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Grim's Grub: One ingredient that does the work of many

How the concentrated guts from tomatoes made summer cooking accessible year round.

Tikka Masala.jpg
Tomato paste adds a rich, concentrated flavor to Chicken Tikka Masala.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
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There is a principle among some healthy eating communities that diets are best when you eat local and eat what's in season.

Certainly, there are many reasons these concepts are beneficial, but long before modern day health gurus, human beings practiced this style of eating for lack of other options, and they fought hard to overcome the limitations that forced it upon them.

One versatile ingredient that exemplifies the successes of our human ancestors is tomato paste.

Like many vegetables we now wouldn't live without, the tomato was brought to European tables through conquest in the New World. Much like the potato, eggplant and other plants, the tomato is, in all seriousness, a member of the belladonna family, also known as nightshades.

Like other belladonna family members, these plants all contain a natural pesticide known as solanine in varying concentrations in the fruit, seeds, leaves and roots. Perhaps this is why Europeans were suspicious of the tomato (much as they were the potato) for quite some time after their introduction in 1540 by Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes' returning fleet.

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Europeans long considered tomatoes toxic and potatoes as unfit for human consumption. Some theorize that aristocratic families first sampled tomatoes using pewter flatware and plates. The acidic tomatoes almost certainly would have leached lead from the pewter, and coincidentally made for a dangerous combination. They were long dubbed "poison apples" and their Latin name translates to "wolf peach."

The tomato was feared by most of Europe as poisonous, and a thing of witchcraft until the late 1700s. It may be of no surprise that the Mediterranean countries were among the first to really dive deep into tomato cookery. It was in the second half of the 1800s that Greece changed its mind and started to regard the tomato as a valuable foodstuff.

In the beginning, those who wished to indulge in the good ol' wolf peaches were stuck with summertime harvests, but they were long looking for ways to extend the shelf life of what can sometimes be a very tender fruit.

Without refrigeration, preservation of tomatoes would be done by hanging underripe fruit in cool, dark places from the vine, sun drying slices and likely through "potting," which consists of covering perishables in a clay crock or glass jar with fats that would harden over top of them.

Not only did the average person have nothing colder than a well full of water, they also had limited space for storage of such material between growing seasons.

Greece is one country that came up with a solution. Farmers from Santorini found that cherry tomatoes, which had very little water in them, could be pounded into a paste. That paste could be left in the hot sun so that more water would evaporate, and turned daily, until it formed a very acidic, flavor packed paste strong enough to kick many dishes up a notch with only two tablespoons.

The first Greek tomato canning company was Kyknos. It was formed in 1911 by two brothers named Manoussakis. They sold canned tomatoes that were stewed, peeled, crushed and turned into paste. Up until this time, farmers would make their own paste, but it quickly became more sensible to buy a premade product, and tomato paste exploded in popularity.

In the early 20th century, the Greeks loved their tomato paste so much that a popular snack came out of the woodwork. It was made by simply smearing a small bit of sun dried tomato paste on one side of a slice of bread, sprinkling it with olive oil and oregano and topping it off with goat cheese.

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Substitute mozzarella and basil and it is nearly a caprese sandwich.

Today, recipes abound for making homemade tomato paste, but given the time, patience and number of tomatoes required, most would likely prefer to just buy it canned or in a tube.

Either way, this is just one way that our ancestors stretched summer's bounty into an all-year affair, and we use it in almost everything.

Easy Chicken Tikka Masala

Amounts inspired by foodnetwork.com recipe

  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 1 pound boneless chicken, cubed
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 3 tablespoons ginger paste
  • 2 jalapeno or Serrano peppers (remove seeds for a more mild flavor)
  • 1/2 onion, cut in half again, sliced thin and separated
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 15-20 ounces crushed tomatoes or pureed tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1-2 cups water
  • 1-2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 cup plain yogurt

Toss your chicken in the curry powder, then fry it in a saucepan with 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat. Stirring regularly to keep the curry from burning. Once browned on all sides and mostly cooked throughout, add the ginger, garlic, peppers and onions and stir until the onions begin to soften. Add the tomato paste and cook until it gets very dark.
Next, mix in the garam masala and paprika and saute approximately 1 minute before adding the remaining ingredients, except the yogurt.

Stir well until completely combined. Allow to cook down to a thick gravy consistency. Mix the yogurt in just before serving. It is best served with warm naan bread or white rice.

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A fluffy combination of sandwich and dinner roll you'll be sure to fall for.
The many monikers of a sandwich we are all familiar with.
It's hard to put a finger on what some ingredients do for our food.
The sinister story behind an early American fad diet.

Pasta Puttanesca

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 3-4 canned anchovies, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons capers (rinsed)
  • 3/4 cup pitted green olives, halved or roughly chopped
  • Spaghetti noodles for two

Cook your noodles in a pot of water next to your frying pan.
Heat a frying pan over medium heat and add olive oil for frying. When hot, cook your onions until they are translucent, then stir in the chopped anchovies with some oil from the can. Stir these anchovies as they fry. They should break up in the oil. If they do not, the sauce might suffer due to poor texture and overwhelming fishiness.

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Add the chopped garlic and cook another minute before mixing in the tomato paste. Cook until it darkens slightly, then add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, chili pepper flakes, olives and capers. Bring to a simmer and turn the heat to low. Allow to simmer 10-15 minutes.

When cooked throughout, add a couple spoonfuls of pasta water to the sauce before using tongs to lift the pasta noodles directly into the sauce. Stir to coat and serve on two plates.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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