Sorry for the lack of posts, guys! I’ve been super busy recently >_< I visited Denver about a week ago and came back recently, so getting back to my regular routine’s been a little crazy. I’m back though! My Denver post will be up soon, so look out for that. Until then, food!
Tomato paste! Probably not quite the idea you had in mind when I said “food”, but this is one of the ingredients that I normally always have on hand. I’m sure you’ve seen those tiny little cans on the supermarket shelf in the canned tomatoes section next to the pasta sauces. Tomato paste is a very simple ingredient that I feel most people don’t pay too much attention to, but it’s actually a super useful pantry item. You can use it in soups, pasta sauces, pizza sauces, and sometimes even things like curry! Often times though, you only need a tablespoon or two—what do you do with the rest of that can? What’s the difference between tomato paste and tomato sauce? How long can you store tomato paste? Should I buy a tube or the can? I found myself answering a bunch of these questions randomly the other day when I was perusing through the aisles of Safeway. Let me share my interesting story with you guys that brought me to think about all these things regarding tomato paste.
On Friday, I went to the Safeway by my house to pick up some tomato paste and plain yogurt. Strange combination, I know, but let me explain. A couple nights prior, my friends and I ordered some Indian takeout to enjoy while we watched the Warriors basketball game (because curry for Curry. GET IT?!). I decided to order one of my favorite dishes, butter chicken at medium spicy because I figured it’d be a decent balance between heat and being able to actually taste and enjoy my food. Now, my friends that frequent this restaurant warned me to be careful because the spice levels at this place was legit spicy. Everyone ordered medium spicy so I thought, all right, I’ll get that too since I’m pretty good at handling spice. Let me tell you, this place (while delicious) is not kidding around with their spices. This was legit Indian spicy, which if you’re not familiar with, is pretty freaking spicy. Dipping that soft pillowy naan into that velvety butter chicken delighted my tastebuds, but unfortunately also created a rumbly in my tumbly (as Winnie the Pooh wisely once said). And this was MEDIUM spicy. I’m pretty sure if I got actual spicy, I would’ve died. Needless to say, I did not finish my dinner because it’s hard to enjoy your food when you basically lose all feeling in your mouth and your stomach is angrily gurgling at you. I figured I could remedy this though, so I saved my butter chicken for another day. That other day happened to be Friday.
So on Friday, I ventured to Safeway to get plain yogurt and tomato paste. Butter chicken is filled with onions, garlic, and a crazy amount of spices (garam masala, cardamom, cumin, etc) but I figured a simple, quick way to “fix” my spicy butter chicken was to mix in some cooling plain yogurt (which is one of the many ingredients that make up butter chicken) and some tomato paste so the sauce doesn’t lose its deep tomato-y flavor. It wouldn’t be quite the same since all the other spices would be a little diluted but it’d definitely help me eat the butter chicken because the spiciness would be diluted. As I was wandering the canned tomato aisle, a lady approached me and asked me if she could ask me about tomato paste. I told her, “Sure!” because I always jump at the chance to ramble on about food. She smiled and held up two cans, Contadina and Hunt’s, and asked me which one I thought was better.
Let me be completely honest here—I normally get the generic Safeway brand because that’s the cheapest and my palette is nowhere near sophisticated enough to tell the difference between tomato paste brands. Besides, I normally only use about a tablespoon or so in recipes, so I personally don’t think there’s really a discernible difference. I told her that, and she nodded and continued to ask me more questions about tomato paste. What’s the difference between tomato sauce and tomato paste? She was looking to make some soup and wasn’t sure what to buy, so she asked me if she should be using tomato paste and tomato sauce. “What do YOU use tomato paste for?” she asked.
First off, what IS the difference between tomato paste and tomato sauce, and when do you use one or the other? It comes down to intensity of flavor and what you’re trying to make. Obvious first observation is tomato paste comes in that small skinny can, while tomato sauce comes in smaller but more stout can. In terms of flavor and consistency, tomato paste is thicker (and paste-y :P) and has a strong, concentrated tomato taste, while tomato sauce is thinner and is more like pureed tomato liquid. Personally, I think tomato paste is more versatile because with tomato paste, you have an intense tomato flavor that you can dilute as much or as little as you want. Tomato sauce packs a little less of a punch in tomato-flavoring and is useful for making things like pizza sauces or making something that’s primarily tomato-based (like a cioppino or something).
For tomato paste, I’ve used it for things like in quick sauces to coat some pasta, tomato-flavoring for some soups, and (this recent case) a curry-type dish that needs a stronger tomato taste (because tomato sauce wouldn’t be tomato-y enough and would be too watered down). Generally, it’s great for sauces where you don’t want to water down what you have, but need that tomato taste. Honestly though, I use it in a variety of applications. For her question about which one to buy for her soup, technically, she could probably use either, but I suggested that she purchase the tomato paste.
