You say tomato: Dinner's in the can with this pantry basic

Karen Hardy
Updated May 22 2024 - 9:15am, first published 5:30am

Before you head out to the supermarket, because we all know how depressing that can be these days, have a look in the pantry.

If you've got one simple ingredient, it could be the start to many delicious meals - a tin of tomatoes.

WATCH: The grocery items you should avoid splashing cash on.

"It's really no surprise that tinned tomatoes have become such a big part of our everyday cooking," says Samuel Goldsmith, author of The Tinned Tomatoes Cookbook.

"The tomato is one of the most cultivated crops in the world and both the fresh and tinned varieties are evident in the cuisines of countries across all continents; from North African shakshuka and Italian pasta sauces to Indian curries and Brazilian stews.

Ever wonder which is the best brand of tinned tomatoes? Us too. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Ever wonder which is the best brand of tinned tomatoes? Us too. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

"Tinned tomatoes allow you to create dishes all year round which incorporate one of the world's most-loved ingredients."

But not all tinned tomatoes are created equally. Should we buy Australian or are the Italian ones better?

Pasquale Trimboli, owner of Canberra's Italian and Sons and Mezzalira restaurants, goes through about 150kg of canned tomatoes a week in the two kitchens. He uses La Valle peeled tomatoes, imported from Naples.

Pasquale Trimboli goes through about 150kg worth of canned tomatoes a week. Picture by Keegan Carroll
Pasquale Trimboli goes through about 150kg worth of canned tomatoes a week. Picture by Keegan Carroll

"They are whole San Marzano tomatoes, grown in the mineral-rich soils from around the Mount Vesuvius area," he says.

"More importantly, they are a type of tomato that has a greater flesh-to-seed ratio, making them slightly sweeter and with more flesh and less water content.

"We have been using them forever, in both our ragus and general pasta sauces.

"You are looking for tomatoes with flavour and character and less acidity, very much like you would be expecting from a fresh tomato, which at the end of the day, is what they are."

The Tinned Tomatoes Cookbook: 100 everyday recipes using the most versatile ingredient in your kitchen, by Samuel Goldsmith. Murdoch Books. $39.99.
The Tinned Tomatoes Cookbook: 100 everyday recipes using the most versatile ingredient in your kitchen, by Samuel Goldsmith. Murdoch Books. $39.99.

Why use tinned at all?

"Processed foods are often thought of negatively," says Goldsmith.

"While this may be true for some, the canning of tomatoes is actually considered to have a positive effect. The champion tomato nutrient is lycopene, a carotenoid which gives the tomato its colour. When heated, the concentration of lycopene - a powerful antioxidant - actually increases, so the canning process has a beneficial effect on the tomato."

He also suggests buying cans with the fewest ingredients and additives. Try to avoid ones with citric acid, added to make things taste sharper; and calcium chloride, it makes food taste saltier and helps keep the tomatoes firmer over time. You might also see "thickener 1422", acetylated distarch adipate, starch treated with acid to create a thickener that withstands heating.

We taste-tested eight popular brands and here's our verdict. Now get the water boiling for that pasta.

Annalisa Italian Diced Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Annalisa Italian Diced Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

Annalisa Italian Diced Tomatoes

Price: $1.70 at Coles.

Listed ingredients: Diced tomatoes, tomato juice.

Product of Italy.

These are the ones I buy most regularly, stockpiling them when you can pick them up for about $1, which is quite often. A good versatile choice, thick consistency and the diced pieces break down easily.

3/5

Ardmona Crushed Vine Ripened Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Ardmona Crushed Vine Ripened Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

Ardmona Crushed Vine Ripened Tomatoes

Price: $1.60 at Woolworths.

Listed ingredients: Crushed tomatoes (63%), tomato juice, tomato paste, thickener (1422).

Product of Australia.

I so wanted the proudly "100% Australian grown" tomatoes to do us proud but they didn't. There was a gritty mouthfeel and they were very sweet, but not in a good way. Nice colour but that's about it.

1/5

Divella Diced Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Divella Diced Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

Divella Diced Tomatoes

Price: $1.75 at IGA.

Listed ingredients: Tomatoes, tomato juice, acidity regulator.

Product of Italy.

Thick consistency with a good sweet flavour and bright colour and a wonderful aroma. Good-sized pieces which cooked down well into a pasta sauce but there were a few seeds about which detracted a little.

3/5

Mutti Cherry Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Mutti Cherry Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

Mutti Cherry Tomatoes

Price: $2.70 at Woolworths.

Listed ingredients: Cherry tomato, tomato juice.

