredients. If you leave the enhancer out of a dish where it usually has been found, you may miss out on some of the rich, thick mouthfeel. But, you also may find some new flavors and subtle complexities of taste that you hadn't noticed before.

So, why not lose the tomato and see what happens? A few of the dishes that are changed without tomato include gumbo, pizza, barbecue sauce, chili, and braised meat (like short ribs). Since I'm very much on a no-tomato kick these days, I'll probably post recipes for many of these soon. For now, here's my tomato-free take on chili, which uses a slow-simmered chili sauce rather than tomatoes to provide richness. It takes a little more effort, but I find it much, much better than my old tomatoed-up kind.

Chili Sauce

3 oz. dried ancho chili peppers
3 clovers of garlic, peeled & minced
2 T olive or vegetable oil
1 t dried oregano
1 t ground cumin
2 cps. chicken stock

Slit the sides of the dried peppers and remove the seed, then remove the stems. Toast the peppers in a dry pan over medium-high heat, tossing occassionally, until the fragrant smells are released (3 to 5 minutes). Then, dump the peppers into a quart of hot water and let soak for about half an hour.

When the peppers are almost done soaking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy sauce pan. Add the garlic, then a minute later the cumin and oregano. Saute till lightly brown.

Put the soaked peppers in a food processor or blender alon with about half a cup of the soaking water. Pulse till pureed. Pour the mixture through a fine strainer into the stock pot with the garlic and spices. Use some of the soaking water to rinse the food processor container and the strainer to make sure you get all the pepper puree into the stock pot.

Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Allow to boil until reduce by about half (10 minutes or so), then lower the heat and allow to simmer as long as you can, periodically skimming the orange foam from the top. A half hour is a minimum, since the sauce will be bitter at first and needs slow cooking to richen. When the sauce has simmered down to a good consistency, season with salt and pepper to taste.

If you are going to use it in a slow cooked dish like chili (below) then you can keep the time short, since it will have plenty more slow cooking with the other ingredients. If you are going to make a big batch to use with enchilidas or as a condiment, let it go all day at low, low heat.

Tomato-Free Chili Con Carne

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
1 lb. chopped round steak or ground beef
2 cups cooked kidney beans
2 cups chili sauce (see above)
2 T chopped parsley
salt & pepper

Cook the onion, garlic, and beef over high head until browned. Drain off the fat and add the beans, chili sauce, parsley, and salt & pepper. Cover and cook forever, or at least as long as you can stand it. Slow simmering is the key to getting all the complex flavors to mingle and emerge.

I like to serve in a bowl with a little grated cheese, sour cream, and green onions on top.


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Anonymous said...

I can't wait to try this. We are have a chili cook-off at church but my friend is allergic to tomatoes. I am going to I'd my mother-in-laws enchilada recipe and tweak it with the way you use it. Thanks again.

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