Then she told me, “Well, in the past, I usually use one or two tablespoons, then I just toss the rest of the can in the garbage.” Ah, the age-old problem many people run into that can be solved so easily! I actually had this issue too when I was first learning to cook and deal with tomato paste. You certainly can’t leave tomato paste in the fridge for too long or our fuzzy white mold friends will colonize your supply. This can happen in a week or two, which is inconvenient if you’re not using tomato paste everyday (I certainly don’t use it on a daily basis). So what to do? Freeze your leftover tomato paste in a Ziplock! No joke—it’s one of the most simple but useful tricks I’ve ever learned. I don’t even remember where I learned it from, but it was definitely a tomato game changer. First tip: to avoid needing to scrape the can and scoop out all the sauce, use your can opener to cut open both ends, and push the paste out of the can. Nice and smooth! Then when you’re done using your few spoons of tomato paste, store the rest in a Ziplock. The key here is to spread the tomato paste out into about a 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch layer in the Ziplock, then use a flat edge to carefully try to evenly portion the layer up into little 1-inch by 1-inch squares.
Don’t stress out too much about getting the perfect sizing; it’s okay if they’re a little uneven. Carefully place that cubed bag into the freezer and freeze until solid. Next time you need some tomato paste, break off a cube and toss it into whatever you’re cooking, and it’ll slowly melt and dissolve into your sauce. Afraid of not having the right portion? Don’t be. Really, you can always adjust to the taste, and these cubes (when sitting out of the freeze for about 5-10 minutes) will be soft enough for you to break off or cut off another piece for you to adjust your measuring. I shared this cool tip with my new Safeway buddy, and her eyes lit up—no more wasting tomato paste!
Her last question for me was about the dish she was trying to recreate: a vegetable-laden soup that’s tomato-flavored. I suggested that if she wanted just some tomato flavor but not have just a straight tomato soup, make the vegetable soup with using stock, add the veggies, then mix in a couple tablespoons of tomato paste to create the comforting soup with the pretty red color she was looking for. She thanked me for the suggestion and walked away rather pleased with all the tips I gave her.
And that’s the inspiration behind today’s recipe! I have no idea if this is anything like my Safeway friend’s tomato-flavored vegetable soup she was trying to make, but I found this to be pretty delicious nonetheless. It’s like a version of a minestrone soup, I suppose, but no beans! It’s just a pretty straightforward dish that’s kinda like your basic chicken noodle soup with some tomato-y goodness, so hopefully you’ll enjoy its simplicity. Let me know what you think, and if you have a cool way you use tomato paste, share it with me in the comments so we can spread the tomato paste love!
Oh, and one last thing—I personally avoid tomato paste tubes. I don’t know if I can trust anything that can last so long without going bad, but hey, maybe it lasts that long because the lack of oxidation. Who knows! They’re expensivo anyway, so I always end up getting canned tomato paste. If anyone else knows better about tomato paste tubes, please do enlighten me because those tubes are a (slightly scary) mystery to me.
Tomato-y Chicken Noodle Soup
- 4 cups of water
- 1 chicken leg (1 thigh + 1 drumstick), bone-in and skin removed
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 medium leek, white part chopped, green part whole
- 1/4 small onion, whole
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 medium carrot, cut into 1/4 inch chunks
- 1/2 portobello mushroom, chopped (or 4-5 button or cremini mushrooms, quartered)
- 1 tbsp of tomato paste
- 1/2 cup of wide egg noodles, uncooked
- 1-2 sprigs of parsley, roughly chopped
- Clean your leeks. Leeks tend to have a bunch of dirt stuck in between its leaves, which is why we cut them in half (lengthwise) and rinse the leek between all the leaves. Cut the leek in half so you separate the white parts from the green parts, then chop the white parts into about 1/2 inch chunks. Leave the green portions whole and toss them into your medium-sized pot.
- Place your clove of garlic, a bay leaf, 1/4 of a small onion (whole), 1/2 tsp salt, and the chicken leg into the pot with the leeks and cover with 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, and lower to a low simmer for 30 minutes.
- As you see the “scum” that rises to the top of the pot, skim the broth and remove it with your ladle. Keep doing this while the broth simmers for the 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, remove the chicken leg from the broth and set it on a cutting board until cool enough to touch. Using your chef’s knife, separate the thigh and leg by slicing your knife right through the joint that connects the leg and thigh. You actually should be able to feel where the joint is by gently tugging at each piece (the drumstick and the thigh) and start to pull it apart. The knife should go through pretty easily. At this point, you can either shred the chicken or cut into cubes. Set aside.
- Once you’ve removed the meat, go ahead and toss the bones back into the broth and simmer for another 25 minutes.
- Then, remove the bones and the broth vegetables and flavorings (leeks, onions, garlic, bay leaf). Add the carrots, mushrooms, leeks, and dry egg noodles into the broth and continue to simmer for about 10 minutes.
- While the veggies simmer, place your 1 tbsp of tomato paste into your ladle and slowly incorporate it into your broth by mixing the paste with the broth and continually diluting it down until it’s thin enough to just stir in.
- After 10 minutes of simmering, add the chicken back into the soup to warm it up for about a minute. Then your soup is done! Ladle the broth into a bowl, sprinkle on some parsley, and enjoy!