Product of Italy.

Mutti's whole range is always top-notch. From their tubes of tomato paste to the gourmet ready-to-eat pasta sauces, I'm yet to be disappointed. I'm very fond of their cans of cherry tomatoes which are like little pops of Italian sunshine in your mouth. Sweet and intense.

5/5

Macro Diced Italian Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Macro Diced Italian Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

Macro Diced Italian Tomatoes

Price: $1.80 at Woolworths.

Listed ingredients: Organic diced tomatoes (60%), organic tomato juice.

Product of Italy.

Woolworths' in-house organic brand were a lot cheaper than the other ACO certified organic one, but lacked a bit in flavour and the colour was a little paler in comparison. There was a little tartness to them but they cooked up well.

2.5/5

Cucina Matese Diced Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Cucina Matese Diced Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

Cucina Matese Diced Tomatoes

Price: $2.70 from Coles.

Listed ingredients: Tomato (65%), tomato juice, citric acid.

Product of Italy.

A little pricier than the other non-organic options, but could well be worth the price for these were a treat. Bright red colour, good texture and mouthfeel. They were super sweet, but in a good way. Will buy again.

4/5

La Gina Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
La Gina Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

La Gina Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes

Price: $1.40 from Woolworths.

Listed ingredients: Tomato (60%), tomato juice, citric acid.

Product of Italy.

Another popular brand that you can often find on special. Our only whole tomato choice, the tin was firmly packed with good-size fruit that still had a little firmness to them. Vibrant colour, thick consistency. A good all-rounder with a delicious sweet flavour.

4/5

Honest to Goodness Organic Diced Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Honest to Goodness Organic Diced Tomatoes. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

Honest to Goodness Organic Diced Tomatoes

Price: $2.70 at IGA.

Listed ingredients: Organic diced tomatoes (60%), organic tomato juice.

Product of Italy.

ACO certified organic and the only one to state it was a BPA free-lining on the can (although virtually all canned tomatoes are BPA free). Most watery of the line-up and there was a little grit to the tomatoes. Colour wasn't quite as vibrant as the others.

2/5

Recipes

Pasta alla vodka

Pasta alla vodka. Picture by Mowie Kay
Pasta alla vodka. Picture by Mowie Kay

I've no idea who came up with the idea of adding vodka to a tomato sauce served with pasta, but this sauce really is delicious. I read somewhere that pasta alla vodka peaked in the 1980s after being served in nightclubs across America. I really hope this is true because I love the thought of clubbers dressed in their finest fashion trying to stay clean while battling with this vibrant orange sauce.

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 banana shallot, very finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp chilli flakes (depending on how spicy you like it)
  • 1 x 227g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 50ml vodka
  • 75ml double cream
  • 25g Parmesan or vegetarian Italian hard cheese, grated (shredded), plus extra to serve
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve:

  • 100g dried pasta per person (penne rigate or rigatoni work well)
  • handful of torn basil leaves

Method

1. Heat the oil in a pan over a medium-low heat. Add the shallot and fry for six to eight minutes or until softened. Add the garlic and chilli and fry for one minute before stirring in the tinned tomatoes, tomato paste and vodka. Fry for five minutes before blitzing until smooth with a handheld stick blender or in a blender and returning to the pan. Set aside.

2. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions, usually around eight to 10 minutes. Drain the pasta, reserving a mugful of the pasta cooking water.

3. Reheat the tomato sauce, pour in the cream and scatter in the Parmesan. Heat, stirring to melt the cheese, for one minute before adding in the cooked pasta, a good seasoning of salt and pepper and some of the reserved pasta water (usually around 1/2 cup) to form a glossy sauce. Stir for one minute.

4. Serve with extra Parmesan and the torn basil leaves.

Serves 4.

Chicken and chorizo pie

Chicken and chorizo pie. Picture by Mowie Kay
Chicken and chorizo pie. Picture by Mowie Kay

The pairing of chicken and chorizo never fails to appeal, whether combined in a paella, tossed through pasta or, like here, served in a pie. The smokiness of the chorizo, enhanced by the paprika, goes really well with tomatoes. As with pretty much every pie I've ever eaten, this one is great served with buttery mash and steamed greens.

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 celery stick, finely chopped
  • 200g cooking chorizo, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed or chopped
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 3 thyme sprigs or 2 tsp dried mixed herbs
  • 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 200ml chicken stock
  • 1 x 320g packet ready-rolled puff pastry
  • 1 egg, beaten, to glaze
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Heat half a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan or saucepan over medium heat. Add the chicken and cook until golden all over, about four minutes. Transfer the chicken from the pan to a plate, leaving the oil behind, and set aside.

