Is a $15 Can of Tomatoes Really Worth It?

Last month Francis Lam, one of my favorite writers over at Gourmet.com, posted an article on how he made a simple spaghetti and tomato sauce with a very expensive ($8) box of pasta and an even more expensive ($15) can of tomatoes. The article, titled 'Yeah, It's Worth It', was inspiring but still left me unconvinced of it's title.

I was tempted when the importers of the tomatoes and pasta offered a 50% discount but it was only when I remembered my vow to have people over for dinner more often (even if I have to serve pasta and tomato sauce) that it all came together. I decided to have a dinner party where my friends would blind taste this 'worth it' pasta along side a few other, less expensive pasta and tomato combinations. Read on for the tasting details and our winning choice!

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First, I ordered the very expensive pasta and tomatoes which also came with very expensive shipping ($15!). At the time, gustimao.com was offering a 50% off special based on Lam's article (read the comments section of the article for more information) which I admit helped a little. They arrived in the mail a week later.

Then, for the second entry, I went to the grocery store and purchased a can of whole tomatoes and a box of pasta, which ran about $3.50 total. This was from my local Whole Foods Market.

Finally I assembled the third option from a jar of home-canned, locally grown San Marzano tomatoes from Mariquita Farms and my favorite local pasta, Eduardo's.

I created score cards with a scale from one to five, and assigned letters to each of the entries. My challenge was to prepare three different pastas and three different sauces all at the same time on my tiny four burner stove. I did this by making all three of the sauces first and setting them aside. Then I boiled the water for the pasta in three separate pots, starting each of the pastas about two minutes a part so they wouldn't all be done at the same time. This worked rather well, except I fear that I may have overcooked "C" just a little.

I was struck by how different each of the tomatoes performed in the sauce pot. The home canned tomatoes seemed watery and light in color. They broke down pretty well into a sauce but it was thinner than the commercial tomatoes. The Whole Foods brand were firmer and packed in a puree. They did not dissolve very well and had to be chopped down with a wooden spoon. The Italian tomatoes were stunning: a deep deep shade of red, they still had their skins and were also packed with a puree. I've never had a tomato break down so perfectly into a sauce before--these tomatoes seemed to be made to become a sauce.

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My friends showed up, armed with bottles of Chianti and sharpened pencils, and we dug in. No one but me knew which pasta/sauce was which. The score cards also had space for tasting notes and everyone participated with much enthusiasm. Here were some of the results:

Choice A: Everyone liked the pasta, which was described as having a "nice chewy texture". The sauce was also praised "mellow/low acid and fresh taste" and "subtle and elegant." One person noted that it was good both with and without a grating of fresh parmesan cheese. (This was the homegrown, local pasta choice)

Choice B: We weren't so happy with Choice B. We found the pasta to be "mealy" and "slippery and ordinary" while the sauce was "sharp, acidic but lacking in complexity" and "flat." (This was the supermarket choice.)

Choice C: Some of us liked the pasta, calling it "distinctly wheaty" and "springy in texture", while others said it was boring and undeveloped. We agreed that the sauce had a beautiful color but that the taste was off, less fresh, almost metallic. (This was the very expensive imported choice.)

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The winner? Choice A with a total of 21 points out of a possible 25. Choice C came in second with 16.5 points and choice B was third with 15 points.

My conclusions? Well, it's kind of tough. I love the fact that my local pasta and tomatoes won big but at the same time it's hard to share that news with The Kitchn readers. I'm sad that I can't encourage everyone to run out and buy these brands and share in our pleasure. But maybe this is the way it's going to be, what with fossil fuels on the way out and the roller coaster economy. Maybe people will just find their own backyard tomatoes or local tomato farmer and start canning their own. Maybe there are other small pasta producers scattered around that folks can discover and support. Or maybe a few will spring up to fill the demand. It's hard to know.

But I'm sorry to say, Mr. Francis Lam, that despite the fact that I liked your imported pasta and sauce (I gave it 4) it actually wasn't worth it. Especially when I consider how many miles that can of tomatoes had to travel to get to my kitchen. I know living in New York means you probably won't be growing your own tomatoes but next time you spy some local tomatoes at the farmer's market this summer, I encourage you to buy a case and start canning. It's really, really worth it!

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Budget, Pasta

Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.