If you've ever wondered what makes grandma's secret bolognese sauce so magical—just one ladle over a bowl of pasta seems to ease any worry and cure any ailment—look no further than humble tomato paste.
Yes, that boring old can of bright red paste is actually the base of all sorts of sauces and stews, from Texas chile to minestrone. Its concentrated flavor gives dishes heft and body. But it's more than a culinary staple—it's also a nutritional powerhouse.
Tomato paste is basically whole tomatoes that have been boiled down into a thick, red, saucy substance. Salt, pepper, and olive oil are usually added into the mix before it’s packaged. Since sometimes companies will add high fructose corn syrup (yuck) and sugar into their tomato paste, make sure you grab the organic stuff! Not to be confused with tomato sauce, tomato paste is lighter in taste, yet more concentrated in form, making it a perfect base for many dishes.
Other than being a game-changer for spaghetti, lasagna, and minestrone, tomato paste is a valuable source of lycopene, vitamin C, vitamin K, and a host of other minerals that seriously kick butt when it comes to fighting disease.
Its bright red color comes from a high lycopene content–a carotenoid and source of vitamin A. Promising research shows that lycopene is instrumental in preventing cancer. Bonus: Combining tomatoes and a fat source like olive oil will help your body absorb lycopene even better (also, it's the beginning of a beautiful sauce!).
Other good stuff in tomato paste—vitamin K is linked to increased bone density, vitamin C can help repair muscle fibers, and minerals biotin, maganese, and copper all assist normal enzymatic functions. In English? The nutrients in tomatoes support nearly every bodily function, so stop shying away from this colorful veggie (eh, actually it’s a fruit) and start cooking with tomato paste now.
It's best to have this pantry staple on hand at all times, so look for tomato pastes that are certified organic and buy a few jars. You'll be amazed how often you reach for this ingredient when you think you've got nothing to cook with—with only a handful of different spices you can create a truly savory and simple meal with tomato paste as your base. Try it in spicy eggs in purgatory, or to add some oomph to a roasted red pepper and walnut dip.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont