The time is 5:30 p.m. The last-minute group text from some friends for their arrival around 6 p.m. is panic inducing. What is in the pantry? What about the refrigerator?
The large can of tomatoes, sitting prominently on the pantry shelf, offers hope for timely success. Also discovered in the scramble is a carton of eggs, some leftover bell pepper slices, an onion and a handful of garlic cloves. The race against the clock has begun.
With some olive oil drizzled in the bottom of a cast iron skillet, the onions and peppers begin to sizzle. As heat permeates crushed garlic, a rich aroma fills the air. Upon the addition of the tomatoes, paprika, black pepper, a dash of cayenne and a sprinkle of salt, the sauce is completed.
With 10 minutes to spare, some eggs cracked into little indentations in the sauce signal the dish's readiness for the lid. By the time the doorbell rings, the piping hot skillet of comfort on a trivet completes the table settings.
Tomato-based dishes are among the most flexible for the time pressed, ingredient conscious cook. Canned tomatoes provide rich flavor without the perishable nature of vine ripened fresh ones. Given that tomatoes, onions, and garlic prevail in so many areas of world cuisine, a truly delightful option is available regardless the scarcity of glamorous ingredients.
Seasonings such as cumin and coriander give you a tomato gravy worthy of New Delhi. Cumin, cayenne and fenugreek leave North Africa on the tongue. A blend of paprika, allspice, oregano, cinnamon, cumin and roasted chiles transports the diner to the borders of Portugal. Merely changing the seasonings or how long the dish reduces determines the outcome. Starting the dish with tomatoes leaves the door open to endless flavor combinations.
Everybody has that one friend that does not eat anything spicier than bottled ketchup. When pressed for time, offering them an Italian-inspired tomato dish satisfies time and their flavor preferences.
Canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil, a dash of black pepper and salt simmered to sweet perfection then served over fun shaped noodles means a meal served up in 30 minutes or less. If the refrigerator happens to be stocked with complimentary cheeses to sprinkle over the bowl, a five-star meal awaits. In the instance of tomato-based dishes, less is more.
Gluten-free and dairy-free dining options continue to be necessary. A person would be hard-pressed to look very far into their scope of family or friends and not find someone that has special dietary requirements. Tomatoes offer endless uncomplicated solutions.
Tomato-based dishes stand so well on their own that the cook can choose from a wide variety of substitutions: sautéed vegetables for noodles; leaving off the cheeses and drizzling a good quality olive oil before serving; offering a variety of olives, pickled onions, oil packed smoked chiles and freshly chopped herbs. Such finishing selections leave the diner wanting nothing.
The happy ending
Seven p.m. arrives and around the dining table sit a handful of friends. They are laughing over scraped clean plates. Each one is smiling in absolute satisfaction from a meal that arose from 30 minutes with a few humble ingredients. Thanks to the canned tomato, last minute hosts need not fret ever again.