2. Drizzle the remaining oil into the pan and add the onion, carrot and celery. Cook over a gentle heat for 10-12 minutes until soft but not golden. Stir in the cooking chorizo, turn up the heat a little and fry for a few minutes before adding the garlic, smoked paprika, thyme or mixed herbs and a good seasoning of salt and pepper. Fry for one minute then tip in the cooked chicken, tinned tomatoes and chicken stock. Cook for 15 minutes to thicken up the sauce a little and then remove the pan from the heat.

3. Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan forced.

4. Tip the chicken and chorizo filling into an ovenproof pie dish. Unroll the puff pastry sheet and lay it over the top of the pie filling. Remove any excess pastry from around the lip of the pie dish and crimp the edge, pressing down on the rim of the dish to seal. You can decorate the pie top using any of the excess pastry scraps, if you like. Brush the pastry all over with the beaten egg, then pierce the pie top with a couple of holes to let the steam escape. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes until the pastry is golden.

Prep ahead:

This pie will keep in the fridge, covered, for a couple of days, if you want to make it ahead of time. For best results, I prefer to make and store only the pie filling and then add the pastry top to the pie and glaze it just before baking. Alternatively, make the full pie, cover it, then freeze uncooked. Cook from frozen for 45 minutes to one hour.

Serves 6-8.

Lamb and spinach curry

Lamb and spinach curry. Picture by Mowie Kay
Lamb and spinach curry. Picture by Mowie Kay

I love spinach in a curry and this one is spiced similarly to a bhuna. If you prefer, you can use chicken thighs or beef and it will taste just as delicious. Serve with your favourite curry accompaniments.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 400g diced lamb leg or shoulder
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed or finely grated
  • thumb-sized piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 1/2 small bunch of coriander, leaves and stalks separated, both chopped
  • 1-2 red chillies, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 100g spinach
  • 75ml natural yogurt

To serve:

  • plain cooked rice or naan bread
  • your choice of chutneys

Method

1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan or saucepan. Fry the onion for six to eight minutes until softened and starting to brown. Stir in the lamb pieces and fry for five minutes until browned. Tip in the garlic, ginger and coriander stalks and cook for two minutes, stirring well to combine everything.

2. Stir in the chillies and spices and cook for two minutes being careful not to burn them. If they start to stick or burn, add a splash of water. Squeeze in the tomato paste, stir to mix everything together and then pour in the tinned tomatoes. Half fill the tin with water and add that too. Simmer for around 15 minutes until the sauce has thickened nicely and the meat is tender.

3. Tip in the spinach, mix in and cook for two minutes until wilted. Spoon in the yogurt and cook for one minute before serving.

4. Serve the curry with plain rice or naan bread and any chutneys on the side.

Serves 4.

Cheat's chicken pomodoro

Cheat's chicken pomodoro. Picture by Mowie Kay
Cheat's chicken pomodoro. Picture by Mowie Kay

Traditionally made with fresh cherry tomatoes, this dish makes a great speedy dinner. If you're cooking for two, this recipe is easily halved or leftovers can be frozen to enjoy on another day. Try serving with brown rice, potatoes or polenta.

Ingredients

  • 4 skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 tsp dried Italian herbs
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed or finely grated
  • 125ml white wine
  • 250ml chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes or cherry tomatoes
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve:

  • handful of torn basil leaves
  • 25g Parmesan cheese, shaved or grated

Method

1. Season the chicken with salt, pepper and one teaspoon of dried herbs. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan and fry the chicken on each side for two to three minutes until lightly golden but not cooked through. Remove from the pan and set aside.

2. Drizzle the remaining oil into the same frying pan and fry the onion for six to eight minutes over a medium-low heat to soften and allow to golden a little. Stir in the garlic and cook for one minute, ensuring it doesn't burn. Pour in the wine, stock and vinegar, then cook for five minutes before adding the tinned tomatoes, remaining dried herbs and a good pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper.

3. Return the chicken to the pan. Cook for 10-15 minutes until the sauce has thickened (it should be quite thick, rather than a really thin sauce) and the chicken is cooked through.

4. Scatter over the torn basil leaves and serve with Parmesan, if you like.

Serves 4.

Karen Hardy

Karen Hardy

Canberra Times lifestyle reporter

I've covered a few things here at The Canberra Times over the years, from sport to education. But now I get to write about the fun stuff - where to eat, what to do, places to go, people to see. Let me know about your favourite things. Email: karen.hardy@canberratimes.com.au